Caroline Baum of Bloomberg reviews and explains the upcoming movie based on Ayn Rand’s blockbuster novel, Atlas Shrugged. The book, published in 1957, is historical fiction about the expropriation of industry in the massive expansion of governmental power and influence during the New Deal. Rand uses the New Deal historical narrative (from the perspective of industrialists) as scaffolding for explicating her Objectivist philosophy. Here’s an excerpt of Baum’s column:
Fans of the book, 7 million and counting, may not notice or
care [about the casting]. They’ll get chills, as I did, when Dagny’s new railroad
line, the John Galt Line, makes its first run on tracks made of
Rearden metal, a new alloy created by fellow industrialist Hank
Rearden that threatens to put steel producers out of business.
The government tries to scare the public by fabricating
stories about the dangers of the new metal. Defiant, Dagny and
Hank man the train’s locomotive as it speeds across the Colorado
landscape, over the new Reardon bridge made from, of course,
Above all, the movie is faithful to Rand’s philosophy,
which is known as objectivism: the idea that reality is
objective. Or, as encapsulated by Galt in a 60-page monologue
near the end of the book, “A is A.”
It occurred to me as I read the column that John Galt, the fictional industrialist who turns his back on all that he had accomplished because the government expropriated his efforts, became something of Albert Jay Nock’s superfluous man. Nock used the term several times in describing himself in his memoirs, aptly titled, The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man.
What is a superfluous man? It is a man existing in this modern age that is not consumed with what Nock termed economism, “which interprets the whole sum of human life in terms of the production, acquisition and distribution of wealth”. Nock, however, was no apologist for capitalists, such as was Rand. He considered them nothing more than the most sagacious of the mass-men, leaders of the breed of men for whom existence resolves to satisfying the hunger in their bellies and the yearnings in their loins, who is “gifted with a low sagacity employable upon anything which bears upon the conduct of those two functions”. Nock saw that these titans of capitalism in most cases owed their titular economic success to having acquired control over the levers of the state. He saw the burgeoning socialistic movement of the early twentieth century as simply trading one group of mass-men (the rich mass-men) for another (the poorer mass-men); that so long as the state had the powers of awarding economic advantage, no matter who controlled the state, there could not be freedom, or in Nock’s words:
None of the reformers proposed reducing the State’s power to distribute economic advantage; on the contrary, every one of their principal measures tended to increase it. Therefore, when all came to all, I could not see that these measures ultimately contemplated anything more than prying the State’s machinery out of the rich mass-man’s control, and turning it over to the poor mass-man. I could imagine no benefit accruing to society from that.
I believe Nock would have granted Galt a pass from condemnation as simply a rich mass-man, but only because Galt turned his back on his enterprise when it became clear that he would not be allowed to operate it for his own profit.
Rand defends the industrialists too well in Atlas Shrugged, and in so doing, misses Nock’s point that the conflict over who controls the power of awarding economic advantage is irrelevant. The conflict should be over the very existence of those powers. Which explains how Alan Greenspan could be an Ayn Rand acolyte yet also be the board chairman of the state organization most capable of awarding economic advantage without suffering any paralyzing internal conflict. Greenspan never moved to limit the powers of the US Federal Reserve, but instead zealously protected them, creating a neo-Fascist financial system in the process. So far as Greenspan was concerned, the state was fine, as long as the right hands controlled its powers to award economic advantage. The Greenspan Put benefited the right people, so it was a judicious and wise use of state power.
No matter what Rand might have thought otherwise, Atlas Shrugged is not a diatribe against awarding economic advantage through state sanction. It is a diatribe against granting the State’s power to award economic advantage to mass-men that individually didn’t have the capabilities of her admired capitalists. Rand (and her most prominent acolyte, Greenspan) was perceived to believe in free market capitalism as an outgrowth of her objectivism. The perception could not be further from the truth. All Rand believed was that men of great ability should not be limited by the state, but should be aided by the state in their profitable exploitation of the masses. Rand was very close to Nietzsche’s Superman ethic in her exaltation of men of great abilities.
It seems Rand has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in popularity of late, as Obama’s poor mass-men swept into office and began confiscating wealth and power from Bush’s coterie of rich mass-men. But really, all Rand stands for is that rich mass-men are better at exercising the State power of granting economic advantage than are poor mass-men. Nobody, not even the Tea Party activists, wishes to rescind (Tea Party and Republican protestations to the contrary) or substantially limit the ability of the state to award economic advantage. (I use “state” in its most expansive sense, as any entity exercising governmental power).