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Posts Tagged ‘Atlas Shrugged’

I’ve always viewed Ayn Rand’s most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, as a warning about the dangers of over-regulation, over-taxation, and excessive redistribution.

I won’t spoil the plot for those who haven’t yet read the book, but it’s basically a storyWelfare State Wagon Cartoons about what happens to a society when the people pulling the wagon decide that’s no longer how they want to spend their lives.

And as these highly productive people begin to opt out, politicians come up with ever-crazier ideas of keeping the economy going.

The most absurd example, something that could only happen in a dystopian work of fiction rather than real life, was “Directive 10-289,” an edict from the government to prevent continued contraction by requiring everybody in the economy to do exactly the same thing next year that they did this year. This meant no changing jobs. No starting new companies. No closing down existing companies. No changes in pay. Or employment. No changes in anything. Freeze the economy at current levels.

In other words, take Nixon-style wage and price controls and apply them to every bit of economic activity.

Unfortunately, some politicians think Atlas Shrugged is a direction manual rather than a warning. In Montreal, they’ve come up with a crazy idea to apply a version of Directive 10-289 to the restaurant industry. I’m not joking. In a column for Reason, Baylen Linnekin explains this surreal new policy.

…lawmakers in Montreal have moved to crack down on new restaurants, in an odious attempt to protect existing ones. “Montreal has one of the highest restaurant per-capita ratios in North America and the amount of places to eat is worrying local politicians,” reads a Canadian Press piece from earlier this week. …Data shows Montreal trails only New York City in terms of restaurants per capita in North America. As in New York City, that competition is great for Montreal’s consumers. But it puts pressure on incumbent restaurateurs. So lawmakers have decided to side with the latter.

The new law isn’t quite as bad as Directive 10-289, but it’s guided by the same attitude: Everything that exists now should be preserved and what’s new is bad.

…a ban on new restaurants from opening within 25 meters of an existing one along the city’s Rue Notre Dame… Notably, the action comes as “a number of commercial and retail properties remain empty” in this same part of Montreal. The law “risk[s] turning the city’s restaurant scene into a heavily bureaucratized nightmare like the province’s construction industry,” says the head of Quebec’s restaurant association

So who could possibly support such an initiative?

Unsurprisingly, the greatest enemies of genuine capitalism aren’t just politicians, but also incumbent firms that don’t want competition.

…some protectionist restaurateurs support the measure. “In Montreal you can apply for a restaurant permit and get it immediately—that’s a problem for me” says David McMillan, a supporter of the restrictions, whose high-end restaurant, Joe Beef, is an intended beneficiary of the ban. He’s not alone. “I don’t believe in the free market anymore,” says restaurateur Carlos Ferreira. “We have to protect the good restaurants.”

Gee, I thought consumers were the ones who were supposed to determine which restaurants are good. But Mr. Ferreira wants politicians and bureaucrats to now have the power.

Though we shouldn’t mock the Canadians too much. After all, Barack Obama imposed a version of Directive 10-289 in the United States.

Heck, he must be a big fan of Atlas Shrugged because he also mimicked another part of the book.

Of course, there are some cities, and even entire nations, that apparently want to replicate everything in Ayn Rand’s classic novel.

And the results in these real-world experiments are similar to what happens in the book. Except the book actually has a happy ending, whereas there’s little reason to be optimistic for a rebirth of freedom in places such as Greece and Venezuela.

P.S. John Stossel and Charles Murray have interesting things to say about Atlas Shrugged.

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I suggested a couple of months ago that the economic turmoil in Greece and Venezuela is somewhat akin to a real-life version of Atlas Shrugged.

And I’ve also used that analogy when writing about France and Detroit.

But I’m probably not doing justice to Ayn Rand’s famous novel because Atlas Shrugged is not just about an economy that collapses under the weight of too much government regulation, intervention, and control.

I probably won’t give the right description since I’m a policy wonk rather than philosopher, but Atlas Shrugged is also about the perils of self-sacrifice.

