Friday, March 6, 2009

Atlas Shrugging

Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged has come up a lot recently in commentary about Obama administration initiatives (e.g., this column by Robert Tracinsky last week, "The Ayn Rand Factor In the Santelli Revolt"). Since one of Daniel Wahl's favorite posts (#5) on his old blog expressed Randian sentiments, I mentioned the Tracinsky column to him and suggested he might want to consider writing a post on the subject at his new blog, Systemically Important. Daniel hasn't written a post there on Atlas Shrugged yet (Today's Systemically Important post is "Mottos: Business Peopleguys"), but several other bloggers have, including Will Wilkinson (Hat Tip: Ross Douthat). For those who haven't read Atlas Shrugged and plan to, be warned that Wilkinson's post ("On Going Galt"), and the parts of it I'm about to excerpt below, include some spoilers.


I can’t help but feel that threatening to withdraw from economic production, ala Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt, is a certain kind of libertarian-conservative’s version of progressives threatening to move to Canada.


But insofar as this is all about taxes on the wealthy (as the link to Malkin suggests) it’s a bit hard to see tax rates somewhat exceeding the Clinton era’s as a move over some inflection point from the tolerable to the completely outrageous. And of course none of these folks designed an engine that would have created basically free energy (and made global warming a non-issue). In the individual case, “going Galt” smacks of a kind self-aggrandizement in the same way that climate smuggery does. Because, really, your marginal contribution doesn’t matter that much.

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. 

Wilkinson makes a good point in that last paragraph, one I thought was plain when I read the book years ago, but this misunderstanding seems to be shared by some Atlas Shrugged detractors as well as buffs. Back to Wilkinson:

I think Obama’s policies will be bad for innovation, but not because higher marginal tax rates will lead our best and brightest to retire from the field of endeavor. I’m rather more worried that our best and brightest will follow the incentives and go Robert Stadler. I’m worried that our money, which might otherwise have gone to capitalize real innovation, will be confiscated in order to finance government directed “investment” instead. Our economy can readily absorb a passel of drop-out Willerses (though Eddie never quits!). It’s the misdirected capital embodied by the Stadlers and their Project Xes that really hurts.

Wilkinson is less convincing there. All things equal, additional government spending on scientific research (e.g., National Institutes of Health research grants) would probably increase innovation. The bigger potential threat to innovation isn't increased government spending per se1, but the prospect of price controls (de facto or de jure) or rationing that might be part of a universal national health insurance program.

1Increased government spending on transfer payments could indirectly stifle innovation if it increased pressure for price controls or reduced reimbursements in a universal government health insurance program.

I borrowed the image above, of the cover of a paperback edition of Atlas Shrugged, from this blog, which I'm sure borrowed it from or somewhere else.

Update: Daniel Wahl joins the discussion with his latest post: "Going Going Galt".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Indeed you are right. The image is borrowed, from someone who borrowed it, from someone who borrowed it etc.

Something I would like to comment : We may not all be John Galt, and many of us may be Eddie Willers, but the most important thing to realize is that we COULD be John Galt, not when it comes to being able to create the most amazing invention ever, but when it comes to our morality and judgement.

And in a world where you have the right to whatever you create, and are allowed to move forward without government and others standing in the way - I think there would be many more John Galts. And besides - Eddie Willers would not be sitting weeping on abandon train-tracks, he would be working for the best railroad that the country had ever seen, and he would be proud of it.