Tag Archives: Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged is Boring and Silly

9 Jan

By Thomas Ultican 1/9/2023

Preparing to fly roundtrip from San Diego to Philadelphia, I pulled Atlas Shrugged from my bookshelf for reading material. I had originally purchased the book for five cents at a Point Loma garage sale in the 1990s but never got around to reading it. While flying, I read about 200 pages of the 1,084 page paperback version. The original published hard cover version was 1,164 pages. For the next few months, I completed the book by reading six pages a day while eating breakfast.

Libertarian politicians Paul Ryan, Ron Johnson and Rand Paul claim Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek and writer-philosopher Ayn Rand as their guiding lights. In 2012, Politico reported, “…, to bring new staffers up to speed, Ryan gives them copies of Hayek’s classic ‘Road to Serfdom’ and Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ — books he says inspires his political philosophy.” Hayek and Rand both subscribed to classical liberalism which means they believed in a political philosophy committed to limited government, the rule of law, individual liberties, and free markets with particular emphasis on property rights.

This knowledge was my underlying motive for reading Atlas Shrugged. I wanted to see for myself who Ayn Rand was and what she was teaching? What was so appealing to these Republican politicians?

Atlas Shrugged got a Chilly Reception

The book is quite odd. It is a romance, a mystery, a pirate story and a science fiction novel all rolled into one. The setting is a factious version of the United States. The endless descriptions of everything the characters were feeling and seeing became quite tedious but reading six pages a day made it readable – barely.

However, I did find the central character of the book, Dagny Taggart, a delight. Dagny is the granddaughter of Nat Taggart the founder of Taggart Continental the largest railroad in America. Dagny’s scumbag brother James becomes the CEO of the railroad but as COO, Dagny is the brilliant leader solving problems and making the trains run on time. She’s a force of nature that intimidates her brother.

Dagny’s three big love affairs are the backbone of the story. Her first lover is Francisco d’Anconia who is the heir to the world’s largest copper mining company out of Argentina. The second affair is with the married steel magnet Henry Reardon the inventor of Reardon steel which is lighter and more durable than conventional steel. Her final great love is John Galt the inventor of an engine that converts static electricity from the air into energy. Dagny never seems concerned about becoming pregnant and doesn’t. In this depiction of dystopian America, Galt is the instigator of an illegal strike by the “men of the mind.”

In the book, these “men of the mind” are continually being attacked by the “moochers” who loot their good works. The book’s title was originally “The Strike”, however the published title Atlas Shrugged came from the text where Francisco d’Anconia asks Henry Reardon what Atlas should do if “the greater [the Titan’s] effort, the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders”. With Reardon unable to answer, d’Anconia gives his own advice: “shrug”. (Atlas Shrugged Pages 131-132)

Rand scholar Mimi Reisel Gladstein wrote about the reaction to Atlas Shrugged. She observed, “Reviewers seemed to vie with each other in a contest to devise the cleverest put-downs; one called it ‘execrable claptrap’, while another said it showed ‘remorseless hectoring and prolixity.”’ The Time magazines review in October 1957 asked,

“Is it a novel? Is it a nightmare? Is it Superman – in the comic strip or the Nietzschean version?

In a delightful take down in the National Review, the man detested by the left for his testimony against Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, scathingly observed,

“Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.”

 “Atlas Shrugged can be called a novel only by devaluing the term.”

Chambers was even less kind when judging Rand’s philosophy stating,

“The Message is the thing. It is, in sum, a forthright philosophic materialism. Upperclassmen might incline to sniff and say that the author has, with vast effort, contrived a simple materialist system, one, intellectually, at about the stage of the oxcart, though without mastering the principle of the wheel.”

Ayn Rand and Associates

Ayn Rand is her pen name. She was born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, to a bourgeois Jewish family in Petrograd, Russia (St. Petersburg today), on 2 February, 1905. She was 12 years old when Lenin and his communist revolution took power which led to great suffering in her immediate family. She was a history major at Petrograd University graduating in 1924. The next year, with her mother’s help, Alissa was able to secure permission to leave Russia and never looked back. 

