Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is set in a world in which the death dance of capitalism has reached its final stages, the state itself becoming an instrument of direct appropriation of surplus value generated by the workers. As industrialists become aware of the extractive nature of the process in which they are participating, one by one, they convert to the radical anarchism of an agitator named John Galt,* and “go on strike” to an utopian community hidden in the mountains of Colorado: Galt’s Gulch.
In Galt’s Gulch, resources are allocated to whomever can use them most productively, in an informal process; since everyone can see how their interests converge, levels of trust are high, and hoarding and shirking are basically nonproblems. People pick up whatever tasks seem needed, regardless of their profession or the ability such tasks might give them to extract rents.
This raises the obvious question: Why does anyone use money in Galt’s Gulch?
In nearly every transaction in the Gulch in which a plausibly marketable good or service is provided, money - actual, physical precious metal coins - changes hands. When it is not hard currency, it is a claim on the same at a locally operated bank that appears to serve no other function than to enable this precious-metal fetishism.
We can dismiss out of hand the theory that they use money because they are capitalists. It serves no pragmatic purpose in the Gulch. The relevant markets are simply not liquid enough for price discovery, the social network is small enough to facilitate tracking debts directly, and everyone expects repeated in-person transactions so there is little need to settle accounts.
Nor does it serve as a symbol of what the settlers value, despite their protestations to the contrary. While the strikers in Galt’s gulch have adopted an argot that makes them sound like fanatical supporters of capitalism, in order to disguise their true agenda, it is worth noting that their explicit organizing principle is that no person has any moral claim on any other person’s productive capacity. And what is money, but the generalized form of a claim on the productive capacity of others?
The strikers’ fanatical capitalist propaganda is also belied by their behavior outside the gulch. Near the end of the story, the strikers, making plans to improve the Gulch’s productive capacity, joke about taking each other for all they’re worth. But when we see them actually have the chance to do so, they decline. At one point in the story, steel magnate Hank Rearden faces political pressure to transport his steel via a subsidized but unsustainable shipping concern instead of his usual, but politically unconnected, rail transportation. The shipping concern is able to offer a slightly lower price due to their subsidies. Here, the veneer of profit-maximization slips; Rearden dismisses the profit-maximizing move out of hand. He needs the railways in business next year. He does not extract what the market can bear; instead, he allocates business to the railway like a benevolent central planner, for the greater good.
Having dismissed the absurd notion that the Galt’s Gulch uses money because it is a capitalist commune, let us examine the most prominent monetary transaction that occurs in the Gulch: John Galt’s employment of Dagny Taggart.
Taggart, then a railway executive not yet radicalized, was following an engineer in her employ whom she suspected of radical tendencies, and wanted to dissuade him from going on strike. This escalated to an airplane chase, at the end of which she crash-landed in the Gulch. Galt rescues her, injured, from the plane, and brings her to his house.
Galt is her host. He is her caretaker initially, as she was injured from the crash and temporarily incapacitated. He is also her jailer, since she is not permitted to leave the Gulch immediately, for security reasons. The problem this presents is that while Taggart and Galt very much want to carry on a love affair with each other, the manifest power imbalance makes the prospect unethical.
Taggart decides to resolve the difficulty by demanding that Galt offer her employment as a housekeeper and cook. Galt accepts, and they can now ethically make love as equals.
What is it about the employment relationship - which is so often a relationship of domination in the mundane world - that rectifies the power imbalance?
As noted before, the market is not liquid. Taggart could easily have used her monopoly power as Galt’s only guest-prisoner-lover-potential-employee, to demand a higher price. Alternately, Galt could have used his monopsony power to pay her less, or nothing but room and board, or even pay her less than the cost of her room and board, in the time-honored company town tradition.
In situations with a broad zone of possible agreement, prices will tend towards natural thresholds or other points that naturally call on our attention or are easy to remember. This class of points are called Schelling points. In this case, the Schelling point for the transaction would be to simply value the services provided on each side equally, so that no money changes hands. The deviation is worth explaining.
The important thing is that money changes hands as part of the ritual.
If Taggart simply paid Galt for his hospitality and imprisonment services in kind, the transaction would be in the realm of primitive reciprocity, in which strict accounts are not kept, and it is never entirely clear whether you have paid off a debt precisely. In some business cultures, to pay off all of one’s debts to a business partner is a signal that you intend to dissolve the relationship - otherwise you would be happy to roll over small balances in either direction.
But that is precisely what Taggart and Galt mean to do: dissolve the web of connection that their prior transactions have created. If Taggart is Galt’s houseguest-prisoner, it is not clear which things she is doing for him in exchange for being permitted to continue to exist as his guest. But currency-transfer ritual transforms this into a contract, in which, so long as either party fulfills their part of the deal, they have moral standing to insist on performance by the other party. Anything not specified is understood not to be part of the deal. All future transactions start from a neutral position, in which neither party is implicitly indebted to the other. It is this understanding that permits them to be lovers, since Galt is not her feudal lord; he has merely engaged in a business transaction, which is fundamentally a relation between equals.
Here we see the true extent of the Gulch’s utopianism; its norms assume a world populated entirely by people who are not only morally competent to enter into arbitrary contracts (itself a tall order), but righteous enough to reliably execute the letter and the spirit of such obligations, once entered into.
* Galt’s former profession before his radicalization was engineer, which allows him to be an educated man without compromising his status as a member of labor, rather than management or capital.