Atlas Shrugged update

17 Sep
So as I mentioned before, I’m reading through Atlas Shrugged to help me better understand libertarianism, but as I’m reading it some preconceived notions I have keep making me bang my head on the table. I thought I’d write them down here for you to give me you’re opinion, and I’m open to changing my mind. (That’s the whole point of this exercise in the first place)
  • Money ≠ effort. For example. A coal miner might break his back in a coal shaft for $10\hr, while the owner of the mine sits at his desk in air conditioning making decisions for $50\hr. Does this mean that the effort spent by the owner in 1 hour is equal to the effort spent by the coal miner in 5? “Oh but the owner bears the responsibility should the mine fail or an accident happen, thus it is right that he should take more in pay from the net profits of the combined effort.” Really? If the mine fails, is not the worker also out of work, like the owner? If there is an accident the worker is likely to lose his life; the worst the owner can expect is to lose the mine and possibly jail time. It seems that the worker has more to risk than the owner. It seems that by virtue of merely putting up the capital to start the mine and by deciding how to run it, this somehow entitles the individual to more profit than the people who do the actual work. “But without the owner there would be no mine, and the workers wouldn’t have jobs!” Yes, and without the workers there would be no mine and the owner would make nothing. They are equally dependent on each other, so why should the owner take home more? (The sad truth is that workers are so numerous they’re expendable, whereas people with the capital to start a mine are rare, thus those with capital use this fact to extort more money out of the workers) This seems to me to be in conflict with the notion that every man is entitled to the product of his productive energies.
  • Laissez faire capitalism ultimately threatens personal liberties. (This is the hardest one for me to articulate) I say “ultimately” because this does not seem apparent when capitalism is operating on a small or medium scale, say the farmers’ market or regional businesses. Through unregulated competition, businesses will grow, fail, merge, etc until they have evolved into large corporations or  monopolies. These corporations/monopolies will then be able to dictate to customers what products they can buy, and at what prices. Sure people can revolt and boycott, but a well run monopoly would carefully keep the products and prices just within the bounds of tolerance, counting on the bulk of the population to be too apathetic or too dependent to revolt. Money influences politics; people with inordinate amounts of money have inordinate political power. Large corporations can out spend and out organize smaller groups of private citizens. If need be corporations can even buy legislators through extortion or promises of lucrative positions in the private field after their term. Just look at our current legislative bodies and how many congressmen/women retire from public service to work as extremely well paid lobbyists/consultants for the very corporations they previously regulated. The bailouts are another good example of inordinate corporate power. The American people did not want to hand over billions and billions of their money to save corporations from facing the consequences of their actions. (Laissez faire would have dictated that the corporations collapse) Yet the corporations (but mainly the banking industry) had grown so large, wormed itself into so many sectors of the economy, that if it died it would take the world’s economy with it. The banks knew this and essentially blackmailed the people into saving them from their irresponsibility. (Meanwhile the CEOs jet away on vacations to their private islands while unemployment is around 10%) I would say this is an example of oligarchy, which is the natural goal of such large corporations. A corporation or monopoly will naturally wish to control the governmental body that decides laws and is in a position to regulate it. How can individual liberties be protected if an oligarchy is running the country?
  • In a laissez faire economy where profit overrides all other concerns, including public health, what would keep a corporation from dumping toxic waste in a river if it thought it could absorb any costs? Even if the local community got together to protest, they don’t have enough of an economic impact to make a difference to the corporation. Even if they got other people in other towns to protest with them, you can count on human apathy for nothing to be done about it. (Plus, if selfishness is a virtue, then why should people in other towns take time out of their day to protest something that doesn’t effect them?) What would replace the EPA, the FDA, the CDC, the dept. of highway safety, dept. of weights and measures, or any number of regulatory industries that make sure products are safe and that a companies deliver what they advertise? (Don’t say self-regulation, that’s naive. It didn’t work before we establish those departments, and it wouldn’t work if we dismantled them)
  • If everything were privatized, how would minorities be protected from discrimination by the majority? Especially in education? Matter of fact, not just minorities, but poor people in general. Rich people could afford to send their children to good institutions while poor people would have to make do with what they have, which is nothing. Without an education, how would a child break free from poverty? Sure a handful might get lucky and discover something, but the you can’t always pull yourself out of poverty through hard work. There are plenty of people in this country right now working second, and even third jobs, just to support their families. They’re working their asses off but they’re never going to get anywhere because they don’t have the education they need to make better choices or get promoted. Not everybody can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and it’s not because they’re lazy or incompetent.
  • Money is not the only indicator of what is important in life. What about institutions like museums or parks that can’t turn a profit? There are plenty of great cultural things in this country that would have to shut their doors if it weren’t for public funding. Must everything be commercialized? Would a museum or park have to resort to plastering advertisements all over the place to survive? It just seems vulgar. Charity would not be a viable option to support these institutions. A) the benefactor would most likely influence what was displayed/preformed/ etc, making it hard for private individuals to compete, and B) who want’s to beg for table scraps from the tycoons? That’s essentially what I feel relying on charity for public services would amount to. “Oh great gods of industry, have mercy on us the poor and unwashed masses, may we please have a few pennies to keep a museum open, or to pay for our school?”
  • Without public goods/services/places everyone who aren’t able to afford such things are essentially a serfs. What liberties can you have if you can’t afford an education, healthcare, to put out the fire on your home, or to pay the police to keep you safe? What kind of existence is living hand to mouth? (I can’t really articulate it, but I feel like I would be a slave to money, a slave to who ever had the most of it, a slave to my employer.)

