Well a good number of them anyway. Allow me to explain…
In response to a recent Facebook status of mine that quoted Rand, one commenter expressed his surprise that someone associated with bleeding heart libertarianism would have anything nice to say about Rand. Aside from the fact that many of us were heavily influenced by Rand at younger ages (one day, I’ll tell you about little Matty Zwolinski in 1995…), there remain things of value in her work even if one finds major pieces of her system to be highly flawed. For example, I find the idea of “the sanction of the victim” to be a really powerful piece of social-psychological analysis that is useful for understanding my own choices and those of others.
One of the other valuable pieces of Rand’s work is also one of the most frequently misunderstood by her critics. And it’s misunderstood in a way that paints her to be more of an enemy of the BHL concern with the least well off than she actually was.
This misunderstanding was on display Sunday night on an episode of the otherwise excellent TV show The Good Wife. The lead character is a lawyer working with a very conservative businessman. In the course of a conversation about why he, as part of the 1%, feels so embattled, he asks her if she’s read Rand. The lead’s response was something like: “Have you actually read her books? A guy blows up a building and the rich go on strike? It’s like a 12 year old’s vision of the universe.” I leave aside for the moment whether the writers believe that themselves, or believe that’s how a liberal professional would interpret Rand. The point is that the character’s summary of Atlas Shrugged as being about “the rich” going on strike is a line of argument frequently found among public intellectuals being critical of Rand. More generally, the view is that Rand supposedly loved the rich and hated the poor, and that Atlas Shrugged is a story of the rich as Nietzschean heroes who should be freed to save the world from the mooching poor and middle class.
This, of course, is simply wrong. It’s not “the rich” who go on strike, but the producers. The good and evil divide for Rand is not between rich and poor, but between producers and takers. There is no remotely plausible reading of Atlas Shrugged where the “1%” are unambiguously heroes and where everyone else is a “moocher.” One can simply list off various characters who don’t fit this reading. Most obvious is John Galt himself. None of the descriptions of him that Rand offers suggest that he is rich. Comfortable? Yes. But rich? Nope. Francisco D’Anconia and Hank Rearden are arguably rich, but Hugh Akston? He doesn’t seem to be particularly so. On the other side of the ledger we have Jim Taggart. Clearly rich, but clearly a villain. Wesley Mouch has clearly done well for himself and is arguably rich, as are many of the other villains who associate with him. They are the ones attending the fancy parties and living the high life while the producers are, for the most part, out running railroads, extracting oil, and inventing new useful metals.
Rand’s portrayal of the middle class and poor also does not fit the caricature offered by the critics. The most obvious case is Eddie Willers, Dagny’s right-hand man. He is clearly portrayed as a good guy, but he is also clearly a very middle-class, hard-working administrator. For Rand, the fact that he’s not a producer at the level of Dagny or Hank, or that he hasn’t made himself rich, are not reasons to treat him as a “moocher.” What matters to Rand are his values: Eddie understands that it is morally superior to produce than to take, and he has a deep integrity about his work and his life that is more important to Rand than is his ability to produce or his wealth. Even if he is incapable of producing value to the degree Dagny does, he is still capable of producing other kinds (and amounts) of value and refusing to live off that produced by others. It is worth noting Rand’s implicit understanding of how comparative advantage enables markets to reward anyone who is capable of producing positive value for others, regardless of their intelligence or physical strength. What matters are their values, and there are plenty of other minor characters in the book who are people of high integrity and good values, yet modest abilities. They are morally praiseworthy for Rand, even though they aren’t rich.
By contrast, there a number of minor characters who are explicitly noted as wealthy but also treated as villains. Consider the famous train tunnel scene, where the doomed Comet heads toward disaster and Rand catalogues the intellectual “sins” of those about to die, suggesting they somehow deserve it. I don’t wish to argue whether their deaths are somehow deserved, but I do wish to point that among the “bad guys” on the Comet are: a newspaper publisher, a businessman who acquired his business through a government program, a financier who “made a fortune” manipulating regulations, and a man who had inherited a fortune “and who had kept repeating, ‘Why should Rearden be the only one permitted to manufacture Rearden Metal?'” These are the evil rich. There are also people of modest means on the train who are portrayed as morally wrong, not because they are of modest means, but because of their values. Again, I don’t wish to debate the ethical theory here. The issue is only is that there are plenty of characters in the novel who are rich but seen as evil, and poor folks who are seen as good. (There are also rich bad guys in The Fountainhead, but that’s for another day.)
