Tag Archives: atlas shrugged

Where are the Hank Reardens?

25 Jul

I’ve read Atlas Shrugged. In the book the business owners are portrayed as hard working honest people who want to add value to the world through their labor. They create wealth through their labors. They raise up themselves and those around them through hard work.

Where are those honest good business leaders? I look around and all I see is unrestricted corporate greed at the expense of others for short term gain. The entire financial sector is built of white collar crime as a business model. Many fortune 500 companies get away with negative tax rates while taking advantage of publicly educated workers, publicly funded roads, firefighters, and police. Executive pay is through the roof and workers are getting shafted.

One of the latest and clearest examples is Catepillar corporation. Catepillar makes hydraulic construction equipment. Times are tough and Catepillar has decided to freeze all of their worker’s pay for six years, including their pensions. So for the next six years, worker’s wages will remain flat, regardless of the increase in gas/food/housing/education/you name it costs. Consequently, the amount workers will take home for their savings after living expenses are taken care off will plummet.

But times are tough, what are you going to do right? Except they’re not. Times are great! You know how much Catepillar made last year in profits? Not revenue, profits.

4.9 Billion dollars.

You know how much they’re on track to make this year in profits?

6 Billion dollars.

Catepillar is rolling in money. They have money up to their eyeballs, but no, the workers need to take a pay freeze for six years to help keep costs down. That includes the CEO too right? Hahahahahaha, you’re joking right? Pay freezes are only for little people like the workers that make the company run.

Douglas Oberhelman, the CEO of Catepillar was given a 60% pay increase over the course the year. He now makes $17 Million Dollars a year.

But I’m sorry, the little people need to tighten their belts during these great times.

Where are the Hank Reardens? Where are these virtuous business owners? Where are the CEOs that want to make the world a better place by enriching themselves AND those who help them create wealth?

Instead it seems that the current business model is to leech as much out of society as possible, to squeeze your workers for every possible ounce of productivity you can get out of them while paying them the absolute minimum you can get away with. When workers fight for an decent pay it’s class warfare, when corporations screw them out of every penny possible, it’s business.

 

Atlas Shrugged, my conclusion

27 Sep

I finished the book a few days ago and have been delaying writing this post ever since. It’s a lot to think over, and to be honest I’m afraid to criticize parts of it for what people might say.

When I first started reading the book I was not all that interested, though by the end I was unable to sleep until I finished it. There were a couple of things that really resonated with me:

  • A is A, there is an objective reality indifferent to our needs, wants, and wishes. I’ve written a few posts in the past detailing my frustration with people, politicians, and pastors who don’t seem to understand this fact. Throughout the book I wanted to strangle the people who shouted at Dagny (one of the main characters) to just “fix it.” “How do you suppose I do that?” “I don’t know! Just do it! It’s you’re job!” I am reminded of the story of King Canute who stood on the shore and commanded the tide not to come in.
  • Rand’s view on original sin and morality. I’m attracted to her morality of reason, though I’m not sure I fully comprehend it yet. (It’s buried in a 3 hour long speech by John Galt towards the end of the book. I understand how the argument is constructed, it’s just that there is so much to take in, I’m having to read it over and over again to digest it). What really struck me was the portion talking about the abomination that is “original sin”:

“A sin without volition (choice) is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If a man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral. To hold, as a man’s sin, a fact not open to his choice is a mockery of morality. To hold a man’s nature as his sin is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of justice. To hold him guilty in a matter where no innocence exists is a mockery of reason. To destroy morality, nature, justice, and reason by means of a single concept is a feat of evil hardly to be matched. Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but has a ‘tendency’ to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.”

I resent how the mystics (read religious) try and make everything pleasurable a sin. Happiness is a sin. Your existence is a sin. Your very nature and the tools you need to survive are sins.

“They have cut man in two, setting one half against the other. they have taught him that his body and his consciousness are two enemies engaged in deadly conflict, two antagonists of opposite natures, contradictory claims, incompatible needs, that to benefit one is to injure the other, that his soul belongs to a supernatural realm, that his body is an evil prison holding it in bondage to this earth – and that the good is to defeat his body, to undermine it by years of patient struggle, digging his way to that glorious jail-break which leads into the freedom of the grave.”

The part of Rand’s objectivist morality that I’m struggling with is where altruism fits in. Rand makes it pretty clear in the book that sacrifice to your detriment is evil, yet is altruism a forml sacrifice?

“If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve a career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor’s child and let your own die, it is. If you give money to help a friend, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to a worthless stranger, it is. If you give your friend a sum of money you can afford, it is not a sacrifice; if you give him money at the cost of your own discomfort, it is only a partial virtue [read as evil]…if you give him money at the cost of disaster to yourself – that is the greatest of the virtues [evils] you can practice.