And I couldn’t help but think about that aspect of the book when I read the comments of certain Greek politicians during yesterday’s bailout vote in Athens.

If you scroll down to the 14:40 mark of this timeline from the U.K.-based Telegraph, you’ll find some remarkable comments that sound like they came straight from Ayn Rand’s book.

Greece’s ruling Syriza party has accused David Cameron of being mean over his objections to allowing British taxpayer’s money to be used to help Athens meet upcoming debt payments. …Mr Cameron’s attitude was described as cold-hearted by Nikos Xydakis, a deputy culture minister in Syriza. “Mr Cameron must explain to the European people and 11 million Greeks why he wants them to suffer a social crisis,” Mr Xydakis told The Telegraph. “This is not about politics, this is about human souls.”

Wow. I might agree that David Cameron is “mean,” but I think his cruelty is directed against British taxpayers, not Greek politicians.

But let’s stick with our main topic. Notice how the moochers in Greece are trying to use guilt as a weapon. I’m sure some Ayn Rand experts will correct me if I’m wrong, but the aforementioned comments definitely sound like passages from Atlas Shrugged.

That being said, the Germans apparently have more in common with John Galt than Jim Taggart. Here are some excerpts from a column in the New York Times by Jacob Soll, a professor from the University of Southern California. He recently attended a conference in Germany and found very little sympathy for the Greeks.

 …when the German economists spoke…, a completely different tone took over the room. Within the economic theories and numbers came a moral message: The Germans were honest dupes and the Greeks corrupt, unreliable and incompetent. …the Greeks destroyed themselves over the past four years. Now the Greeks deserved what was coming to them. …Debtors who default, they explained, would simply have to suffer…a country like Greece…did not seem to merit empathy. …When the panel split up, German attendees circled me to explain how the Greeks were robbing the Germans. They did not want to be victims anymore.

Wow, who knew the Germans were a bunch of closet Randians!

No wonder the Greek politicians decided to target David Cameron instead.

For what it’s worth, I must have some German blood in my veins because I wasn’t overly sympathetic to Greece in this interview.

I even referred (again) to “looters” and “moochers,” which are terms used in Rand’s book.

I’ll make two comments about the interview.

  1. My prediction about the vote in Greece was correct. Though I wish I had been wrong because the best long-run outcome (both for the Greek people and the world’s taxpayers) is an end to bailouts.
  2. I mentioned that there will be more debt-crisis dominoes at some point in the future. I hope I’m wrong, but it’s hard to be optimistic when you look at long-run fiscal estimates from the IMF, BIS, and OECD.

P.S. Lots of what happens in Washington also is disturbingly similar to scenes from Atlas Shrugged, particularly the corrupt Obamacare waiver process.

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Just like Clark Kent could change into Superman, President Obama has a remarkable ability to change into King Obama.

Tired of that pesky Constitution? Irritated that the Founding Fathers created a system based on separation of powers? Well, there’s a superhero to overcome those obstacles.

Faster than a last-minute Obamacare reg! More powerful than the Tenth Amendment! Able to leap the enumerated powers clause in a single bound! (“Look! Up in the sky!” “It’s a bird!” “It’s a plane!” “It’s SuperPresident!”)… Yes, it’s SuperPresident … strange visitor from corrupt Chicago, who came to Washington with powers and hubris far beyond those of the Founding Fathers! SuperPresident … who can change the course of the Constitution, bend the Bill of Rights in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Barack Obama, mild-mannered uniter who stops the rise of the oceans and heals the planet, fights a never-ending battle for redistribution, statism, and the French way!

And what has our superhero done lately?

He’s arbitrarily and unilaterally changed the Obamacare law.

Since it’s the 18th time he’s done that, this may not seem very newsworthy. But the latest change is particularly interesting because the President is ordering certain companies to maintain their existing payrolls.

Check out this blurb from a Fox News story.