While working for Cecil B. DeMille in Hollywood, she met actor Frank O’Connor. They were married in 1929 and remained so until he died in 1979. Professionally she was Ayn Rand but to family and friends she was Mrs. Alisa O’Connor. Alisa says Ayn is inspired by a not named Finnish writer and described Rand as an abbreviation of Rosenbaum.

In 1951, she and Frank moved to New York City where they developed an interesting group of friends. Among them were Janet Gaynor, art historian Mary Sures, economists Allen Greenspan, and Ludwig Von Mises.

Austrian economists Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek promoted the classical liberal view of capitalism which attracted Charles Koch. Von Mises was one of the few critics that praised Atlas Shrugged. He declared,

“You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.

“If this is arrogance, as some of your critics observed, it still is the truth that had to be said in the age of the Welfare State.”

Rand’s Message

The whole point of the book is presenting Ayn Rand’s philosophy – Objectivism. It is her creation and the hokum ideological prism through which she viewed the world. It led her in 1964 to declare The Virtue of Selfishness.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims,

“Whereas Rand’s ideas and mode of presentation make Rand popular with many non-academics, they lead to the opposite outcome with academics. She developed some of her views in response to questions from her readers, but seldom took the time to defend them against possible objections or to reconcile them with the views expressed in her novels. Her philosophical essays lack the self-critical, detailed style of analytic philosophy, or any serious attempt to consider possible objections to her views. Her polemical style, often contemptuous tone, and the dogmatism and cult-like behavior of many of her fans also suggest that her work is not worth taking seriously.”

In Atlas Shrugged, it is a struggle between “looters” and the heroic elites who are the root of value creation. The “looters” are proponents of high taxation, big labor, government ownership, government spending, government planning, regulation, and redistribution while her moral paragons are creators from which all economic benefit emanates. The elites are superior beings who should be acknowledged and allowed to run their businesses without interference. It is the ultimate view of laissez-faire capitalism.

In a fascinating 1964 interview with Playboy Magazine, Rand makes some statements that reveal how ridiculous her philosophical views were.

“To begin with, man does not possess any instincts.”

“I believe that taxation should be voluntary…”

“My position is fully consistent. Not only the post office, but streets, roads, and above all, schools, should all be privately owned and privately run. I advocate the separation of state and economics.”

“The disasters of the modern world, including the destruction of capitalism, were caused by the altruist-collectivist philosophy. It is altruism that men should reject.”

In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt uses his scientific genius to hijack the nationwide broadcast addressing the mounting disaster in the country. In his three hour speech which covers more than sixty pages of text in the book, Rand lays out her philosophy. Here are a few quotes,

“There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” (Page 978)

“The doctrine that ‘human rights’ are superior to ‘property rights’ simply means that some human beings have the right to make property out of others; since the competent have nothing to gain from the incompetent, it means the right of the incompetent to own their betters and to use them as productive cattle. Whoever regards this as human and right, has not right to the title of ‘human.’” (Page 986)

“The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except the material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.” (Page 989)

“I swear – by my life and my love of it – that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” (Page 993)

An Observation

Growing up on a ranch in Idaho, I had a grandfather who was an immigrant from Scotland and a staunch Republican. For years, he was a big fan of Senator William Borah and his brother was a fanatical anti-New Dealer. If it were not for the anti-labor stance of the Republicans, I could have been one myself. So what happened in the 1950s that has made this party so anti-common man and pro-elites?

I think it was the right’s embrace of the Austrian economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises along with the sophomoric philosophy of Ayn Rand; hard to see much daylight between their ideas and fascism. Unfortunately, it is an ideology embraced today by too many of America’s political leaders on the right.