I think it’s interesting how the main characters in the book are all ridiculously brilliant and rich. All of them (the ones I’ve encountered so far up to chapter 5) have either been born with a silver spoon or had a meteoric rise to riches. I wonder how the book and morals of the story would be different if instead of a group of industrialist playboys, the main characters were poor coal miners or store clerks, you know, people who actually have to break a sweat to make sure their families have something to eat that night. I’m kind of turned off by the arrogance and egocentrism of the main characters. Yes, you’re rich tycoons who are making things happen in the world, but you’re not the only people who matter. It’s like they’re the lone sparks of competence and they feel the world would shrivel and die without them. You’re either brilliant and successful or incompetent and a looter. I would go on about empathy, but that would sound trite.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not some red book carrying Maoist. While reading the story I equally want to strangle James Taggart and all the people who blab on and on about the needs of the people, and business’s duty to help those less fortunate. I’m not a statist, I detest the level of government involvement in the novel. Surely there is some middle between the two extremes Rand paints. I recognize that it is immoral to extort money from an individual in the form of taxes, but I feel the alternative consequences of having a nation free of publicly funded institutions is even more immoral. I don’t see any alternative. There are things that people need that they cannot individually afford or achieve. Many of our greatest accomplishments as a species have come as a result of the combined effort of governments, things private industry could not have accomplished on the same scale.

9 Responses to “Atlas Shrugged update”

  1. byafi September 18, 2010 at 12:00 am #

    It would take a book to point out the errors in your issues (Atlas Shrugged will do it, if you can understand it).

    Just one example; you write “The bailouts are another good example of inordinate corporate power.” Actually, they are a good example of inordinate government power. Just remember who has the guns, and you should be able to see that.

    Good luck with Atlas.

  2. godlesspaladin September 18, 2010 at 12:37 am #

    It doesn’t matter that the government pays people who have guns, the bankers had a gun on the entire world economy. What could the government do? Shoot them?

  3. byafi September 18, 2010 at 7:26 am #

    Government is uniquely in the business of coercion and compulsion, so no banker can compel anyone to do anything without the complicity of government.

    If you reject that notion out of hand, you’d best stop reading Atlas Shrugged, as it will give you nothing but grief.

    Have a nice day.

  4. godlesspaladin September 18, 2010 at 9:41 am #

    I’m not stupid so knock off the disingenuous tone. Are governments in the business of coercion? Yes. Are they the only business in town? No. Governments are not some entity separate from businessmen/women. If a corporation has enough clout over the politicians who have control over the police, then the corporation has control over the police. A=B=C, A=C. It’s not as direct and simple of a coercion as you’re imagining, but it’s there. Perfect example: The BP oil spill. Thousands of volunteers flocked to the gulf to help. BP didn’t want their help, they wanted to keep the extent of the damage secret from the public. People tried to go on public beaches where BP was working and the police arrested them at the behest of BP.

    You don’t need a gun to coerce people. A gun is just a crude from of coercion threatening physical pain and death. You can threaten people with other things like their livelihood. The bankers knew this and scared the politicians (many of whom were former bankers themselves) into bailing them out. The idea that governments are the only ones who coerce is too simplistic.

  5. byafi September 18, 2010 at 11:07 am #

    I regret that anything I wrote was taken as a comment on intelligence – no such implication was intended. I hope it was nothing more than failed communication between two widely disparate viewpoints. If it was anything else, I apologize.

    Best regards.

  6. godlesspaladin September 18, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    Ok, no offense taken, just the way I read them came off as little quips, but then again text is notoriously hard to understand tone through.

  7. Greg Christopher September 20, 2010 at 8:55 am #

    I actually couldn’t agree more with your argument, Paladin. Especially the first paragraph, utterly brilliant job taking down the notion of the capitalist taking all the “risk”. You have managed to express the frustration a lot of people feel in a very eloquent manner. I am really impressed.

    I actually think we are all living in a giant economic bubble of sorts. We have removed as many limitations on economic growth as possible, embracing the expansion of the economy as nearly the sole objective of public policy. The consequences for the ecological system have been disasterous. Like the people of Easter Island, we are not making sound long-term choices and we will ultimately pay the piper for those choices unless a way into space is found. Considering we are making near zero attempts to find viable ways to get to other planets and the massive damage we are doing to our own planet, I think our entire civilization will collapse on itself within the next century.

    It is like a train is headed straight towards a solid cliff. Everything we know about the train indicates that it will hit the cliff. But everyone thinks the people on the train will magically invent a way to fly over the cliff. When you look in the train and point out the nobody is working on this as a solution, you are called “crazy”. It is only logical.

    Our attachment to profit and growth at any cost is the main ingredient in this dangerous cocktail. It endangers our very survival. Yet nobody seems to even look out the train windows and see the reality that is taking shape.

  8. godlesspaladin September 20, 2010 at 10:22 am #

    :-\ I’m starting to regret this post. I had a bad gut feeling even when I was writing it. As I’m getting farther into the book, I’m starting to understand what she’s getting at.

  9. Greg Christopher September 21, 2010 at 9:48 am #

    You might be interested in this. I thought it was really insightful.

    http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/09/in-which-mr-deling-responds-to-someone-who-might-be-professor-todd-henderson.html

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