Obama officials made clear in a press briefing that firms would not be allowed to lay off workers to get into the preferred class of those businesses with 50 to 99 employees. …Firms will be required to certify to the IRS–under penalty of perjury–that ObamaCare was not a motivating factor in their staffing decisions. To avoid ObamaCare costs you must swear that you are not trying to avoid ObamaCare costs.

When this story first came to my attention, thanks to James Taranto, something seemed eerily familiar.

Where had I read about a government ordering companies to freeze in place their employment levels.

I went through all the usual suspects in my mind. Was it Argentina? Was it France? How about California?

And then it struck me that life was imitating fiction. Obama’s policy is so bad that it resembles a scene in an Ayn Rand novel.

In her most famous work, Atlas Shrugged, the political elite try to halt the economy’s decline by imposing Directive 10-289, which seeks to freeze in place all factors of production – including the number of workers at each firm.

All workers, wage earners and employees of any kind whatsoever shall henceforth be attached to their jobs and shall not leave nor be dismissed nor change employment.

Obama’s latest diktat doesn’t go nearly as far as Directive 10-289, thankfully, but it’s more than a bit disturbing that we’ve gotten to the point where a bunch of hacks in Washington think that they have the right to tell private companies how many people they’re allowed to have on the payroll.

But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

This isn’t the first time that the real-world unfolding of Obamacare has resembled a scene from Atlas Shrugged. Back in 2011, I wrote about how the waiver process for escaping the law was almost identical to the corrupt system of unfreezing railroad bonds in the book.

P.S. While searching online to get the details of Directive 10-289, I saw that John Sexton, writing for Breitbart, beat me to the punch.

P.P.S. If you prefer to get anti-statism satire from Superman instead of Atlas Shrugged, you may enjoy this cartoon.

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Ayn Rand’s famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, tells the story of what happens when society’s most productive people go on strike because they don’t want to subsidize the looters and moochers.

I won’t give away the plot, but one interesting twist in the story is when government officials realize that they need some people to produce. Otherwise, as the former President of Brazil acknowledged in real life, there’s nothing to redistribute.

Well, some people in France don’t understand the risks of driving away the geese that lay the golden eggs. Here are some excerpts from a Christian Science Monitor story.

“au revoir, looters and moochers”

As French President François Hollande outlined new taxes and spending cuts while promoting reforms to turn the economy around – word leaked out that France’s wealthiest man, Bernard Arnault, was heading for Belgium in a rumored tax dodge. At first, the timing could not appear to have been worse for the national morale and Mr. Hollande. …he will hit those with direct salaries over 1 million euros ($1.3 million) with a 75 percent tax. The French have not forgotten the national shame when British Prime Minister David Cameron told the world from Mexico in early summer that London was “rolling out the red carpet” for wealthy French seeking tax havens.  Yet, instead, in a national spasm of pique, France spent all day making accusations of “traitor” and “ingrate” at the rich guy – Mr. Arnault, worth $41 billion. …The anti-Arnault frenzy spurred far-left guru Jean-Luc Mélenchon to call him a “parasite,” and far-right darling Marianne Le Pen to proclaim “scandalous” what appears to be a financial exile. A screaming headline in Libération – “Get Lost You Rich Idiot”… Hollande yesterday said the fashion tycoon, who also left France for the US during the last Socialist government of François Mitterand, “should have measured what it means to apply for citizenship to another country. In this period, we need to appeal to patriotism.”

I’ve already posted about productive people escaping France, so that’s not exactly a new development.

What is remarkable, though, is the way French politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens (presumably of the moocher variety) have viciously attacked Mr. Arnault.

Sort of like thieves who want moral sanction from their victims. Hmmm…seems that somebody wrote a book with that theme – and it didn’t end well for the looter class. Which is exactly why I’m predicting that France will soon face a Greek-style fiscal crisis.

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Advocates of limited government love to fantasize. But because we’re strange people, we don’t have ordinary fantasies about supermodels or playing pro baseball. We daydream about a libertarian nirvana, where the rights of individuals are protected, guided by a moral order based on freedom and responsibility, and the leviathan state is forever constrained.

Ayn Rand created a fictional version of this free society in Atlas Shrugged and called it Galt’s Gulch. But some advocates of liberty want to turn fiction into reality.

Here are some excerpts from a Yahoo story about the efforts of a libertarian entrepreneur.

Pay Pal founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel has given $1.25 million to an initiative to create floating libertarian countries in international waters, according to a profile of the billionaire in Details magazine. Thiel has been a big backer of the Seasteading Institute, which seeks to build sovereign nations on oil rig-like platforms to occupy waters beyond the reach of law-of-the-sea treaties. The idea is for these countries to start from scratch–free from the laws, regulations, and moral codes of any existing place. Details says the experiment would be “a kind of floating petri dish for implementing policies that libertarians, stymied by indifference at the voting booths, have been unable to advance: no welfare, looser building codes, no minimum wage, and few restrictions on weapons.” …The Seasteading Institute’s Patri Friedman says the group plans to launch an office park off the San Francisco coast next year, with the first full-time settlements following seven years later.

I think this is a great idea, though I have two concerns.

First and foremost, creating a Galt’s Gulch does not mean you necessarily escape oppressive laws. Places such as the Cayman Islands, Monaco, and Hong Kong are relatively free compared to the United States, but you can’t escape the IRS by moving your money to these fiscal havens.

The United States has a “worldwide” tax system, which necessitates a form of fiscal imperialism. And because America is the 800-pound gorilla of the world economy, almost all low-tax jurisdictions have been coerced into serving as deputy tax collectors for bad U.S. tax laws.

You may be thinking, “So what, Dan, we’re talking about physically redomiciling, not just moving our money.”

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Living outside the United States does not mean you escape the IRS. Unlike all other developed nations, America’s worldwide tax system applies even to non-residents.

So you can only get rid of the IRS by giving up American citizenship. But even that’s difficult. Politicians have adopted reprehensible anti-expatriation laws – disgustingly similar to the ones imposed by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia – that don’t let people emigrate without first shaking them down for money.

So if you want to move to a new Galt’s Gulch floating island, you either have to do it before you achieve economic success or you have to pay a ransom to the thuggish clowns in Washington.

This certainly isn’t an argument against what the Seasteading Institute is trying to do, but it is a warning that there will be barriers imposed by uncompetitive nations with high taxes and excessive intervention.

Simply stated, governments don’t like competition. And they definitely hate anything that hinders their ability to collect tax revenue and buy votes. Indeed, this is why I spend so much of my time fighting to preserve tax competition (even if it means the possibility of getting thrown in a Mexican jail). If the crooks in Washington and other national capitals know that the geese with the golden eggs can fly away, they will be much less likely to impose bad policy.

All of this is explained in this video on the economic benefit of tax havens.

My other concern is a personal gripe. The Seasteading Institute is planning to put their prototype off the coast of San Francisco. That’s much too chilly. I vote for the Caribbean.

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In a perverse way, I’m glad that there are places such as Greece and Illinois. These profligate jurisdictions are useful examples of the dangers of bloated government and reckless statism.

There also are some cities that serve as reverse role models. Detroit is a miserable case study of big government run amok, so I enjoyed a moment or two of guilty pleasure as I read this CNBC story about the ongoing decay of the Motor City. Here are some excerpts.

Detroit neighborhoods with more people and a better chance of survival will receive different levels of city services than more blighted areas under a plan unveiled Wednesday that some residents fear may pit them against each other for scarce resources. …the boundaries of the 139-square-mile city aren’t receding. The plan also backs away from forcing the redistribution of what’s left of the population into areas where people still live and where the houses aren’t on the verge of caving in. …Detroit’s population of about 713,000 is down about 200,000 from 10 years ago, according to U.S. Census figures, and has fallen more than 1 million since 1950. Some areas have fewer occupied homes than vacant ones. …A 2010 survey found Detroit had 33,000 vacant houses and scores of empty, weed-filled and trash-cluttered lots.