Pirates Profiteers and Privatizers

21 Dec

By Thomas Ultican 12/21/2021

Ronald Reagan claimed the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” The new book, The Privatization of Everything, documents the widespread theft of the commons facilitated by Reagan’s anti-government philosophy. His remark echoed a claim from the “laissez-faire cheerleader” Friedrich Hayek that government has us all on the “road to serfdom” (Privatization 120). Sherrilyn Ifill, the former Director-Council of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund observed,

“What we’re seeing in our country today: the rhetoric, the hate, the ignorance, the coarseness, the vulgarity, the cruelty, the greed, the fear is the result of decades of poor citizenship development. It is a reflection of the fully privatized notion of citizenship, a feral conflict for the scraps left by oligarchs (Privatization 13).”

Libertarian politicians like former speaker of the house Paul Ryan and Senators Ron Johnson and Rand Paul claim Hayek and writer-philosopher Ayn Rand as their guiding lights. In a 2012 article, Politico reported, “…, to bring new staffers up to speed, Ryan gives them copies of Hayek’s classic “Road to Serfdom” and Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” — books he says inspires his political philosophy.” Politico also stated,

“But Hayek and Rand were violently opposed to each other’s ideas. It is virtually impossible to hold them in the same brain. When the termagant Rand met Hayek, she screamed across the room, ‘Compromiser!’ and reviled him as an ‘abysmal fool,’ an “ass” and a ‘totally, complete, vicious bastard.’”  (Termagant: a violent, turbulent, or brawling woman.)

Ayn Rand’s problem with Hayek was that he was not really the “laissez-faire cheerleader” he was purported to be. He certainly opposed many of the ideas emanating from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal believing they would lead to worse problems than the ones being addressed. Fundamentally his thinking was shaped by a fear of communism. However, unlike today’s libertarians, he was not opposed to all government programs or interventions and that is what stirred Ayn Rand’s fury.

Robert Nielsen’s 2012 review of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom observes,

“He also calls for social insurance in case of sickness and accident, as well as government assistance after a natural disaster. ‘But there is no incompatibility in principle between the state providing greater security in this way and preservation of individual freedom.’ I think most advocates of Hayek have not read this passage and don’t realise he is not an extremist arguing against all forms of government. Let me repeat this, Hayek is arguing there is a good case for the government to get involved in healthcare, either in the form of universal healthcare or government insurance.”

John Maynard Keynes is thought of as the liberal economist whose theories guided President Roosevelt as he grappled with the great depression. Hayek’s and Keynes’s economic theories were in some ways polar opposites. However, Hayek came to London to work at the School of Economics where he and Keynes who was 16-years his senior became friends. They exchanged several letters concerning Hayek’s works in which Keynes found some agreement.

Chet Yarbrough’s audio book review of The Road to Serfdom states,

“Contrary to a wide perception that John Maynard Keynes (a liberal economist in today’s parlance) denigrated ‘The Road to Serfdom’; Keynes, in fact, praised it.”

“Though Keynes praised ‘The Road to Serfdom’, he did not think Hayek’s economic’ liberalism practical; i.e. Keynes infers that Hayek could not practically draw a line between a safety net for the poor, uninsured-sick, and unemployed (which Hayek endorsed) while denying government intervention in a competitive, laissez-faire economy.”

It is disingenuous to cite the theories of Friedrich Hayek as the justification for privatizing government functions and the commons.

The Privatization of Everything

The Privatization of Everything co-author Donald Cohen is the founder and executive director of In The Public Interest. Co-author Allen Mikaelian is the bestselling author of Metal of Honor and a doctoral fellow in history at American University. Besides the authors’ individual work, the team at In The Public Interest contributed significantly to the book with research and documentation.

Of their intention in writing the book, the authors state,

“Our approach is both idealistic and practical. We want readers to see the lofty values and big ideas behind the creation of public goods, and we want readers to feel empowered to question those values and introduce new ones. We want to help change the conversation, so we can stop talking about ‘government monopolies’ and return to talking about public control over public goods (Privatization 19).

They detail several cases showing the downside of the government being forced to give control over to private business. In this era of human-activity-induced climate change, what has been happening at the National Weather Service (NWS) is instructive.

