Atlas Shrugged Part III

2014_08_08_Wallpaper_WIJGBY 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.

Borough Market cake stall, London, England - Oct 2008

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

Photo Credit:

“Borough Market cake stall, London, England” By Diliff (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Atlas Shrugged and Government Regulation by Val Muller

I saw Atlas Shrugged Part 2 this weekend. For a limited-government fan like me, it’s a must-see.

You don’t have to have seen the first part to appreciate the second. Part 1 established the world in which the characters live—a world dominated by an energy crisis that has “forced” the government to take tighter control of business and production. In this world—a world not dissimilar to ours—masses of people began hating businesses for being greedy and refusing to share the wealth. All the while, a man named John Galt is claiming all the intelligent and competent members of society—people like our Andrew Carnegie and Steve Jobs. People who create products and resources and opportunities that benefit everyone else. These productive members of society have been disappearing—giving up their hard-earned businesses (often by destroying them) to a world that doesn’t appreciate their contribution.

In the midst of this world lives Dagny Taggart, member of the Taggart family that now owns the nation’s largest railroad chain. With the energy crisis, railroad is the primary mode of travel (note that the filmmaker has slightly modernized the book from which the movie is derived, as Rand wrote in a time when even computers didn’t exist). With increasing government regulations, though, it’s becoming more difficult to be productive, and at the end of Part 1, business owners are forced to sell all but one business—because it isn’t fair that one person should own and operate more than one.

Part 2 follows Dagny’s efforts to continue her family’s railroad business despite a brother who is controlled by politicians (and is the incompetent head of the railroad company). She is also thwarted by increasing government regulation (the Fair Share Act) that forces companies to produce and provide equally to all consumers, not to mention the fact that the major suppliers for the railroad’s raw materials have been disappearing with John Galt.

Despite these disappearances, Dagny has not given up on helping her world and saving her business, and her one partner in this is Hank Rearden of Rearden Steel. Even with increasing government regulations (under a state of emergency, the federal government has seized the ownership of all copyrights), Dagny will not give up, and she struggles to discover who John Galt actually is (if he exists at all) and why everyone competent is disappearing. In the meantime, the more the government tries to fix the economy, the more the country falls apart. At the end of Part 2, even the people are realizing that the government is nothing more than a masked thief, taking what belongs to individuals under the guise of law.

While the film is a hyperbole of our current society, it isn’t that far from our reality. The film’s premise is that capitalism isn’t the problem—government-regulated crony capitalism is the problem. As a result of the government’s regulations, Dagny’s company is forced to shut down some of its rail lines. As a result of the government’s regulations, important producers are unable to secure the raw materials needed to run their businesses. A coal mining company, for example, is unable to buy enough steel to reinforce its mines, resulting in a coal shortage, resulting in a further energy crisis, resulting in lower production across the board. The point is, government regulation that claims to be fairly dividing up resources for everyone just ends up hurting a supply-and-demand system that, if left unregulated, would find its own natural balance and create a better world for all involved.

We can see this problem even today—thankfully on a smaller scale (at least, for now). I even have an anecdotal example from my own HOA experience. Our HOA hires a lawn management company to manage common areas—including mowing, aerating, and fertilizing the common grassy areas. A few times per year, the company sprays pesticide on the lawns. When I walk the dogs, I sometimes walk for the equivalent of two city blocks without seeing a single pesticide application notice sticking in the ground. By the time I see one, I’ve already let the dogs run through the grass, and during this time of year I’m usually wearing sandals as well.

When I contacted the lawn company about placing more signs to inform residents with children and pets of the dangerous pesticide, I was told that the company placed the exact number of signs as required by law, so they were already complying and were not required to place any additional signs. It struck me that in this case, government regulation had failed. Some probably well-meaning politician had at some point created legislation mandating the requirements for placing pesticide application warnings. Companies, being held to the law, now fulfill the minimum requirement and then wipe their hands clean of responsibility.

The mistake here is in thinking government regulation is necessary in the first place. In a truly free market, consumers pressure companies into having good ethics. If a consumer is not happy, he votes with his wallet. If a lawn company was not placing signs for pesticide applications, customers would become angry, and the company would either have to start putting up more signs or look for new customers.

Government regulation makes business lazy and makes people stop thinking. Without government regulation, people would have to be much more aware of business and legal procedures. Businesses shipping labor overseas, for example, would have to balance the potential cost-savings with the potential anger (and quality issues) experienced by its customers. Standards for cars and vehicles—gas mileage, safety ratings, etc.—would not disappear if the government were to step down from regulating. Customers would have to become more informed. Private rating companies (they already exist!) would be used to inform customers of the dangers and benefits of each vehicle. Without aiming for the lowest common denominator—government’s gas standards—companies’ brains would start working on their own, innovating to create even more industrious cars. And to take a shot at the Chevy Volt, without government subsidies, this inefficient vehicle would never have left the drawing room. What customer, in a free market, would want a vehicle that is not cost effective, even factoring in gas savings?

Remember when you were a kid, and you did your chores just well enough that your parents wouldn’t make you redo them? Think about things you actually enjoyed doing. Didn’t you do them with much more ardor and investment than something you were forced to do? Probably didn’t even seem like work, did it? It’s how humans operate. When we’re told to do something, we figure out the minimum standards and make sure we tick all the boxes. When we do something we’re passionate about, we’re much more innovative.

This country was not founded on government regulations. It was founded on the belief that individuals are competent enough to make smart decisions. At some point along the way, we’ve “checked out,” as Dagny notes, turning over our brains to government bureaucrats. I say, it’s time we start thinking for ourselves and shrink bureaucracy back to the molecular size it ought to be.

VAL MULLER is a fiction writer and teacher living in Virginia.  Her mystery series, Corgi Capers, is available with DWB Publishing. You can keep track of her at www.valmuller.com

Atlas Shrugged II Premieres Friday 10/12

Whether you believe Atlas Shrugged is hyperbolic, cautionary, or even prophetic, it’s an important story to read to remind us of the freedom America offers—and to remind us how quickly that freedom can be taken.

Since Ayn Rand is not the most concise author, we’re fortunate that the book is being made into a film. Part One of the trilogy was released on tax day last year, and Part Two will be released on Friday.

To understand the genius of Rand’s work, it’s important to understand a bit about her life. Born in Russia in 1905, Ayn Rand was subjected to the culture of collectivism in Russia. Almost immediately after teaching herself to read, Rand discovered European fiction, which introduced her to the idea of the hero—the individual—something lacking in Russian culture. She saw two revolutions, and a resulting Communist victory forced her father’s pharmacy to be confiscated, causing her family to nearly starve to death. It wasn’t until her last year of high school that she was introduced to American history. The principles she learned led her to hold America as the paragon of freedom.

She continued her studies through college in Russia, but communists continued to take away students’ rights to freedom of thought. Rand took solace in Western films, once again holding Western culture as the paragon of free men. In 1926, she arrived in New York after telling Soviet authorities she planned only a short visit to America to visit family. Her intention was never to return, and indeed she remained in the United States for the rest of her life.

She moved to Hollywood to become a screenwriter, meeting Cecil B. DeMille and Frank O’Connor, her future husband and Hollywood actor, during her first two weeks there. She continued her writing career, creating characters and stories that illustrate the potential of the ideal man. Atlas Shrugged pits the government collective against individual businessmen.

Here is a synopsis from the producers—hope to “see” you at the show!

In Atlas Shrugged II, the global economy is on the brink of collapse. Unemployment has risen to 24%. Gas is now $42 per gallon. Brilliant creators, from artists to industrialists, continue to mysteriously disappear at the hands of the unknown.

Dagny Taggart, Vice President in Charge of Operations for Taggart Transcontinental, has discovered what may very well be the answer to a mounting energy crisis – found abandoned amongst the ruins of a once productive factory, a revolutionary motor that could seemingly power the World.But, the motor is dead… there is no one left to decipher its secret… and, someone is watching.

But, the motor is dead… there is no one left to decipher its secret… and, someone is watching.

It’s a race against the clock to find the inventor before the motor of the World is stopped for good.

Who is John Galt?