How predictable, I thought. This is what happens when vote-hungry politicians adopt policies that reward people for riding in the wagon and punish the folks who are pulling the wagon.

But there was also something about this story that rang a bell. It took a few minutes, since I’m getting old and decrepit, but then I realized that “blighted areas” was an eerily familiar term. Didn’t Ayn Rand use that term in one of her books?

Indeed, she did. Thanks to the miracle of Google Books, here is one of several passages in Atlas Shrugged that mentions Detroit…oops, I mean “blighted areas.”

No railroad was mentioned by name in the speeches that preceded the voting. The speeches dealt only with the public welfare. It was said that while the public welfare was threatened by shortages of transportation, railroads were destroying each other through vicious competition, on “the brutal policy of dog-eat-dog.” While there existed blighted areas where rail service had been discontinued, there existed at the same time large regions where two or more railroads were competing for a traffic barely sufficient for one. It was said that there were great opportunities for younger railroads in the blighted areas. While it was true that such areas offered little economic incentive at present, a public-spirited railroad, it was said, would undertake to provide transportation for the struggling inhabitants, since the prime purpose of a railroad was public service, not profit.

Heck, this isn’t the first time real-world events seem to have come straight from the pages of Rand’s book. I wrote last month about the creepy similarity of the waiver process for Obamacare and the bond de-freezers in Atlas Shrugged.

Many people say that Rand’s books are not very good literature, despite the amazing sales figures. Others say her philosophy is flawed, despite the profound influence of her writings.

I’m not competent to comment on those debates, but I can say that Atlas Shrugged does an amazing job of capturing the statist mindset and it tells a compelling story of how excessive government is self-destructive.

Fifty years ago, the book was viewed as a dystopian fantasy. Today, Greece, Illinois, and Detroit are making Ayn Rand seem like a prophet.

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In a column about the revolving door between big government and the lobbying world, here’s what the irreplaceable Tim Carney wrote about the waiver process for folks trying to escape the burden of government-run healthcare.

Congress imposes mandates on other entities, but gives bureaucrats the power to waive those mandates. To get such a waiver, you hire the people who used to administer or who helped craft the policies. So who’s the net winner? The politicians and bureaucrats who craft policies and wield power, because this combination of massive government power and wide bureaucratic discretion creates huge demand for revolving-door lobbyists. It’s another reason Obama’s legislative agenda, including bailouts, stimulus, ObamaCare, Dodd-Frank, tobacco regulation, and more, necessarily fosters more corruption and cronyism.

This seemed so familiar that I wondered whether Tim was guilty of plagiarism. But he’s one of the best journalists in DC, so I knew that couldn’t be the case.

Then I realized that there was plagiarism, but the politicians in Washington were the guilty parties. As can be seen in this passage from Atlas Shrugged, the Obama Administration is copying from what Ayn Rand wrote – as dystopian parody – in the 1950s.

Nobody professed to understand the question of the frozen railroad bonds, perhaps, because everybody understood it too well. At first, there had been signs of a panic among the bondholders and of a dangerous indignation among the public. Then, Wesley Mouch had issued another directive, which ruled that people could get their bonds “defrozen” upon a plea of “essential need”: the government would purchase the bonds, if it found proof of the need satisfactory. there were three questions that no one answered or asked: “What constituted proof?” “What constituted need?” “Essential-to whom?” …One was not supposed to speak about the men who, having been refused, sold their bonds for one-third of the value to other men who possessed needs which, miraculously, made thirty-three frozen cents melt into a whole dollar, or about a new profession practiced by bright young boys just out of college, who called themselves “defreezers” and offered their services “to help you draft your application in the proper modern terms.” The boys had friends in Washington.

This isn’t the first time the Obama Administration has inadvertently brought Atlas Shrugged to life. The Administration’s top lawyer already semi-endorsed “going Galt” when he said people could choose to earn less money to avoid certain Obamacare impositions.

So if you want a glimpse at America’s future, I encourage you to read (or re-read) the book. Or at least watch the movie.

