Author's Note: Quote from the book framed in asterisks.
The half-mile walk from the phone to the airfield was the most painful journey Dagny had ever made in her life – she had never been full of such frustration, outrage, and disgust as she felt on that walk. What made the sensation even harder to bear was her failure to identify the target of it all: the idiot Jessup who had been content to leave a train full of passengers stalled on the track without making the slightest effort to do the job he was hired for; the idiots who had hired such a man and whose rules gave him permission to behave thus; the idiots she had been transporting who had refused to see who had put them in such a situation; the Destroyer who was allowing idiots like Jessup to conquer the world... her rage seemed to encompass everyone she had been forced to deal with tonight – everyone except the crew that were, by at least one possible interpretation, responsible for the night's disaster. She could not demand of anyone that they remain in a world like this to deal with such irrational people. God bless them! May they find the freedom they sought!
She turned around and looked back at the vast expanse of wilderness behind her. Where had they gone? Did they have a plan? How did they expect to survive? She shook her head as she turned forward again. Their chances for survival were greater out there than they were in the world they had fled – the world where men must leave important work undone in order to pay homage to paperwork. Paperwork was the religion of the world now – those who obeyed it were rewarded, those who transgressed were punished, no matter how irrational or unreasonable or physically impossible were its demands. The paperwork gods who demanded a train full of passengers be sacrificed to appease its arbitrary, unrealistic, inhuman, foolish standards must be satisfied! Jessup had made it clear he would not allow her to blaspheme the gods of paperwork by bowing to the enemy shrine of physical reality.
The most revolting part of her encounter with Jessup hadn't been that he had refused to do his job – it was that he had insisted on doing his job, that his job was no longer to move trains or care for passengers but to follow rules, rules not designed, apparently, for moving trains and caring for passengers in the best, most efficient ways, but for... for what?! What purpose was this new system supposed to serve? There, she was lost, and she couldn't fathom how anyone could accept such rules enough to follow them as devoutly as that dispatcher had done tonight.
Jessup quickly became the primary target of her resentment as she walked along. She felt like she was being eaten alive by her disgust and revulsion, they were so overwhelming! Even in her wildest nightmares, she had never imagined facing a man with such a mindset as his. Even in her worst estimates of the looters' stooges, she had never predicted such an answer to her call that night. A train was stranded – it was none of his business, he claimed. Passengers were left in a dangerous situation – they were of no concern. A crew was needed – not his responsibility to provide it. A problem needed solving – not his job to solve it. In the looters' new world, a hired, paid employee could claim he was forbidden to work, forbidden to fulfill the task of the company that employed him!
Dagny tried to imagine working under such conditions at Rockdale when she was sixteen, being employed not to act and not to think. She never could have functioned! She never would have accepted such conditions! Why had Jessup? Why did he insist on adhering to his taskmasters' irrational rules so devoutly?
Fear, she answered herself instantly, shuddering as she did so. The night dispatcher's behavior hadn't been half as disturbing as the motive behind it. He had acted out of fear – fear of punishment for disobeying the rules, of the consequences of angering the paperwork gods. He had been too afraid to act, to make one motion that might place responsibility for any possible, theoretical transgression of the looter's myriad rules on his shoulders. He had shrugged off the burden of the railroad instead of carrying it for the slavedrivers who made it impossible to bear any longer. He didn't care about the safety of the passengers, only for his own safety. He didn't care about the efficiency of the railroad, about doing a good job, about earning his paycheck honestly, or about the state of the world; he only cared about himself. He was concerned with no one's welfare but his own. He felt no responsibility to anyone or anything but his own survival. He was completely...
Her legs and thoughts stopped moving in the exact same instant. The word she had been about to use to describe Jessup, to describe his refusal to endanger himself by acting in the best interests of the railroad and its passengers instead, to describe his inability to be moved by her and her railroad's and her passenger's needs, to describe his complete and total lack of concern for anything but his own safety... It was a word she had heard many times throughout her life, spoken with contempt and loathing, often directed at her and those she most admired. In the English language, it was an insult and a sin; she had adopted it in her language as an honor and a virtue. It was a word she had always associated with life, freedom, and capitalism, not with fear, laziness, and weakness. It described men like Nat Taggart and Hank Rearden who overcame the adversity of the world to rise to greatness, not men like Jessup who feared the world and protected themselves by inaction and submission.
But it does. The words hit her mind with all the force of a painful, physical blow. It does apply to them, the voice whispered again from the corner of her mind. He was only acting in his own best interest. Why should he jeopardize himself for the sake of your railroad or your passengers? Why should he sacrifice his security for others?
It's the job he was hired and paid to do, she replied silently.
No, it's not – not anymore. He didn't agree to trade his good work and competence for a paycheck, but his obedience. That's his job, that's what his employers expect from him, and that's what they reward. Why should he care if their arrangement is inconvenient for passengers and other employees? He's satisfied with it, and that's all that should matter to him. His own life is his only value, not others'.
