Book #1 of 2013 – “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

As part of my trying to diversify my writing on the blog, I thought I might start commenting on books that I read. So, without further ado, here’s the first! (Note: I’m actually on the fourth book of the year but am playing catch-up.)

Atlas Shrugged is, in my opinion, probably one of the most iconic (and controversial) books out there. From what I’ve seen, people read it and generally either consider it gospel or blasphemy. Many tout it as a warning of how interventionism and central planning will be the downfall of our modern economy, and perhaps society in general. I actually found myself in the middle of the road, albeit with a decided lean.

One the one hand, I see some logic in Rand’s obvious belief in free capitalism. Markets can only work when the values of goods and services are allowed to set themselves according to demand, not by the whims of planners. Governments bailing out failed businesses (“Too Big To Fail”?) at the expense of taxpayers and more successful ones seems to encourage mediocrity and rampant speculation. Look no further than our current situation, where those who patiently save and practice frugality are punished by record low interest rates, while the traders who throw piles of money at the market reap huge profits. And when they make poor choices (can anyone honestly say that investing in mortgages where the holders’ incomes weren’t even verified is a prudent decision?) and suffer, here comes the almighty Fed and the U.S. government to help them out. As a result we have a ballooning debt and a stagnant economy. I’m not an economist so I certainly can’t pretend to say all this is exactly what Rand foretold, but the similarities are striking.

Taking the opposite side, I believe firmly that what Rand describes is really more of an ideal than reality. If all corporations were honest, and all workers fairly treated (and by that I mean paid what their work is worth, and not made to work under dangerous conditions – at least not unwillingly), then sure, we could have a totally free market with no regulation. That not being the case, there has to be some allowance for governments or regulatory bodies to oversee things and ensure that people are not defrauded or placed in danger. Without unions, coal miners or high rise construction workers might still be working under horrific conditions (Lunch atop a Skyscraper anyone?). Having only read one of her books I can’t say for sure, but I have a suspicion Rand might well (at least partially) agree with me. In the famous “John Galt speech” (which yes, those of you who know what I mean, I read the whole thing), there’s this little tidbit:

The only proper purpose of government is to protect rights; a government’s only proper functions are: the police; the armed forces; and the courts, to settle disputes by objective law.

If there are laws prohibiting children under a certain age from working, or requiring that workers are protected with basic safety measures, and a corporation fails to follow those, then the government has every right to lay sanctions upon them. Or if a company turns out to have defrauded folks out of their money (though in many cases I’d argue that defrauding should be defined quite narrowly – if you foolishly invest your money without understanding where you’re putting it, shame on you), they should be made to give it back.

Naturally things like this are all part of a larger continuum, where conditions swing from one end to another in a cyclical fashion. Things go too far down one path, and we are forced to make hard course corrections. I think history has generally shown that human kind is fairly clueless at recognizing when our path has drifted to far to one side, and as a result we generally defer dealing with reality until it hits us squarely in the jaw. My psychology background has also taught me that there are a lot of reasons why we generally make poor decisions, most of which we are completely unaware of. Hopefully Rand’s tale turns out to be more of a cautionary one, rather than a stark look at the future of our society.