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The line between political truth and literary fiction is getting very blurry. One of the main features of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was the choice of productive people to withdraw their talents from the economy to deprive the statists of a source of loot.

Who would have guessed, more than 50 years later, that the Solicitor General of the United States would be making the same argument in a legal case about Obamacare.

Here’s the relevant segment from the Washington Examiner.

President Obama’s solicitor general, defending the national health care law on Wednesday, told a federal appeals court that Americans who didn’t like the individual mandate could always avoid it by choosing to earn less money. Neal Kumar Katyal, the acting solicitor general, made the argument under questioning before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, which was considering an appeal by the Thomas More Law Center.

As is so often the case, Glenn Reynolds already made this connection. It’s very thoughtful of the Obama White House to promote Rand’s work.

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This post is only useful for those of you who live in the Washington area. But if you do, click on this link to find out how to attend a screening of Atlas Shrugged tomorrow afternoon at the Heritage Foundation.

I got a chance to see the movie at a Cato event in California. As I wrote after that opportunity, “The production quality is first rate, the musical score (I think that’s the term) is perfect, and the story is well told – a particularly challenging task since the 1000 page-plus book is actually being brought to the screen in three parts and this is just the first installment.”

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I’m a lucky guy to work at the Cato Institute, and I’m especially happy to be at Cato’s Benefactor Summit in San Diego this weekend. One of our supporters, John Aglialoro, is the person most responsible for the movie version of Atlas Shrugged (he independently produced the film with his own money), and he let us see the movie yesterday.

Five stars. Two thumbs up. Whatever rating system you use, you need to see this movie. You don’t need to be a “Randroid” or objectivist to like the film. Heck, you probably don’t even need to like small government or have capitalist sympathies.

I realize I’m biased, but I genuinely think John did a fantastic job. The production quality is first rate, the musical score (I think that’s the term) is perfect, and the story is well told – a particularly challenging task since the 1000 page-plus book is actually being brought to the screen in three parts and this is just the first installment.

The movie is released to the public on April 15 (yes, that choice is deliberate).

If you want to see the trailer, click here.

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Saw this today on Instapundit. Very exciting.

And it is released on April 15. Quite appropriate.

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Reason TV gives us a taste of what to expect when the movie version of Ayn Rand’s classic is released. The two stars we see in this video are not how I pictured Dagny Taggart (wasn’t she a brunette) and Hank Reardon, but so what. I’m looking forward to the movie and I hope it does justice to the book.

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The Wall Street Journal wisely warns against drawing too many conclusions from one month’s job data, but they also point out that the economy is much weaker than the White House claimed – in large part because of a series of public policy decisions that have rewarded sloth and punished production. Is anyone surprised that the economy’s performance has been tepid?

The private economy—that is, the wealth creation part, not the wealth redistribution part—gained only 41,000 jobs, down sharply from the encouraging 218,000 in April, and 158,000 in March. The unemployment rate did fall to 9.7% from 9.9%, but that was mainly because the labor force contracted by 322,000. Millions of Americans, beyond the 15 million Americans officially counted as unemployed, have given up looking for work. Worst of all, nearly half of all unemployed workers in America today (a record 46%) have been out of work for six months or more. …Whatever happened to the great neo-Keynesian “multiplier,” in which $1 in government spending was supposed to produce 1.5 times that in economic output? …The multiplier is an illusion because that Keynesian $1 has to come from somewhere in the private economy, either in higher taxes or borrowing. Its net economic impact was probably negative because so much of the stimulus was handed out in transfer payments (jobless benefits, Medicaid expansions, welfare) that did nothing to change incentives to invest or take risks. Meanwhile, that $862 billion was taken out of the more productive private economy. Almost everything Congress has done in recent months has made private businesses less inclined to hire new workers. ObamaCare imposes new taxes and mandates on private employers. Even with record unemployment, Congress raised the minimum wage to $7.25, pricing more workers out of jobs. …The “jobs” bill that the House passed last week expands jobless insurance to 99 weeks, while raising taxes by $80 billion on small employers and U.S-based corporations. On January 1, Congress is set to let taxes rise on capital gains, dividends and small businesses. None of these are incentives to hire more Americans. Ms. Romer said yesterday that to “ensure a more rapid, widespread recovery,” the White House supports “tax incentives for clean energy,” and “extensions of unemployment insurance and other key income support programs, a fund to encourage small business lending, and fiscal relief for state and local governments.” Hello? This is the failed 2009 stimulus in miniature.

