Paul Krugman makes the following observation about Atlas Shrugged:

After all, what is Atlas Shrugged really about? Leave aside the endless speeches and bad sex scenes. What you’re left with is the tale of how a group of plutocrats overthrow a democratically elected government with a campaign of economic sabotage.

As it happens, I watched the third and final movie recently, which has it fresh on my mind. As I watched it, the phrase “economic terrorism” came to mind, with regard to Galt’s tactics. The book does attempt to establish the moral basis for what it’s doing, with the pirate only sinking ships of ill-gotten gains and Wyatt and d’Anconia destroying what was theirs to destroy. From a certain vantage point – Rand’s – doing anything else out of kindness or decency would have been the self-treachery of living for another man.

Nonetheless, I found Wyatt’s actions distasteful, and it was something I never quite got over and never could square with my most libertarian of instincts.

That being said, Krugman’s argument here is even more of a stretch than Jonathan Last’s seminal piece in defense of the empire from Star Wars. Even from a liberal prospective, and no matter how much one disagrees with Galt’s (and Rand’s) solution, the democratically elected government of Atlas Shrugged was rotten to the core.

That touches on a comment I made from a previous post on the book:

By far, the most surprising thing to me – perhaps the only really surprising thing – was the extent to which the villains were roughly as wealthy and individually powerful as the heroes. The poor were the hordes at the gate, but collectively a villain in the background. The bigger villains were corrupt businesspeople, unions, and the government they were propping up. The unions being there weren’t a surprise, obviously, but I wasn’t expecting corrupt and self-serving businesspeople to get much more than a passing mention, if any at all.

It’s not just that the Thompson regime was liberal and socialist and ideologically bad (from Rand’s POV), but they were hopelessly corrupt. They had their blindness, but it was pretty transparent from the book that the ideology was a means to an end. Not even along the usual critique, which is that they use big government to become powerful, which they then use to increase their own wealth relative to everyone else. They’re shoplifting on a sinking ship, after having stolen the floorboards, but they were lining their pockets as best they could. The government presented isn’t just a failure by conservative or libertarian standards, but by liberal ones as well.

Which gets us to the “democratically elected” part. While it is presumably true that Thompson was elected, it’s difficult to ascertain the circumstances surrounding it. Putin was elected, and would almost certainly be elected in a free and fair election, but there’s enough going on to cast a shadow over the entire regime. Once incumbents have enough power, even accurate elections are somewhat beside the point. And you can have multiple candidates that are essentially fronts for the same regime. Which is a criticism I hear of the American system… from people on the hard left as much as anywhere else. The legitimacy of the regime is in question.

Democracy may be better than the alternatives, but it does not render corruption legitimate. And corruption that runs deep enough can, under at least some circumstances, render legitimacy to a coup. Or at the very least can justify a war of secession. Which is kinda sorta what’s going on.

From an ideologically secular standpoint, Atlas Shrugged would, to me, be a more interesting book if it actually did involve familiar states (either of the nation-state or the state-state variety). If, say, Galt and company were to relocate to Washington or Oregon instead of Colorado and set of a Free State sort of deal, with an eye towards independence. And in the time and place of the novel, both in our timeline and theirs, it would be incredibly difficult for a western Freedonia to gain a foothold. It would be giving their opponents a nation to attack, after all. On the other hand, with sufficient economic sabotage and stealth…

Such a plot runs counter to Rand’s political thesis, though, so from an ideologically sectarian standpoint it’s a non-starter. It also, at least arguably, points to a flaw in the hyperlibertarian model, which is that freedom needs to be defended. That requires organization. If not conscription, then a lot of people. More people than could ever meet the stiff threshold of the competence required to be invited to Rand’s Atlantis.

Will Wilkinson (H/T Dave Pinsen) said the following:

By the way, Atlas buffs, the point of Atlas Shrugged is not that you are John Galt. The point is that you are not John Galt. The point is that you are, at your best, Eddie Willers. You’re smart, hardworking, productive, and true. But you’re no creative genius and you take innovation — John Galt — for granted. You don’t even know who he is! And this eventually leaves you weeping on abandoned train tracks.

