Monday, January 12, 2009

Ellis Weiner Deconstructs Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged, for those of you lucky enough to have never read it, was written by the annoyingly-pseudonymed Ayn Rand and published in 1957 and, for reasons that require a deep trek into the heart of American political pathology to unearth, became a huge bestseller. It is to novels as the four heads on Mount Rushmore are to sculpture. In fact--get this--both took fourteen years to create, and both weigh approximately 62,000 tons.

The story concerns railroad heiress Dagny Taggart (beautiful, slim, etc.), and her efforts to keep Taggart Transcontinental in business in the face of government redistributionist perfidy, corruption, and wrongheaded, prosperity-sapping niceness. Meanwhile, tycoons across the land are quitting their enterprises and mysteriously disappearing. Dagny, tormented by a triangular relationship with handsome, hard-charging, married Hank Rearden (steel, miracle alloy "Rearden Metal"), and handsome, childhood friend, and seemingly-feckless-playboy Francisco d'Anconia (Chilean copper mines), eventually discovers where those vanishing entrepreneurs went, as she learns the answer to the repeated question, "Who is John Galt?"

(Spoiler Alert: In fact, they've repaired to a valley in the Colorado mountains, where they go on strike against "society" and, under the leadership of the demi-god John Galt, create their own idyllic community, where they mint their own gold coins and manufacture their own cigarettes stamped with dollar signs. What? You haven't read it and now it's "spoiled"? Tough. You should thank me.)


And, just as true believers find confirmation of Scriptural predictions in cherry-picked semi-coincidences in real life, so does Moore--former Cato Institute man, presumably a Libertarian, and what people smarter and funnier than I call a "Randroid"--discover that events of today (the bailouts, the economic stimulus packages, etc.) are proving Rand prescient. "...(O)ur current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that 'Atlas Shrugged' parodied in 1957."

Are they? Let's see.

In the novel, stick-figure industrialists and businessmen find their noble, courageous, avowedly "selfish" efforts stymied and undone by stick-figure cowards, weaklings, and corrupt bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. Piece by piece, in Rand's depiction of governmental overreach, capitalism is dismantled. Moore lists several of the more egregious examples from the book: "the 'Anti-Greed Act' to redistribute income (sounds like Charlie Rangel's promises soak-the-rich tax bill) and the 'Equalization of Opportunity Act' to prevent people from starting more than one business (to give other people a chance). My personal favorite, the 'Anti Dog-Eat-Dog Act,' aims to restrict cut-throat competition between firms and thus slow the wave of business bankruptcies."

Moore then goes on, "These acts and edicts sound farcical, yes, but no more so than the actual events in Washington, circa 2008. We already have been served up the $700 billion 'Emergency Economic Stabilization Act' and the 'Auto Industry Financing and Restructuring Act.' Now that Barack Obama is in town, he will soon sign into law with great urgency the 'American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan.' This latest Hail Mary pass will increase the federal budget (which has already expanded by $1.5 trillion in eight years under George Bush) by an additional $1 trillion -- in roughly his first 100 days in office."

To draw an equivalence between these two sets of laws is to be, at best, stupid, and at worst, mendacious. The "Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Act" has no counterpart or equivalent in what the rest of us know to be real life. It's the creation of a petulant teenager throwing a tantrum about "society." Other edicts are just as contrived and equally silly: No worker, anywhere, is allowed to be fired. No owner is allowed to quit or retire. All patents and copyrights become property of the state. No new products are allowed to be produced. No one is allowed to spend any more or less money on anything than they did in the previous year.

What, here, is being "parodied"? Not American society, either today or in 1957; not the ways in which government and legislation interacts with capitalism; and not even any reasonable depiction of the left. In fact, what's being parodied (if that's the word) is the Soviet Union, from which Rand (nee Alice Rosenbaum) emigrated when she was 21. Yes, in her magnum opus, her "moral defense of capitalism," Ayn Rand dresses the U.S. in Soviet drag, and then watches in triumph as her soap opera heroes beat it up.

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