Thursday, March 12, 2009

Is Atlas Shrugging?

[WARNING; Anyone who has not read but may be interested in reading Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged should take note that the links provided below contain plot spoilers.]

It is not uncommon for investors, entrepreneurs, businessmen, and other producers to respond to economic dis-incentives imposed by their government by altering or reducing their behaviors so as to minimize the damage to themselves and their goals. Shifting wealth from productive ventures to tax shelters, delaying or reducing income and work, or simply avoiding business expansions or start-ups are common in periods of excessive taxation or overbearing government regulation.

These types of actions are usually taken for practical economic reasons based upon the expected return on work, time, and investment. When government policy reduces the return on productive work, there is less of it.

But is there is a new force…a moral-philosophical element…emerging in American culture that is giving added impetus to the age-old response of producers to rising statism? I hinted at the tantalizing prospect of “a new cultural force emerging behind this capital strike.”

In a recent appearance on Fox News’s Neil Cavuto show, Michelle Malkin described a phenomenon that surfaced just before the election. Producers, she said, are going on strike in large ways and small. Her mailbox, she says, is inundated with letters from people telling her they are doing just that. She linked this phenomenon directly to Atlas Shrugged. The New York Times reports that “Michelle Malkin is the Norma Rae” of this “movement”, dubbed “Going Galt”. Who is Going Galt? Lisa Schiffren tells us who they are:

The doctors, lawyers, engineers, executives, serious small-business owners, top salespeople, and other professionals and entrepreneurs who make this country run work considerably harder than pretty much anyone else (including most of the chattering class, and all politicians). They are not robber barons, or trust-fund babies, or plutocrats, or even celebrities. They are mostly the meritocrats who worked hard in high school and got into the better colleges and grad schools, where they studied while others partied. They pushed through grueling hours and unpleasant "up or out" policies in their twenties and thirties at top law firms, banks, hospitals, and businesses to earn salaries in the solid six figures (or low seven) today — in their peak earning years. Their work ethic is prodigious, and, as Tigerhawk points out, in their spare time they sit on the boards of most of the complex charities and arts institutions that provide aid and pay for culture in America. No group of people contribute more to their community. And now the president, who followed a path sort of like that, and who claims that his wife's former six-figure income was a result of precisely such qualifications and efforts, is demonizing them. More problematically, he is penalizing their success and giving them very clear incentives to ratchet back on productivity.

Among other attributes, Atlas Shrugged provides a moral sanction for the success of productive individuals at all levels of competence and intelligence. It is not a glorification of money-chasing at any cost, as the dishonest and misinformed would have us believe. Rather, it is the glorification of productive achievement…the real source of the value of money…and all of the personal virtues that that implies. Atlas dramatizes the value to society of the top tier of producers, and demonstrates that the virtues of the most productive wealth creators are practical for all. Those virtues include rationality, independent thinking, honesty, and integrity, to name a few of the cardinal virtues of Rand’s philosophy.

Are more and more of America’s top tier getting the message that they have a moral right to their earnings, and that the political class has no right to redistribute it to pay for anyone’s bailout or needs? Is the fledgling “strike” alluded to by Investor's business Daily and Malkin being driven not just by economic calculations but by moral rage? If so, all bets are off on normal economic analysis of the future direction of the economy. Is this what the stock market is picking up on?

It is, of course, impossible to gauge the full scope of the impact that the ideas in Atlas are having on the current turbulent times. No movement can succeed without a firm philosophical base, and I don’t want to overstate the case. How well the deep philosophical principles enunciated by Rand in her novel are actually understood is the $64,000 question. But we are in uncharted territory here, and Atlas has the potential to short-circuit the strong statist trend of today before it can reach its inevitable logical climax depicted in Atlas Shrugged.

One thing is for sure. The penetration in the culture of the anti-statist, anti-collectivist, pro-capitalist, pro-individualist principles dramatized in the novel is accelerating. An Ayn Rand Institute press release announced that sales of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged are surging. According to the Institute:

Washington, D.C., February 23, 2009--Sales of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” have almost tripled over the first seven weeks of this year compared with sales for the same period in 2008. This continues a strong trend after bookstore sales reached an all-time annual high in 2008 of about 200,000 copies sold.

Americans are flocking to buy and read ‘Atlas Shrugged’ because there are uncanny similarities between the plot-line of the book and the events of our day…Ayn Rand understood and identified the deeper causes of the crisis we’re facing, and she offered, in ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ a principled and practical solution consistent with American values.

In January, Amazon reports that the sales rank of Atlas actually exceeded Barack Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” on at least one day. In what may be a symbolic harbinger, this occurred in the very month of the inauguration of our “historic” president. Sales are likely being propelled not only by grassroots word of mouth (the traditional driving force) but by a growing chorus of prominent voices pointing to the profound relevance of this 52 year old masterpiece. Glenn Beck, Tom Smith, Frank Beckmann, Tammy Bruce, and Rush Limbaugh (story #3) have all pointed out on their shows the strong parallels between the plot in the novel and today’s events. Bank giant BB@T’s Chairman John Allison called the Atlas Shrugged villains “straight out of today’s New York Times”.

Steven Moore, senior economics writer for The Wall Street Journal editorial page, wrote in an article in that newspaper entitled ‘Atlas Shrugged’: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years;

Many of us who know Rand's work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that "Atlas Shrugged" parodied in 1957, when this 1,000-page novel was first published and became an instant hit.

This sales surge is particularly impressive given the deeply philosophical nature of this nearly 1200 page book. From Washington, D.C., to Abu Dhabi (UAE), Ayn Rand is emerging as a significant factor in the pro-free market forces’ struggle to push back against the rising tide of statism sweeping the world.

Barack Obama tells us that he wants to champion the “bottom 95%” by targeting the most productive 5%. But without the jobs we fill, the tools we work with, the job skills we are taught, and the products and services we buy with our earnings, there would be no 95% to champion. Those things do not just drop in out of thin air. Someone creates them. Without those who step up to convert innovative ideas and theoretical science into the values that enrich our lives, the 95%…including the highly productive middle class from which the creators emerge…would collapse.

The unfolding national drama is about much more than a few percentage points added to the income tax or some specific regulatory policy. What we are witnessing is a wholesale rejection of the American principles of individual self-determination and limited government in favor of an explicit turn towards the collectivist ideologies that have always led to economic despair and political tyranny. At the same time, we are seeing growing awareness of the philosopher who holds the antidote to those forces. It is to soon to tell how this emerging battle will play out.

The phenomenon of the creators pulling back by conscious, philosophical choice…“going Galt”…adds a new dimension to the latest statist upsurge in America. How decisive this will be is, of course, unknown at this point. But if it continues to gather momentum, it has the potential to focus America’s attention on its premier philosophical defender…Ayn Rand. That attention could not come too soon. The political/cultural debate polarizing America today must switch from concrete issues to the basic moral—philosophical arena of ideas that underlie it, if capitalism is to be saved.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan’s reluctant Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto famously fretted "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant." Perhaps the Obama Socialist attack against America and its ideals has also awakened a slumbering giant—Atlas.


Sue said...

The parallels to today from this book are eerily too close to home.

I do hope they don't butcher the book if they do make it into a movie

Mike Zemack said...

Agreed. Rand understood that the fundamental ideas that dominate a culture have predictable political, societal, and economic consequences.

The movie release has been pushed back to 2011, I read. It has been "in the works" for some 30 years. But you're correct. It has to be done right...a tough task.