What about the human instinct to help your fellow man? Is that just a false construct resulting from a twisted morality? The part that I get hung up on is the term “worthless stranger”. It’s ok to help a friend, but not a “worthless” stranger. What’s the difference between a stranger and a “worthless” stranger? What’s the difference between a stranger and a friend? Knowledge and approval of the other person? Is it wrong to give money to charity? If you can afford it, I think not, if you can’t, then it is wrong. There is a part in the book where Dagny, the multimillionaire railroad tycoon, finds a bum hitching a ride on her train. The conductor is about to throw him off the train and into the desert (where the bum will most likely die) but Dagny stops him and invites the bum in for dinner. That was a form of charity. Dagny could afford it, she didn’t know the man, he was a stranger, and by all accounts “worthless”, whatever that means.

This book also impacted my views in 2 other ares: The rich, and taxes. To be honest, before I read this book I hated the rich. I resented them. They have something I don’t. They are able to do things I can’t. I viewed their wealth as some kind of evidence for their immorality. They must have done something evil to get all that money, that or they just inherited it without effort. In light of this book I’m a bit ashamed of that view, but you live and learn. I know see them not as evil, but people who are enjoying the rewards of their effort. They are something to look up to and emulate. Well, some of them. One of the things I noticed in the book is that all the rich people where honest, honorable, hardworking, intelligent people. If they gave you their word, they kept it. Unfortunately, in real life, these people are hard to come by. How would Rand view the dishonest businessman, the one who gains his wealth through fraud and deceit? These men certainly do exist. Would Rand just view them as another form of looter, dependent on the work of others for their survival?

Secondly, I understand and agree with another main point of the book: need does not constitute right. Just because you need something, doesn’t mean you have the right to take it. Governments need money to operate. That doesn’t mean they have the right to take it in the form of taxes. (And they do take it ultimately at the point of a gun. If you refuse to pay your taxes you go to jail. If you refuse to go to jail, men with guns show up at your house and take you there in chains) Before I saw no problem with the income tax, now I see it as a penalty for productivity, which is one of the highest goods. Before I agreed with progressive taxation, but now I’m starting to see it as way of penalizing those who do well. ( A month ago I would have slapped you if you told me I’d ever utter that sentence…)

The problem is that I don’t see a viable alternative. There are things that a community….needs….*shudder*, that taxes are the only viable means to supply them. What exactly is the role of government? “To protect the people”…though that has certain Orwellian undertones. To protect individual rights, property, and lives. Does that sound ok? Well what would that entail? A fire department, police force, and military obviously, with roads necessary for them to get around. What about a post office? What about Medicare and social security? In the book, the economy was going to hell and the government kept trying to fix it by slapping on more and more regulations, attempting to micromanage every industry. I find that kind of regulation ridiculous, but I think some regulation is necessary. When? Well when it’s necessary to protect property and lives. What do I mean by that? Well I approve of government regulated building standards, highway safety standards, sanitation standards, measurement standards, things of that nature.

What I’m really curious to know is what Rand would have thought about global warming. It is a fact of reality that we are drastically impacting the nature of our environment for the negative. A is A and no amount of wishing or political speak will change this. The problem is too massive to be handled on a business by business level, it has to be national and global. If few businesses are willing to alter their practices to help avert disaster, is it right for the government to step in and force them? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m looking at the problem the wrong way. People effect change by how they spend their money, is there a way to encourage them to spend their money in such a way that businesses will naturally change course? I don’t know.

Lastly, I wanted to address Rand’s view of higher education. In the book she repeatedly slams colleges and professors. In Atlas Shrugged colleges are where students go to be told what to think. The entire education system revolves around tearing away a child’s ability to think and reason in favor for giving him/her pre-decided upon ideas. I don’t know what college was like during Rand’s time, but having just graduated from the higher education system, I can say that’s definitely not what it was like for me. College is supposed to be where you learn how to think, not what to think, as portrayed in Rand’s book. Do colleges like the ones Rand described exist? SURE! I went to college right down the road from one, “Liberty” “University”, a place with the perfect Orwellian doublespeak name. In real life, real universities are engines of innovation, the same as the rich in Rand’s novel were engines of innovation. Universities that teach students how to think are innovators, universities that teach students what to think aren’t. (case in point: “Liberty” is not a place of innovation)

That’s pretty much all I can think to say on the topic for now. A friend suggested I check out the works of Virginia Postrel for the answers to some of my questions, so I think I’m going to do that. In the meantime I took the world’s smallest political quiz to see where I stand and got this result:

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.

Adventures in libertarianism

5 Sep

I do not consider myself a libertarian, but admittedly I know very little about  libertarianism. In an effort to broaden my horizons and examine other view points, I’ve decided to examine libertarianism and see how it sits with me. I’m starting off with “Atlas Shrugged”. I hope to go through the book over the next few days. I know I have plenty of friends who are libertarian, so if you have any other book suggestions let me know. 🙂 Hopefully when I’m done I can write a conclusion post summing up what I’ve learned and my reactions.

Cheers,

-GP