In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy believed that the US and the Soviet Union could find a field of cooperation in supporting the World Meteorological Organization. As a result, 193 countries and territories all agreed to provide “essential data” on a “free and unrestricted basis.” “Each day, global observations add up to twenty terabytes of data, which is processed by a supercomputer running 77 trillion calculations per second (Privatization 267).”

The book notes, “In the 1990s, at about the same time that forecasting got consistently good, private interests and free-market absolutists started insisting that the NWS and related agencies were ‘competing’ with private enterprise.” Barry Myers, head of AccuWeather was loudly accusing the government of running a “monopoly.” He went to the extreme of calling for the government to get out of the weather predicting business which made no sense since AccuWeather is completely dependent on NWS predictions. (Privatization 268)

After a killer tornado in 2011, NWS employees proposed a smart-phone app to better inform the public. The author’s report, “… this ultimately took a backseat to Myers’s insistence that his AccuWeather apps shouldn’t face ‘unfair’ competition (Privatization 270).” To this day, NWS has no smartphone app.

Weather forecasts are pretty good for up to a week but after that as time passes they become more and more useless. The models for predicting the weather are highly dependent on the preceding day and the farther you get from accurate data for that day the more error invades the predictions. NWS restricts its predictions to a one-week time-frame but AccuWeather and the Weather Channel in order to attract customers provide meaningless 2-week up to 90-days predictions. (Privatization 272)

Extreme weather events are life threatening. The authors state,

“The NWS’s mission includes saving lives. The business model of corporations like AccuWeather includes saving lives of paying customers only (Privatization 273).”

There are many episodes like NWS detailed. In the section on private prisons, we read about such atrocities as the Idaho correctional facility known as the “Gladiator School” (Privatization 140). When detailing the privatization of water we are informed of Nestles CEO, Peter Brabeck stating how extreme it was to believe that “as a human being you should have a right to water (Privatization 54).”

Privatizing Public Education Stabs Democracy in the Heart

The First Public School in America

Boston Latin School was founded April 23, 1635. America’s first public school only accepted boys for their curriculum centered on humanities including the study of Latin and Greek. Its more famous revolutionary-era students were Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin. These revolutionary thinkers who gave America democracy were educated in a public school and would latter agree that free public schools were necessary to a functioning democracy.

When Betsy DeVos was calling for vouchers and charter schools, she was implicitly demanding public dollars support religious schools that would not accept transgender students or homosexual teachers. She wanted schools free to teach a doctrine of science denial and religious bigotry. “Freedom of choice in this case meant the freedom to discriminate, with the blessing of public funds (Privatization 210).”

One of the several disturbing stories about the menace of privatizing schools comes from Reynolds Lake Oconee, Georgia. Wealthy real estate developer Mercer Reynolds III made a charter school the center of his community development. The charter school application called for 80% of the children to come from Reynolds properties. The other 12% would go to students in nearby wealthy white communities and the remaining 8% would go to countywide residents. (Privatization 211-212)

With a mix of taxpayer and private funding, Reynolds built an impressive school. It had a piano lab with 25 pianos, a pond and offered 17 AP classes. The school is 73% white. The nearby public school that is 68% black and would never dream of a piano lab has seen the Reynolds school continually siphon off more of their students. They have been forced into laying-off staff and tightening budgets. (Privatization 212)

Cohen and Mikaelian concluded,

“This was a clear-cut case of rich whites diverting money from struggling black families in order to further push them to the margins. And they used the ideas of school choice and free market to justify it.

As the book makes clear, every time a public good is privatized the public loses some of their democratic rights over that lost good. This is a powerful book that everyone should read. In the last chapter the authors call out to us,

“We can’t let private interests sell us public goods as consumers, because the free market can’t avoid creating exclusions. School choice quickly devolves into segregation. Public parks and highways are divided into general versus premium services. In the midst of a notional health crisis, ventilators go to the highest bidder.”