But he won't survive long in a world where people function that way! Such a system will collapse, and he will destroy himself by accepting it!
He would destroy himself if he disobeyed it. As long as his interests are satisfied, why is he obligated to worry about a big picture that concerns people he's never met? He isn't exploiting or taking advantage of anyone like those in power; he just doesn't care how those in power exploit or take advantage of others, and why should he? He's not actively hurting anyone; he simply actively refuses to help anyone. He didn't cause your train to be stranded in the middle of the desert; he simply refused to fix the problem someone else caused. Doing so would not have been in his best interest, not in the world you're both living in now. He was just being...
She still refused to hear the word. The employee who had refused to do his job by addressing the problem of a frozen train had not been acting in his own best interest...
Not in a rational world where employees are rewarded for doing a good job. Those forced to live in an irrational world shouldn't abandon their own self-interest, should they? The difference between the rational and the irrational man is not that one acts in his own best interest and one doesn't but how they do so.
Dagny quickened her pace as she responded: No, it's that one can properly see the big picture and know what is in his best interest in the long run. The rational man works to create a good world where his chances of survival and success are maximized, not submit to an evil world where no one can survive without exploiting others!
So the rational man must be concerned with the state of the world at large?
Yes, because it's in his own best interest to be so! She was almost running as she answered the question.
But if the rational man must be concerned with more than just himself...
She shook her head as if the motion could shake off the realization that would destroy everything she believed in. Jessup's crime had been irrationality and fear! He had yielded to irrational fools instead of performing a necessary task he was paid to perform! He had feared the consequences of thinking for himself instead of adhering to the almighty, unquestionable rules!
Why? the merciless voice demanded. Why did he behave so? Why did he value his own welfare before others? Why did he refuse to act? What was his motive? What was he being?
Selfish! He was being selfish! He had acted out of selfishness!
It was only when she stopped and felt herself gasping for breath that Dagny realized how fast she had been running, as if she could have escaped the word that way. Selfish. Selfishness. That was what she had heard on the other end of the phone tonight. It had been answered by a selfish man who didn't care about honor or integrity or anything except his own self-interest. He wasn't only irrational and afraid and incompetent – he was also selfish. He saw no reason why he should try to keep the trains moving, the system functioning, people and freight getting where they needed to go, not when it served his own best interests to do otherwise. He didn't put them in that position, but he certainly wasn't going to sacrifice his own well-being to get them out of it. Selfish. Selfishness. She couldn't run away from the word any longer. Selfish. Selfishness. Bradshaw was manned by a night dispatcher who was motivated by nothing but selfishness. Weak and irrational men could be selfish, too.
Dagny had no idea how long she stood there or why reaching the airfield suddenly no longer seemed important. She no longer felt the urge to the flee the thoughts that continued to assault her. You have just seen perfect, unadulterated selfishness in its purest form, they said. That man refused to sacrifice his own self-interest for justice, honor, or integrity, to consider himself bound to anyone or anything but his own welfare, to give anyone a claim on him, to acknowledge any higher calling than his own well-being. *Why then do you shrink in horror from your memory of him? That man is not the product of your sins, he is the product and image of your virtues. He is your moral ideal brought into reality in its full and final perfection. You have fought for men's right to be selfish, you have dreamed of it, you have wished it,* and he – he is the man who has fully embraced it. A man who places honor and integrity above his own safety, who is concerned with something higher than himself, is not entirely selfish. Honor or selfishness – demand one of men, but not both. Honor or selfishness – which is virtuous, and which is evil for being opposed to that virtue? Honor or selfishness – which do the looters encourage, and which do they seek to destroy? She had always been taught that the man who lived honorably and honestly was acting in his own self-interest. In an evil world where such goals contradicted each other, however, which should take precedence? Which kept trains moving? Which was the right way to resist evil?
She shook her head again and looked up from the ground to the horizon. The word that had set her feet moving again was "contradicted." Contradictions do not exist. Honor and integrity could never be incompatible with selfishness, no matter how irrational or evil the world became. Jessup may have foolishly thought it was in his best interest to abdicate all his honor as a man and as an employee and obey his irrational masters, but he would no doubt eventually see that, in the long run, he was dooming himself. He could only hope to survive in a world where people were hired to keep trains moving, not obey rules that allowed them to remain frozen. Only rational actions can be made in one's best interest; only rational men act out of legitimate selfishness.
The comfort of her rationalization successfully sustained her the rest of the way to the airfield. She wished she could feel as confident about getting to Quentin Daniels in time as she did about her conclusion. She was ashamed she could have doubted the virtue of selfishness even for a minute. Everything she valued flowed from the concept of selfishness! Rationality and capitalism and freedom weren't possible unless selfishness was the height of virtue...