Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Ayn Rand’s Road to Serfdom (Part II)
The plot of Atlas Shrugged occurs against the background of Friedrich Hayek's scenario. The biggest departure is that Ayn Rand never bothers to bring in a formal dictator. Even this can be seen as an astute adaption of Hayek. For Hayek the creation of a Hitler, while the endpoint, is really incidental to the whole process. The real work of Fascism was not done by the Nazis, but by the mainstream German left and right decades before. Tyranny does not corrupt the free society, but is the incidental byproduct of the corrupted free society.
In the novel the two main characters, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, are businesspeople trying to succeed against a government and a society following Hayek's downward trajectory. Dagny works in railroads and is trying to build a new line in Colorado, the state with the fewest government regulations and the most robust economy. Hank is trying to market his new "Rearden Steel." Dagny and Hank form a business relationship (and start sleeping together) with Hank providing Dagny with Rearden Steel and Dagny providing Hank the opportunity to showcase to the world what Rearden Steel can do. The problem for Dagny and Hank is that the United States which they live in is dominated by the notion that private businesses should be run in such a way as to advance "the public interest." Dagny and Hank are unaware of this change in the culture and its implications for them. They are both people consumed with pursuing their own particular interests (with almost Asperger like dedication), who assume that everyone thinks like they do. This is not the case with Dagny's brother, James Taggart, and Hank's chief competitor, Orren Boyle, who embrace this new public minded spirit and, instead of working on their businesses, devote themselves to working the corridors of Washington in service of this "public interest."
In the name of public interest James gets an "anti-dog-eat-dog rule," to limit "destructive" competition and drive his chief competitor out of business. Next, James and Boyle get an "Equalization of Opportunity Bill" passed with the help of Wesley Mouch, Hank's lobbyist, who betrays his employer. The Equalization of Opportunity Bill is a laundry list of regulations designed to serve the "public interest," but which descends into favors for special interests at the expense of someone else. The railroad unions want fewer cars to be run on each train and a lower speed limit to give more hours to workers. James, in the spirit of public mindedness, gives in to this demand when he is given a break from paying back the bonds bought by the investors Dagny brought aboard. Hank is stopped from moving his business to Colorado in order that jobs not be lost, but a limit is also placed on how much he can produce in order that other less fortunate people, like Boyle, are given a chance.
With the help of people like James Taggart and Orren Boyle, Wesley Mouch is able to become the Senior Coordinator of the Bureau of Economic Planning and Natural Resources, an unelected official with almost dictatorial power over the country. He rules through an unholy alliance of special interests, from James and Orren to Fred Kinnon of Amalgamated Labor and Dr. Floyd Ferris of the State Science Institute. Together they pass Directive 10-289, which shifts the logic of the Equalization of Opportunity Bill from corrupt meddlesome government to State Fascism. Everyone must work for the public benefit; anyone who does not is not just selfish, but a criminal. All businesses must produce the same amount as pre-depression times. Workers must work the same amount of hours and at the same pay as they did before. No one is allowed to leave their job without special permission from the "Unification Board." Everyone must spend the same amount of money as they did in previous years. There is even a rule against new books being published (including books that might be critical of these policies) so that authors whom the public had yet to read could be given a chance.
In the spirit of Hayek, Rand is most effective when confronting the issue whose public interest is at stake and the consequences of accepting unstated philosophical premises. Some of the best scenes in the book are when the various villains wave the banner of "public interest," a term that Rand turns into a curse word by the end of the book. The villains, to great comic effect, sit down and try negotiate, between themselves, which of the many "worthy" public interests need to be considered and who should have to be sacrificed in the name of the public interest. Finally there are the moments when these characters have to face up to the true consequences of their abandonment of firm moral principles for pragmatism. For example, James Taggart finds himself yelling about the sacredness of a contract, when the labor union controlled Unification Board makes him the sacrifice to their public interest, only to realize that he was the one who destroyed the value of a contract when he sacrificed his investors by not paying them for the bonds.
The crucial difference between Hayek and Rand, where Rand goes off the train tracks to become Rand, is that for Hayek this scenario is a tragedy put into place by intelligent people, who had all the right intentions. If Hayek attacked Fascism (the socialism of the right), he also was defending German culture, essentially telling his English audience: we Germans did this not because we had any natural disposition to tyrannical rule or for mindlessly obeying orders. Our liberal tradition was as good as yours if not better. We fell because we so desired for the government to advance the public interest and turned to this ideal several decades before you did. Both the left and the right accepted this until between these two forces there were no honest liberals left. If these ideas came from the left, it was the German right that truly embraced them and took them to their logical and murderous conclusions.
For Rand, the problem is not just the notion that government should act for the public interest, but that people should try acting for the good of others in the first place. Thus, in the novel, there is no spirit of tragedy, or even tragic-comedy, in which good people are brought down by the unforeseen consequences of their strengths. On the contrary, there are simply moral degenerates, who fail to live according to Objectivist values of selfishness, and therefore deserve their fates. This is played out in Rand's solution to the problems faced by her heroes. She has them join John Galt and his followers in their "strike of the mind" as they attempt to bring down the entire economy even at the expense of allowing millions of people to die of starvation. For Rand, the true villains are not Mouch and his cronies in Washington, but the millions of people who honestly believed in doing good for others and thought they were doing that by supporting Mouch's economic planning. This point is most clearly made in one particular scene in which Rand sets up a major train crash in a Taggart tunnel. Before the accident occurs, Rand offers vignettes of different anonymous people on the train about to die, including a mother with her children who had always been hostile to the rich and assumed that government regulations would only harm them. The message is that these people, including women and children, were responsible for this state of affairs and deserved to die. The heroes are those, like John Galt, who can sit back with a lit cigarette (the groups special kind, featuring the symbol of the dollar) and allow society to crumble.
Following Hayek, I recognize and honor the good intentions and intelligence of those who support government control over the economy in the name of the public good. The fact that this is a path to the destruction of liberty, takes nothing away from this. On the contrary, it makes it a tragedy to be stopped and, failing that, to be mourned for. If a libertarian society is ever going to succeed it will do so ultimately because people are willing to work for the greater good and are willing to do so even without the government whip. For me, Libertarianism is not the rejection of public responsibility it is the opportunity to finally embrace it.