Willers is, of course, left behind right next to Hannity and Beck. The problem is that you would need Willers – an army of him, really – to be able to secure the sort of (dare we say it?) state from future pilfering. In addition to the magic power generator that Galt built, there is also the magic cloaking device. Which may work, for a time as the pieces of the former United States of America rebuild. But eventually they will. And though Galt imagines a confederacy of colonies, eventually a society will rebuild and conflict will erupt. Probably a fascist one. A Monroe Republic. And while it might take them longer to find the hidden colonies than the Free State of Washington, find it they eventually would. The only defense would be the equivalent of Project X in the hands of the Atlantians.

Which leaves Atlas Shrugged ultimately as a contest between the corrupt government of ruin, or the likely promise of ruin in the future. Whatever the morality of the cause, it’s difficult to entirely shrug off the looters and the moochers, when they have you so severely outnumbered.

-{Ed note: The bulk of this was written a few weeks ago. It got lost in the shuffle.

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10 Responses to The Villains and Villains of Atlas Shrugged

  1. Oscar Gordon says:

    democratically elected government

    I agree that this is a weak club to beat an argument with, if the government is rotten. A democratically elected government is not, by default, legitimate. It may set a much higher bar for illegitimacy, but it is still a bar that be crossed.

    • trumwill says:

      I mean, we just know next to nothing about the electoral process at that point. Indeed, it might have been a more interesting plot if there had been one somewhere long the lines… but I think there absence was pretty intentional.

      • Oscar Gordon says:

        Despite my libertarian streak, I’ve never read anything by Rand. My influences were more Heinlein & hippy/counter culture parents.

    • Lightening Rod says:

      Political legitimacy has at all times and places, regardless of the particular form of government, been something to be earned by the rulers and conferred or at least acquiesced to by the ruled. And it’s always a question of process. First, by the selection or acquiesce to a process which is seen as legitimate and, second, by a particular instance of succession or transference as legitimately adhering to the established process.

      So it’s established that the monarch shall be succeeded by the eldest child or sibling or whatever — a line of succession. And as long as no one jumps the line or parentage is questioned all is good.

      Democratic legitimacy is no different. We have an established process that is accepted as legitimate and as long as that process is faithfully and fairly adhered to the outcome is accepted as legitimate.

      Notice how the claims of illegitimacy for both the Bush and Obama presidencies revolved around alleged subversions of process. Bush being “selected” by SCOTUS rather than letting the process in Florida play itself out, and Obama allegedly being unqualified by virtue of the circumstances of his birth.

      Liberals are particularly offended by subversion of the democratic process. Many conservatives and libertarians tend to question the legitimacy of democracy itself as a means to make decisions and select leadership.

      • Oscar Gordon says:

        Which is the right of exit is so important. If you don’t think the process is legitimate, leave.

        Of course, if you are a person of means in the US, leaving might be tricky if you want to take your means with you, as the US is prone to skim a large amount off the top as an exit tax.

        • Lightening Rod says:

          I was under the impression that the larger issue was actually finding somewhere better to go. I mean, rich folks have it pretty darn good here compared to anywhere else in the first world.

          But true or not, leaving that aside, I’d be perfectly happy with abolishing the exit tax in exchange for a constitutional amendment declaring that money isn’t speech and corporations aren’t people.

  2. Brandon Berg says:

    IIRC (I haven’t read it for over ten years), at the end it was implied, or even explicitly stated, that the masses had been won over by Galt’s speech and/or by seeing the utter disaster that the policies they voted for had wrought. Of course, in reality the politicians and Krugmans of the world would blame Galt et al for everything and the masses would eat it up, but in fiction all things are possible.

    • trumwill says:

      I don’t recall that, though that’s what happened in the movie so I’ve probably just forgotten.

      I suspect that even if so, it’s a sensation that wouldn’t last.

  3. Mike Schilling says:

    How many of the people who claim Atlas Shrugged as one of their great influences don’t think they’re John Galt beset by moochers and looters? Based on the ones I’ve met, I’d guess at most 1% or so.

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