What the (usually leftist) critics of the book are missing in their simplification of the “good rich and evil poor” is that Rand understood the difference between a genuinely free market and what is now known as “crony capitalism.” The latter defines both the world of both the novel and early 21st century western economies. Many of the wealthy bad guys, as the Comet scene illustrates, were rent-seekers and crony capitalists. They were people whose wealth was not acquired as a payment for value created for consumers (i.e., the 99%), but as redistribution of property taken from others. In some cases, they acquired wealth through their connections with political functionaries, which has no necessary connection with having produced anything of value. Rand’s chapter on “The Aristocracy of Pull” is an outstanding representation of this sort of crony capitalism and the problems it causes for the people it purports to help. It is also an excellent implicit primer on public choice theory.
Understanding that Rand is not arguing that rich people are always morally good and that poor people are either morally evil or lacking morality has important implications for bleeding heart libertarians. It is tempting for BHL types to engage in wholesale rejection of Rand, but I don’t think we should. Criticisms of crony capitalism is one of the places where we might look to work with our friends on the left. Many on the left happily use their Apple products to engage in political organization and protest, and perhaps they are just fine with the wealth accumulated by Steve Jobs and others because they implicitly understand the value-for-value involved. If, as they claim, they really do object to crony capitalism and a world where bankers, auto executives, and other members of the 1% earn their incomes not through the production of value and the exchange of that value with the 99%, but rather through political privilege and connection, then that is a place to start a conversation. It’s also a place, we might point out, that is consistent with the message so powerfully portrayed in Atlas Shrugged.
My point is not to turn leftist critics of crony capitalism into fans of Rand. Rather it’s simply to point out that 1) the “rich=good; poor=evil” reading of Rand is wrong on the facts of what is in the novel; 2) the relevant moral distinction is between “producers” and “takers,” each of whom might be rich or poor depending on other circumstances; and 3) when read correctly, Atlas Shrugged is an extended criticism of the sort of “crony capitalism” that characterizes the current US political economy. Rand is arguing against unearned political privileges, and arguments against unearned privilege are often found on the left. If all of the above is correct, then leftists should, at the very least, get their facts straight and stop arguing the novel says something it doesn’t. Beyond that, actually reading the novel (which I suspect not all of the critics have) might cause them to agree with aspects of it, to the extent their complaints about the 1% really are based on their use of political privilege and connections to enhance their wealth at the expense of the 99% rather than their wealth per se.
The parallels between the world of Atlas Shrugged and the US today are part of what has brought it back into intellectual discussion in the last few years. Libertarians are not talking about it because we wish to defend the wealth of all of the 1%. Rather we see in all of the current crony capitalism exactly the sort of issues that the novel raises: people are getting and staying rich through privilege and connections, creating the aristocracy of pull Rand warned about. For bleeding heart libertarians this is a real problem. Rand’s distinction between wealth created by production in a free market and wealth acquired (not produced!) through political privilege is one that matters because the former creates (often unintended) benefits for the least well-off, while the latter does not. Rand’s distinction also enables BHL types to both avoid the problem of so-called “vulgar libertarian” and conservative defenses of the status quo, and provides us with a more radical critique of the status quo that might resonate with our friends on the left. Rand gives us reasons to criticize wealth earned by taking value from others rather than producing it for them, and that can be the basis for a very powerful criticism of sectors of corporate America and many among the 1%.
The effectiveness of the novel remains the way in which she puts largely correct political economy into narrative form to illustrate powerfully the undesirable unintended consequences of bad ideas and bad institutions. BHLers can take what’s good in that and highlight that many of those undesirable consequences fall on the least well-off. Once we get the right reading of Atlas Shrugged on the table, we can enlist the good elements of Rand the novelist in the BHL project even if we think Rand the philosopher is not worth our time.
[Edited to clarify the “man who inherited a fortune” reference with the exact quote.]