I read Atlas Shrugged when I was 12. Took me about five days. I then proceeded to get into a big fight with my mother because she couldn’t understand why a 12-year-old should be allowed to go find a job, live on her own, and eschew dealing with her younger brothers, who “weren’t pulling their own weight". (I still don’t know how my mother made it through my childhood.)
I’ve re-read Atlas Shrugged many times since then, although I usually skip the interminable “A-is-A” John Galt speech. I always wanted to make it, and The Lord of the Rings, into movies. Unfortunately, Peter Jackson beat me to the latter. Some bunch of crazy people beat me to the former, but I have no doubts the rights to the book will be free again sometime soon, and I can hire Peter Jackson to make that movie, too. Because that’s where Atlas Shrugged belongs: in books, in movies, in your imagination … but not as the blueprint for your governmental policy. If it is, can I ask you this: does Sauron also figure large in your defense strategy?
My point: There is a difference between pure intellectualism and pragmatism. Between imagination and its application. No one impugns inspiration, but it means nothing if it cannot solve the problems at hand, whether they are artistic problems, or problems in government.
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is lionized as a “deep thinker” for having thought about the current Federal budget deficit and looming debt. He has proposed an Ayn Rand-style budget to address the issue, one that reduces spending as a percentage of GDP and returns us to balance some time around 2034 – a generation away. This ballyhooed proposal was symbolically passed by the Republican-controlled House as their “budget,” despite the fact that it has as much relationship to the real world as Atlas Shrugged. And then used as the basis for grandstanding about the “do-nothing” Democratic members of Congress. But isn’t doing something wrong, just to say you did it … just wrong? Frankly, it even violates the core of Rand’s Objectivist principals.
The fallacy in Ryan’s budget is similar to the fallacy in Rand’s book: we’re not operating in a vacuum. As much as we like to think success or failure belongs solely to ourselves, there are mitigating circumstances – including just plain old luck – and the inescapable fact that we live in a network of human beings who contribute in positive and negative ways to our well-being every single day. Even small contributions on the positive side can add up to big wins. In the book, the world collapses after all the “real” workers (all fabulously successful and wealthy) go hide in a 1950’s version of a Montana militia camp. The book ends joyously as Dagny and John head back out the world to “fix” everything. Rand cleverly omits the part where the lazy-asses who were left behind turn on these shiny smarty-pants and eat them, then take over their militia camp. Humans just don’t give up that easily, and frankly, in harsh circumstances, the intellectuals are the first to be culled from the herd.
Similarly, Ryan achieves his budget goals by slashing entitlement programs and severely reducing Federal support for the individual states, despite the fact that the state governments that are not wrestling with their own deficits are few and far between. He also imagines that money will flow in, without actually creating any new sources of revenue – raising taxes is a non-starter for him. Like Rand, he somehow assumes that the lazy masses who don’t deserve Federal support (including the states!) are just going to meekly go away. When in fact, they’ll probably eat him, and his cute family, too.
IMHO, Ryan would be a true hero if he actually looked at the facts - there’s a chart of the impact of the Bush tax cuts here (although missing the resulting economic growth it generated, because there wasn’t any) – and then made a balanced proposal, acknowledging the fact that the “real” workers aren’t all confined to the moneyed classes. You can still be a conservative and advocate for a progressive tax strategy, Paul. You know Norquist is an idiot, stand up and tell him that. Say it came from John Galt, who always spits the truth.
Roman Catholic Ryan recently publically repudiated Atlas Shrugged after Catholic bishops called his budget “immoral.” He did this after years of giving away the book as his standard holiday gift. Maybe the ghost of Ayn Rand, who accepted help from Social Security and possibly Medicare near the end of her life, also got to him.
Mitt Romney’s pick of Ryan for his V.P. has generated much hoopla from both ends of the political spectrum over the past 24 hours. Conservatives view him as a hero. Less-conservatives and liberals view him as an easy target. Me, I view him as the smart 12-year-old who never really got over Atlas Shrugged. Maybe I should have my mom call him.
Photo of Atlas from Natural History Museum, London, in honor of the Olympics.