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In a review of two new biographies about Ayn Rand, Charles Murray explains what made her books – particularly Atlas Shrugged – so powerful and persuasive:

In 1991, the book-of-the-month club conducted a survey asking people what book had most influenced their lives. The Bible ranked number one and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was number two. In 1998, the Modern Library released two lists of the top 100 books of the 20th century. One was compiled from the votes of the Modern Library’s Board, consisting of luminaries such as Joyce Carol Oates, Maya Angelou, Edmund Morris, and Salman Rushdie. The two top-ranked books on the Board’s list were Ulysses and The Great Gatsby. The other list was based on more than 200,000 votes cast online by anyone who wanted to vote. The top two on that list were Atlas Shrugged (1957) and The Fountainhead (1943). The two novels have had six-figure annual sales for decades, running at a combined 300,000 copies annually during the past ten years. In 2009, Atlas Shrugged alone sold a record 500,000 copies and Rand’s four novels combined (the lesser two are We the Living [1936] and Anthem [1938]) sold more than 1,000,000 copies. And yet for 27 years after her death in 1982, we haven’t had a single scholarly biography of Ayn Rand. Who was this woman? How did she come to write such phenomenally influential novels? What are we to make of her legacy? These are the questions that finally have been asked and answered splendidly, with somewhat different emphases, in two new biographies published within weeks of each other: Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns, an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia, and Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller, a former executive editor at Condé Nast Publications. …Why then has reading these biographies of a deeply flawed woman—putting it gently—made me want to go back and reread her novels yet again? The answer is that Rand was a hedgehog who got a few huge truths right, and expressed those truths in her fiction so powerfully that they continue to inspire each new generation. They have only a loose relationship with Objectivism as a philosophy (which was formally developed only after the novels were written). Are selfishness and greed cardinal virtues in Objectivism? Who cares? Does Objectivist aesthetics denigrate Bach and Mozart? Who cares? Objectivism has nothing to do with what mesmerizes people about The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. What does mesmerize us? Fans of Ayn Rand will answer differently. Part of the popularity of the books derives from the many ways their themes can be refracted. Here is what I saw in Rand’s fictional world that shaped my views as an adolescent and still shapes them 50 years later.

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As you can tell from my last couple of posts, I’m getting increasingly upset with politicians who do the wrong thing and make our lives worse off. I’m especially bitter about how so much of what government does is for the benefit of powerful insiders and has a negative impact on the less fortunate in society.

So the time has come for me to take a deep breath and appreciate the fact that I’m on a beautiful Caribbean island. I’m in Curacao for a speech to a Wealth Preservation conference, where I’ll be talking about the importance of fighting international bureaucracies (such as the OECD) that are trying to hinder the flow of jobs and capital from high-tax nations to low-tax jurisdictions. To put it bluntly, I want to make it easier for people to “Go Galt” and protect themselves from rapacious politicians. Given what has happened in Europe, this battle is getting more important every day.

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John Stossel’s show tomorrow on Fox Business News will discuss how modern events are eerily similar to what happened in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Writing about the show in his column, Stossel asks which political figure from today would be akin to the evil Wesley Mouch in the book. That’s a challenging question. During the Clinton years, Ira Magaziner or Robert Reich would have been obvious choices. But who is the statist Rasputin of the modern era? You can vote at this link. Geithner, Frank, and Obama currently lead the voting:

