BY VAL MULLER
Atlas Shrugged Part III (Who Is John Galt?) is now out in theatres, and I’m looking forward to it.
I donated to the Atlas Shrugged Kickstarter campaign (you can even find my name on the Producer’s Wall at http://www.atlasshruggedmovie.com/kickstarter?p=19) because I think the ideas in the novel are important to share. Although I’m not sure a three-part movie can concisely deliver the ideas of the book to those who aren’t already fans, I was glad to hear it was finally being made into a movie.
For those who haven’t read the book, I wanted to share why I think Rand’s philosophy is such an important concept.
First, a bit on Ayn Rand. Rand was born in Russia in the early 1900s and moved to America in the 1920s. In Russia, her father worked hard to run and own his own business, but under Lenin, that business was confiscated. Seeing the damage done by fanaticism, including seeing thugs take over the college she was attending, Rand dedicated herself to reason above all else. Her experience in Russia allowed her to see how damaging “groupthink” can be as well as what happens when people stop being guided by reason and let other, more emotional, concerns lead them.
In her writing, Rand liked to make sure the reader got the point. That’s why her novels are so long. She had a definite idea of what she wanted her novel to be, and she was uncompromising in seeing that idea to fruition—in some ways, she is like her main characters. The problem is, this makes for a long-winded novel, the length of which intimidates most would-be readers.
I have taught The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged several times. The main lessons my students gather from these texts is not something I taught them—it’s something they came to on their own, and it surprised me. But they are right: They have learned that our society tends to value people’s intentions over results.
As a broad example, if a politician institutes a program with the intention of helping the poor, but that program becomes bankrupt or backfires or ends up making the people it’s trying to help too dependent or even worse off, we tend to reward that politician for wanting to help the poor—regardless of the results. On the other hand, if a business owner produces dozens of jobs—thus helping people in need of work—we still look critically at him because his intention from the start: to make money for himself. Even if the result is that consumers now have goods to purchase and people now have jobs, his intent from the start was inherently selfish, and thus we judge him as a bad person.
Our society has it backwards. We should judge results rather than intent. After all, wasn’t Hitler trying to make the world a better place (at least in his own mind)? Should we judge his intent, or the results?
In Atlas Shrugged, we see a war between government and business. The government in the book is one not dissimilar from our government today: one rooted in crony capitalism and nepotism, one that encourages the public not to think but to blindly follow emotions. The government in Atlas Shrugged, in short, over-regulates the country to (literal) death. In The Fountainhead, the media—controlled by a small group of powerful people—puts out so many pointless stories that people aren’t even able to think about what truly is important anymore. In fact, they blindly follow what they are told to think by their preferred media source. Sound familiar?
Like our government today, those in power in Atlas Shrugged pick the winners and losers. If one company is becoming too successful, the government creates new regulations that cripple that company, all in the name of giving other companies a fair chance. The result of this is that those with prowess in business—those who are able to provide quality products for low prices—are punished. Those who are unable to provide quality products for low prices are rewarded with subsidies and other protections. The end results, of course, is mediocrity that hurts everyone. Now, instead of some people having minimum wage jobs and other people living like Carnegie, Jobs, or Gates, no one has jobs. Everyone suffers and misery is shared equally.
I can’t help thinking about GM (at present, I own a Chevy, which has greatly disappointed me despite my desire to “buy American.”). The government recently subsidized the Volt through various incentives and tax credits, both for buyers and for manufacturers at each step of the process. This is an example of the government deciding on a “good intention” (electric cars). The results, however, were not what was desired. Electric cars, even today, are not very efficient. And they ignore the fact that electricity is usually produced with the same non-renewable sources electric cars are trying to avoid. Again, moving to electric cars is a good intention, but the result of government interference was not useful. The same is true for the government’s movement to produce gasoline using corn (ethanol). Remember when corn used to be so cheap at the grocery store? Not anymore. Even environmentalists have come out to say that producing gas from corn is not efficient—it costs too much energy to produce. Again, the intention was “good”—to help shed our dependency on foreign fuels. But the result was actually harmful.
If an electric car were made by a big company with no subsidies, or a new form of gasoline were created by a private company, both businesses would probably be criticized because of their “greed” and their desire to make money. But in business, decisions must be made based on logic. Whereas the government has an “unending” supply of (tax) money and borrowed debt it can throw at pet projects, businesses need to make economic sense. In a true free-market economy, an electric car would only be produced if it could be made as a reliable car for a price people would be willing to pay.
The government can force its “customers” to buy a product or service that it creates or that it permits businesses to offer (an obvious example is the Affordable Care Act). Some health insurers quickly gave their support to the idea of government-mandated insurance because it would bring them a steady supply of customers forced into their storefronts by the threat of government fines, higher taxes, even imprisonment or men and women with guns showing up to enforce the government’s will.
As long as an insurance company met the mandatory minimum coverages of the health law, there would be customers and guaranteed revenue. In the absence of free markets and competition, businesses lack incentive to provide a better quality, more affordable product. As a result prices increase and customer satisfaction suffers. In the free market, a business earns its customers because a transaction in the free market does not take place unless both parties derive some benefit from it. With several choices and healthy competition, prices remain low over the long term and innovation brings people new and exciting products such as smart phones and smart watches.
But in Atlas Shrugged and in our world today, people complain because of the “unfairness” of businesses (those heartless, greedy capitalists!). Remember when cell phones first came out? They were quite the status symbol. Only the very wealthy could afford the brick-sized phones. It wasn’t fair to people who couldn’t afford them. But in the long run, they made things better for everyone. Now, cell phone technology has improved so that almost everyone has one. (Though the government is still messing around with the cell phone market, as with most things today).
The point Rand made in Atlas Shrugged is that people need to use common sense—logic—and not be persuaded by emotions that are often exploited to take greater control of our lives. The events in the book—which lead to starvation and freezing to death when food and fuel become scarce—seem so outlandish as to be a hyperbole. But they were based on Rand’s personal experience following the upheaval in Russia where she saw deaths from starvation and freezing as the government seized businesses in order to eliminate “unfairness.” The events Rand witnessed and used in her book illustrate the potential end result of crony capitalism and allowing the government to manipulate us and give up our freedom of choice.
She also saw the greatness that could happen when people are allowed to produce within a free market—when consumers are allowed to willingly pay for something they desire as a way of rewarding insight and punishing shoddy products. And this is the bottom line. If everyone simply used logic in everyday interaction, most bad decisions would be eradicated from the start. But in Atlas Shrugged, as in our modern culture, we transfer the responsibility to think for ourselves to media outlets with deep agendas on both sides of the spectrum, and we reward intentions rather than outcomes. In both cases, we’re just asking for trouble.
Val Muller started writing as soon as she could hold a pencil. Teacher, writer, and editor, Val pens a children’s mystery series, Corgi Capers, inspired by her growly-dog Leia and her fraidy-dog Yoda. Her supernatural chiller, Faulkner’s Apprentice, is her most recent outlet for purging her nightmares, with her young adult novels, The Man With the Crystal Ankh and The Scarred Letter, forthcoming. Her favorite novel is Orwell’s 1984, and she believes strongly in promoting freedom and celebrating individual achievement as a way of bettering the lives of all. Stalk her at www.ValMuller.com
“Borough Market cake stall, London, England” By Diliff (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons