Earlier this year I saw the movie Atlas Shrugged based on the novel by Ayn Rand through Netflix’s streaming video service. The movie was pretty bad. The acting, directing, and editing were all pretty awful. But what really made the movie suck was the story. The characters were all caricatures of what’s good and what’s evil about humanity. The heroes were all easy to spot for their virtuosity to a fault while the bad guys were narcissistic and self absorbed louts waiting to seize the achievements of the hard working entrepreneur in order to take the value in that work and distribute it to a failing social structure. It is a government structure that punishes success and rewards failure. The story portrayed the managers of government and the business people in collusion with them as the bad guys. The good guys were the virtuous pioneers of industry who only wanted to make a buck through the technological development of better ways of thinking.
One character in particular that I found distasteful was Henry “Hank” Rearden, the self made businessman who has developed a new metallic alloy named Rearden Metal that is far superior to anything else on the market. However, Rearden is being bullied by the other metal producers and by the government for not sharing his secret formula for his new metal. He is black balled by other businesspeople, effectively preventing him from sharing his super alloy with the world until Dagny Taggert makes the bold move to use Rearden Metal to rebuild Taggert Continental, the family’s railroad business started by her grandfather and left to decay by her brother James Taggert who is the President and in cahoots with the status quo. Ms. Taggert and Mr. Rearden are just two motivated entrepreneurs looking to be rewarded for their ingenuity and hard work.
Hank has a serious office for an entrepreneur on the verge of financial collapse. And I never saw dude don a lab coat or walk into an engineering or development facility or do anything else that might indicate how he was responsible for the development of Rearden Metal. In fact, the only thing I saw the guy do that pertained to the development of the super alloy was cut a deal with Taggert Continental to put his metal to work. This might be a change from the story in Ms. Rand’s book. She may have gone into more detail to explain Hank’s relationship to the discovery of the new metal. But from the movie I came away with the impression that Henry Rearden was nothing more than a businessman who cuts deals and who claims to be the sum of all his employees’ efforts.
Ms. Rand promoted a personal philosophy that can be summed up as economic self interest. In Ms. Rand’s mind the individual should exist for his or her own sake without sacrifice to others or requiring the sacrifice of others. In Ms. Rand’s opinion, selfishness is a virtue and altruism as incompatible with happiness. She placed emphasis on individual rights and considered capitalism free of government interference the only truly moral social system because it was the only system inherently focused on the protection of individual rights. She believed that the only just society is one with a constitutionally limited government that was barred from injecting itself into the affairs of individuals. Her idea of a limited government is one that appeals to many conservatives.
To a lot of people the idea of a government that wants an unfair “percentage” of the profits of all the business that happens among its citizenry is nothing short of state sanctioned theft. People who work hard to earn a living shouldn’t be taxed so that blah people can sit on their collective ass. These people will tell you that we’re taxed enough already and it’s about time we stop forcing the wage earners from supporting those who don’t contribute to our collective. Eventually, all of those hard working people will do like the Atlas in the title of Ms. Rand’s story and shrug the responsibility of the world off their shoulders. So they promote the idea of a smaller government, one too constrained to make sure that even the least amongst us has a safety net when things go bad. You wouldn’t need a safety net if you were motivated to work better yourself and/or your family because there was no government there to save you.
But one thing many conservatives forget about Ms. Rand is that her philosophy is more than just government gets out of the way so businesses can run amok. Ms. Rand’s theory is that an individual should exist for his or her self without requiring the sacrifice of others. If government should stand out of the way of business, business should get out of the way of individuals and not require people to make a sacrifice only for the interest of the business. All too often the business wants to increase profits at the expense of individuals, requiring employees to voluntarily sacrifice their time in order to get an assignment completed or to increase productivity. Many employees are pushed into taking pay cuts so that the business can thrive and even profit as productivity per dollar skyrockets. And let’s not forget the employees who are forced to make the sacrifice of their job when a business decides to outsource in order to increase profits.
If a business can demand that its employees sacrifice for the benefit of the business, it’s only fair that a business needs to make sacrifices for the benefit of the employees and other people. Employees and their families need to be educated. When they need help with bills because they’ve lost their jobs they need some form of unemployment until they can find another employer. They need a lot of things that a business has no motivation to provide. And the way we get the assistance of businesses who extract sacrifice from others is to extract sacrifice from them.
If some people want to praise the preaching of Ayn Rand then they need to praise the total picture she painted and not just the parts that benefit them. These are the same people who say that the corporate tax rate has to be more in line with what happens in other industrialized countries, but then ignore the fact that other industrialized countries provide the citizenry with universal healthcare and other social programs that make life a little less stressful. Businesses want the freedom of a totally free market. Chances are the people who work for business would like the same thing. In a society where government stays out of the way of business, it should stay out of the way of people as well. And if an employee happens to develop something important like a superior metal alloy, it’s a sure fire bet that business would like government to make sure business interests are protected.