Posts Tagged ‘Atlas Shrugged’

A John Galt thought experiment

April 29, 2011

In Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, the people on whom the nation depends to keep functioning – mainly entrepreneurs and their best middle managers – went on strike.  Led by the mastermind John Galt, they hid out in a secret place called Galt’s Gulch until the economy and society crumbled and the people were willing to give them their due.

I propose a thought experiment.  Make up your own list of indispensable people and then match it against the Forbes magazine list of the world’s richest people.  Or go down the Forbes 400 list and decide what would be lost if each of the members “went Galt.”

Norman Borlaug

One of my heroes is Norman Borlaug, the architect of the Green Revolution in Asia.  He of course did not produce the genetically improved crops by himself.  He was the head of a team of geneticists and agronomists.  But I think it is safe to say that without him the Green Revolution would not have happened when it did.  The environmental writer Gregg Easterbrook said that Borlaug’s work may have saved the lives of as many people as Hitler and Stalin murdered.

He had many of the qualities of an Ayn Rand hero – competence, determination, original thinking, indifference to public opinion.  His work was strongly opposed by neo-malthusians who thought saving the lives of people in overpopulated Third World countries was an exercise in futility.  But in one important respect, he did not fit the John Galt mold.  He did not get rich, or attempt to get rich, from his work.

Or, if you are not a fan of the Green Revolution, consider Jonas Salk, the creator of the Salk vaccine, or Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the software that makes possible the World Wide Web.  They made their discoveries freely available to the public, without charging a licensing free and without trying to determine who deserved their help and who didn’t.  This is in contrast to the fictional John Galt, who withheld his perpetual energy source until the world paid him tribute.  By Ayn Rand’s standard, Jonas Salk and Tim Berners-Lee were lacking in self-esteem.


Why I am not an Objectivist

April 28, 2011

Some time back the editors of the Modern Library listed their choices of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century.  At the same time they polled their readers’ choices.

Ayn Rand

The editors’ top picks were Ulysses by James Joyce and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  But the readers’ top picks were Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.

The same was true of the editors’ and readers’ picks of the top non-fiction books.  The editors’ top picks were The Education of Henry Adams and William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. The readers’ top pick was The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand, and their No. 3 pick was Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff.

In my life, I have encountered more people who have read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead than any other serious novel or philosophical work.

What accounts for the enduring appeal of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism?  Two things, I think.  The first is that her philosophy incorporates many important truths; the second is the clarity and force with which Ayn Rand expressed her philosophy.

Ayn Rand grew up in the Soviet Union, where the language of altruism and self-sacrifice was used to justify a monstrous tyranny.  As a young woman, she moved to the United States, where she heard the same king of language being used to mask hidden agendas.

She created an alternative philosophy, based on rationality, individual freedom and respect for competence.  She told her followers to determine their own purposes in life, and stick to it, and not to try to live up to others’ expectations.  The name of her philosophy, Objectivism, was a recognition that there is such a thing as objective reality, which will catch up with you, whether you like it or not.  She recognized the contradictory nature of altruism as an ideal; as Peanuts’ Lucy once asked: if we are put on earth to serve others, what are the others here for?

All these ideas are true and important, and expressed in a way that could be understood by any intelligent high school student.  (I mean this as a compliment, not as a back-handed slur.)

The problems I have with her philosophy are:

• The conflation of actual existing capitalism with her ideal of capitalism, the unknown ideal.

• The conflation of actual existing greedy and selfish people with her ideal of the virtue of selfishness.

• Her lack of recognition that not all choices are between good and evil – some are choices between good and good, bad and bad or alternatives about which not all the facts are in.


Dagny Taggart and the railroads

April 27, 2011

I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged many years ago, and last week saw the movie “Atlas Shrugged Part One,” the first of a trilogy based on the novel.  It is ironic that Ayn Rand chose the railroad heiress Dagny Taggart as the heroine.  American railroads are one of the starkest illustrations of the difference between actual existing capitalism and Ayn Rand’s “capitalism, the unknown ideal.”

The American railroad system did not come into existence as a result of autonomous individuals engaging in voluntary exchange in a free and unregulated market.  The railroads were built by government-chartered limited-liability corporations exercising the power of eminent domain and other quasi-governmental powers.  The transcontinental railroads were subsidized by huge grants of public lands, whose value far exceeded the cost of the railroad construction.

Railroad operators in the 19th century expropriated small property owners in the name of the greater good, and obtained monopoly rights in the name of the public interest.  They never hesitated to call in state militias or federal troops to suppress strikes.  But when farmers and small merchants proposed regulation of monopoly freight rates, they called a violation of property rights and the free market.

Give credit where credit is due.  Construction of the American rail network, and especially the transcontinental railroads, was a great achievement – second only to the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in Russia.  It is no small thing to supervise the construction or operation of a railroad. People who can do this well deserve respect and reward.  But few of the fortunes that were made from railroads at the time were made by the people who made the trains run on time.  They were made by financial and political manipulators.

Railroads in the late 19th century were notorious for issuing “watered stock” – stock in such amounts that the stocks’ face value greatly exceeded the value of assets.  At least the stock did represent a tangible asset, however inflated the pretended value.  The market manipulators of today trade in “derivatives,” which do not represent any asset at all.

Railroads carry freight with less expenditure of energy than trucks and much more less than airlines. Yet in the 20th century, the railroads were unable to compete.  It was left to the federal government to reorganize bankrupt railroads into the Conrail and Amtrak systems.