Monday, April 4, 2011

Atlas Shrugged - double-checkin those premises

A Critique of Atlas Shrugged
By Ken Laundra

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.        -Paul Krugman

“Who is John Galt?” The phrase is, according to author Ayn Rand, used by the characters in her book to say something equivalent to, “well, that’s just the way it is and nothing can be done”. Used in this sense, the novel’s message of the value of reason, free thought and rational self interest as a means to happiness and prosperity (known more formally afterwards as objectivism) is advanced by comparing this ideal to the presumably more lackluster ideology behind the Galt phrase which represents a belief in irrational ideas such as altruistic intentions and valuing policies aimed at the common good over profit-seeking.

Ok fine, sounds good to me so far, although I must confess to a nagging voice in my head while reading this book that something was logically askew or, more to the point, missing from the fundamental thesis of the book. I was also often bored while listening to business details of a hypothetical (and historically inaccurate) train industry, a subject (like business principles in general) that does not crank my gears at all. The writing was frigid and devoid of human compassion (including the sex scenes), probably because compassion for humanity as a whole is apparently an abhorrently unprofitable excursion from the more noble pursuit of malevolent and egotistical industrialism. Let’s break it down:

The thesis of the book need not be regurgitated by me, the ideological center of her belief is commonly asserted in any cliff note summary, such as this one:

Great creative minds such as Galt's, by definition, think new thoughts and discover new knowledge. They neither conform to social belief nor obey a tyrant's command. They follow their own vision and pursue their own truth. In making intellectual breakthroughs, people like John Galt lead mankind's progress. The creative mind looks only at the facts, whether of metallurgy, energy conversion, or another field. It does not bow to the whims of a dictator. If people like Floyd Ferris or Wesley Mouch can, by decree, stifle or redirect the research being done by a Galt or a Rearden, they've placed a gun between the great mind and the facts that it studies. This explains why the freest countries are the most advanced, and why the brutal dictatorships that proliferate across the globe wallow in backwardness and abysmal poverty. Galt's strike recognizes that the first right of human beings is the freedom to think and act independently. The result of this freedom is the unshackling of the human mind and a dramatic rise in living standards.

I had high hopes for this novel, particularly since it was written by a scholar of obvious high intelligence, and an advocate for reason, rationality and atheism. On its face, the logic seems sound and, moreover, it is an attractive idea. Don’t block a bright mind from innovation through the pursuit of self interest and profit, for this is the means by which societies prosper, both intellectually and economically. Conversely, since government intervention and regulatory policies block such progress, such acts are necessarily evil, characterized as “looting” by Rand throughout the novel.

But these ideas are only comprehensible when you assume that societies always prosper with unrestricted, free market principles and that societies always fail when policies aimed at the common good are advanced instead. She characterizes these conflicting ideologies as incompatible, reminding us to “check our premises”, but provides a shallow and unconvincing argument that these causal effects actually occur in the real world, outside a fantastically fictional world where a mere handful of heroically brave, wealthy industrial elites are held back by a mass of uneducated slackers that, evidently, comprise the majority of mankind. In what universe does such a society with such one dimensional people exist?

Furthermore, Rand’s indignation and contempt for the working class ruins her attempt at shallow reason. What a pompous ass! To assume that such an elite group of self-interested, rational individuals exist, and that by simply unshackling them from the burdens of social and moral responsibility we would all enter into a utopian era of prosperity is laughable to me. But an even greater leap of reason might be her assertion that a keen understanding of free market principles, void of irrational concern for the welfare of others, is the ultimate key to human enlightenment and happiness. For reals?

If the social consequences of a de-regulated, private banking industry (the 2008 trillion dollar bank bailout due to fraudulent lending and accounting practices), or the consequences of unregulated gulf oil rigs (BP Oil Spill 2010), or the consequences of profit-driven war for increasingly scarce oil (the decade long, 3 trillion dollar wars with Iraq and Afghanistan), or the consequences of not adopting Kyoto climate change protocols in time to save the planet’s ecosystems because it is deemed “too expensive” are not sufficient examples of rational self-interest run amuck, then you have obviously crash landed your brain into John Galt canyon.

Time and time again, throughout history, deregulated industries have broken all moral covenants with the overall welfare of society by exploiting workers, lowering wages, defrauding consumers, trimming worker benefits, outsourcing jobs, and polluting the environment – all in the name of short term profit-seeking for the company’s stockholders. It cannot be reasonably argued that the invisible hand of the free market does not regularly slap society across the face when given a chance, that it always benefits the common good, particularly when you consider the important difference between a high quality of life and a merely high standard of living, a distinction Rand does not appear to grasp the significance of.

Wealth does not guarantee happiness (although it certainly helps), but in conflating these two distinct human goals, Rand makes the erroneous assertion that they are synonymous achievements (e.g. John Galt, the ideological hero of Atlas Shrugged, argues that "a free mind and a free market are corollaries"), and that, hence, in accumulating wealth you will attain self-fulfillment. This claim is only evidenced in a fairy tale of industrialist dreams that is Atlas Shrugged. In the real world of actual people, we strive for satisfying relationships with other people, wealthy or poor as they may be, and we are cognizant of our social responsibilities and common plight as one species on a fragile, interactive planet. We value diversity of ideas and diverse cultural experiences from people of all walks of life, capitalist or communist in orientation, and most of these cherished relationships are not grounded in economic exchange or mediated through economic principles at all. There is simply much more to life and more to value about our fellow human beings than Rand is willing to acknowledge. In fact, by asserting that economic structures dictate our social experiences so fully and completely, Rand reveals herself as more Marxist in orientation than many socialists living today! There’s a contradiction for ya, Ayn!

At its best, Rand’s free market worldview is overly idealistic, not well grounded in the actual, complex patterns of human interaction. At its worst, it is an ironically totalitarian manifesto, founded in a clear bias toward the peculiar economic morality of production and greed. Given the spectrum of contrary and negative outcomes that the capitalist agenda has levied on us throughout human history, one can only conclude that Atlas Shrugged falls on its face, in the face of facts and reason. It seems reasonable, then, to wonder if Rand should reconsider this contradiction and - check her premises.

Ken L.