Monday, January 12, 2009

Atlas Shrugged?

Stephen Moore recently wrote a Wall Street Journal column comparing our current economic situation to the one described in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Moore writes that “[t]he current economic strategy is right out of "Atlas Shrugged… [A]s "Atlas" grimly foretold, we now treat the incompetent who wreck their companies as victims, while those resourceful business owners who manage to make a profit are portrayed as recipients of illegitimate "windfalls." This article was quite popular in the conservative blogosphere, and echoed what many conservatives feel about the economic condition.

My feelings about Atlas Shrugged are mixed—I hate the book, and consider it a literary enormity advocating an evil and stupid philosophy. Frankly, I can’t imagine how anyone could admire, or even finish, the book. But evidently there are people who can do both, and many people I admire, such as Rush Limbaugh, Charles Murray, and Clarence Thomas, are among then. So, evidently, the book has some value, though I can’t see it.

But whether or not Atlas Shrugged is worth reading, it is not a fifty-year-old prophecy for the present day. What is happening now is not very desirable—but it’s not socialism either. It is something quite different.

Actually, anyone who seriously thinks that what the federal government is doing right now is really socialism shows how little they understand of socialism. According to Wikipedia, socialism is “a set of economic theories advocating state or collective ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods, and an egalitarian society characterized by equal opportunities for all individuals and a fair or egalitarian distribution of wealth.” The federal government is not guilty of any of these things.

There is no government takeover of production, nor of distribution. There is no “egalitarian distribution of wealth” (or at least no more than usual); on the contrary, President-elect Obama is pushing for tax cuts. So most of the conditions for socialism aren’t even close to being met here.

And more importantly, true socialism can be (very) broadly defined as government taking over business. But here, it’s the opposite (or at least very close to it)—business is taking over government.

For years, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac operated under the certain assumption that the federal government would bail them out if necessary, and they were right. All the banks and insurance companies that were bailed out simply asked Washington for the cash—there were few conditions placed upon the money. Even when the federal government partially nationalized nine of the country’s largest banks, the “nationalization” took the form of a massive cash infusion, more a gift than a seizure of assets.

When GM and Chrysler needed money, they jumped aboard the bailout gravy train. Did the government take over these corporations? Did it give them money with strings attached? Did it set rules for the companies to follow? No, it did none of these things. Instead, it forked over thirteen billion dollars essentially unconditionally, even though neither company changed its business habits in the least.

The federal government isn’t taking over private enterprise—if anything, the opposite is true. Big business is taking over, or at least looting, government. The federal government has spent around eight trillion on various bailouts, most of which inject money directly into failing companies. That isn’t socialism.

Of course, just because it isn’t socialism doesn’t mean that it’s desirable. The merger of government and corporations is usually called fascism, but true fascism usually gives the state more influence. (It’s hard to imagine Mussolini, or Franco, simply giving half of their countries GDP to corporations. They would almost certainly demand something in return). A better name, perhaps, would be corporatism, where the government is influenced by large interest groups.

In Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas represents business, and the book revolves around the ways that business leaders fight against socialism. (If that makes the book sound interesting, it isn’t). But in America in 2009, Atlas isn’t shrugging off socialism’s chains—on the contrary, he’s using them to help support his burden.

Corporatism is no better than socialism, but it is different. (Biggest difference: socialism tries to bolster equality, corporatism tries to help the rich). It might not be much comfort to know that the federal government is embracing corporatism instead of socialism—but it is, I think, important to know the difference.

9 Comments:

At January 13, 2009 at 8:17 AM , Blogger Z-man said...

I think Atlas as a novel is good in its own right though way too long, it's what I learned later about how Rand really felt about pro-lifers that turned me off. Maybe it ain't socialism but it's a form of corporate welfare, it certainly isn't the laissez-faire capitalism that we learned about in high school. HOWEVER it's what Obama told Joe the Plumber (yes him again) during the campaign that sounded truly socialist but that's water under the bridge as they say.

 
At January 13, 2009 at 7:11 PM , Blogger Beth said...

Indeed, the corporate leaders of today are nothing like the leaders portrayed in Atlas Shrugged, such as Hank and Dagny, who work hard to succeed, and have no desire to have the government help them. But today's corporate leadership not only know there is the safety net if they don't succeed, they don't even seem to care if they succeed or not. That is the difference, Daniel.

 
At January 15, 2009 at 6:12 AM , Blogger Name: Soapboxgod said...

"But whether or not Atlas Shrugged is worth reading, it is not a fifty-year-old prophecy for the present day."

The novel was never put forth as such. What Stephen Moore alludes to are the similarities between the politically economical ideas presented in the book to those in practice today. On that note and that note alone, the similarities are eerily familiar.

Moreover, when Mrs. Rand was challenged by Mike Wallace in an interview some 50 years ago about whether or not employing such practices would lead to a similar fate, she asserted that indeed they would. And alas, here we are....

"What is happening now is not very desirable—but it’s not socialism either."

Two things here; of Mrs. Rand's works, Atlas Shrugged was not a book on socialism. While the book did indeed include tenets of socialism (and fascism and communism to a degree) that was not what the book was about. That said, it's disigenuous Daniel to make the aforementioned statement asserting that "it wasn't socialism either". Mrs. Rand never claimed that the plot therein was.

If you'd like apply that statement to Mrs. Rand's work, your arguement would be much more concrete were you referring to her novel We the Living.

Lastly, that previous statement not only doesn't apply to Atlas Shrugged, it doesn't even apply to the column by Stephen Moore. At no point in Mr. Moore's column does he attempt to draw a correlation between Atlas Shrugged and Socialism.

Mr. Moore's column cited the similarities between the fictional accounting of constant government intervention and an economic collapse (a topic for which your post here seemed to stray) and what we are realizing today.

 
At January 15, 2009 at 7:11 AM , Blogger Z-man said...

Isn't there a movie in the works soapie?

 
At January 15, 2009 at 7:24 AM , Blogger Name: Soapboxgod said...

Yes I know there was to be (with Angelina Jolie tagged as Dagny). I don't know the status of it.

The rights to it had been sold by Leonard Peikoff some time ago so the Rand Institute won't have any authority as to what sort of hatchet job they'd do to it.

I believe that initially when Ayn was still alive, she had wished it to be a trilogy of sorts. That makes much more sense considering the voluminous nature of it all.

Instead however, it'll likely turn out to be some piss poor lovefest with the original intent and philosophy lost on viewers.

If nothing else however, it would inspire some individuals to read the novel.

 
At January 15, 2009 at 7:43 AM , Blogger Z-man said...

I had read recently in a Sunday supplement or something that director Ron Howard once read the novel and he said he found it very interesting and was brushing up on it. Is he involved?

 
At January 15, 2009 at 8:08 AM , Blogger Name: Soapboxgod said...

Again I don't know. IMDB.com would likely have some information on its status.

 
At April 9, 2009 at 5:18 AM , Blogger Anemic Waterhog said...

Atlas Shrugged as a piece of literature stands well, but Rand's philosophical messages crumbles as it advocates greed and selfishness while passively and indifferently letting the rest of the world flail. Who cares about the starving, really? Who doesn't want to see the rich exploit the poor, squeezing the meager pocketbooks of these people to throw into the wealthy vaults filled with gold bars? "It's not just, the poor haven't earned that money," Rand seems to say, watching little children squirm in hunger.

Altruism is bad? If Rand despises the a society with a common good, what kind of society does she think of? Yes, let's isolate the wealth in the top 1% of people and gravitate back to serfdom.

 
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