Even though Rand published “Atlas” in 1957, her descriptions of intrusive and bloated government read like today’s news. The “Preservation of Livelihood Law” and “Equalization of Opportunity Law” could be Nancy Pelosi’s or Harry Reid’s work. The novel’s chief villain is Wesley Mouch, a bureaucrat who cripples the economy with endless regulations. This sounds familiar. Reason magazine reports that “as he looks around Washington these days,” Rep. Paul Ryan “can’t help but think he’s seeing a lot of Wesley Mouch”. Me, too. I also saw a lot of him under George W. Bush. So I’m conducting this unscientific poll: Who is our Wesley Mouch? Hank Paulson? Tim Geithner? Barney Frank? You can vote here. Personally, I think Chris Dodd’s ridiculous financial proposals ought to win him the honor. But he isn’t among the choices on Fox’s list. As I write this, Geithner, President Obama and Barney Frank lead the voting. …Rand brings out ferocious hatred in some people. …Had today’s bureaucrats been in charge decades ago, they would have banned things like aspirin, cars and airplanes. Sadly, they are in charge now. That makes the “Atlas” message important today. Although Rand idolizes businessman in the abstract, “Atlas Shrugged” makes clear that she (like Adam Smith) understood that they are not natural friends of free markets. They are often first in line for privileges bestowed by the state. That’s called “crony capitalism,” and that’s what Orren Boyle practices in “Atlas.”

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The Wall Street Journal has an interesting column that asks whether Ayn Rand, the famous libertarian novelist and philosopher, is a net plus for the free-market movement. This seems like an odd question. After all, her books (especially Atlas Shrugged) have been hugely influential, exposing countless people to a libertarian message. But the author has a good point. Her philosophy’s emphasis on individual freedom is laudable, but she makes herself an easy target by asserting that this requires über-individualism and leaves no room for altruism. Indeed, I’ll always remember being somewhat put off by the scene in Atlas Shrugged where one of protagonists rents, rather than lends, his car to a friend. And even though I’m rarely in a church, her insistence that atheism was a necessary component of her philosophy also struck me as odd (not to mention needlessly exclusionary).

Rand seems to be roaring back. Sales are surging—Brian Doherty, author of “Radicals for Capitalism” (2007), recently calculated that in one week in late August, “Atlas” sold “67 percent more copies than it did the same week a year before, and 114 percent more than that same week in 2007.” Two buzzed-about Rand biographies hit the shelves this fall, and an “Atlas” cable miniseries is reportedly in the works. Designer Ralph Lauren recently listed Rand as one of his favorite novelists, and CNBC host Rick Santelli, whose on-air antibailout rant inspired hundreds of “tea party” protests across the nation, admitted the same. “I know this may not sound very humanitarian,” he said, “but at the end of the day I’m an Ayn Rand-er.” …But in an age where hope, change and warm-hearted marketing clearly resonate, is revitalizing and glorifying Rand’s acerbic “virtue of selfishness” doing the free-market movement any good? Doubts are starting to emerge. Leonard Liggio, a respected figure in libertarian circles and a guest at Rand’s post-“Atlas Shrugged” New York get-togethers, sees value in Rand but admits she wasn’t a bridge builder. …Others, however, go further. “Rand has this extremist, intolerant, dogmatic antigovernment stance,” says Brink Lindsey of the libertarian Cato Institute, “and it pushes free-market supporters toward a purist, radical vision that undermines their capacity to get anything done.” …How are free markets best “sold”? A more compelling approach flips Rand’s philosophy on its head, explaining how everyone, especially society’s neediest, benefits from economic liberty. It’s a compelling story about how freedom and prosperity can change lives for the better. And Ayn Rand is of little help in telling it.

As an economist, I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert, but Rand’s philosophy seems vulnerable. And her personal style apparently was less than perfect. But, returning to the main issue, surely Rand has been a net plus for the cause of liberty. I’m not a Randian (not even sure what that entails), but I have probably given copies of Atlas Shrugged to about 50 people over the years. Simply stated, the book is a very compelling introduction to the idea that government is corrupt, that it attracts (and benefits) corrupt people, and that redistributionism is a corrupt philosophy.

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