Archive for July 2010
Atlas Shrugged: pgs 5-16
Wow, sorry about that. It’s been a busy week.
Anyway, today we are again traveling through a door. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into the…oh, I’m sorry. That’s the opening to the Twilight Zone, not Atlas Shrugged. Although the ideas behind Atlas Shrugged would’ve made an excellent episode of the Twilight Zone. Of course, Dagny and Hank and John Galt would be the bad guys. Say what you will about the Twilight Zone, but it at least had a firm moral compass.
So, when we left off last, we had just met James Taggart, President of Taggart Transcontinental, the largest railroad in the United States. Eddie Willers shows up in his office because there is trouble brewing.
He looked at James Taggart and said, “It’s the Rio Norte Line.” He noticed Taggart’s glance moving down to a corner of the desk. “We’ve had another wreck.”
“Railroad accidents happen every day. Did you have to bother me about that?”
“You know what I’m saying, Jim. The Rio Norte is done for. That track is shot. Down the whole line.”
DUN DUN DUUUUUNNNNNNNNN!
The next few pages, while ostensibly about the Rio Norte line, are nothing more than a stream of cheap little insults at the expense of Jim Taggart. Of course, we begin with the initial description, where we left off last time, but allow me to refresh your memories.
He looked like a man approaching fifty, who had crossed into age from adolescence, without the intermediate stage of youth. He had a small, petulant mouth, and thin hair clinging to a bald forehead. His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness, as if in defiance of his tall, slender body, a body with an elegance of line intended for the confident poise of an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout. The flesh of his face was pale and soft. His eyes were pale and veiled, with a glance that moved slowly, never quite stopping, gliding off and past things in eternal resentment of their existence. He looked obstinate and drained. He was thirty-nine years old.
Over the next few pages she will add lines like:
“What Taggart disliked about Eddie Willers was this habit of looking straight into people’s eyes”
“James Taggart seldom raised his head; when he looked at people, he did so by lifting his heavy eyelids and staring upward from under the expanse of his bald forehead.”
“Taggart asked slowly, his voice half-mocking, half-cautious, ‘What did my sister say?’”
You get the idea. That is not including the constant innuendo of every line of dialogue, of every comment. I would have to copy the entire page and a half to give you the full sensation. So just take my word for it, Ayn Rand goes out of her way to slander Jim Taggart. What’s more, these slurs are not directed at his intellect, nor at his ideas. While both these will be eventually attacked, when Rand first attacks her intellectual opponents, she immediately defaults to the cheapest of all propaganda tricks: physical appearance. Her heroes are clean limbed and healthy, and usually described as “angular.” She gushes over the lines of their faces, their bodies. Her villains…well, just read what she wrote.
What makes this so very irritating (beyond the fact that it’s bad writing, poor character development, supremely propagandistic, and generally bad art) is that when her villains do the same thing in the novel, she treats it as a supreme betrayal. On page 477, she describes one of the passengers riding on a doomed train as:
“a sniveling little neurotic who wrote cheap little plays into which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all businessmen were scoundrels.”
But as we have seen, and as we shall continue to see, her descriptions of her opponents are not analytical. There are no sheets of figures showing why their schemes will fail, there are no cutting logical analyses (Well, except for that massive speech by John Galt, but that is a bit sui generis and will be dealt with in its own good time.) There is only a stream of invective; the cheapest, most foolish inanities put into the mouth of characters she doesn’t like. Cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all liberals are scoundrels (if you will.) And trust me, it only gets worse from here.
But let us turn from that fruitful and yet to be fully explored path to what may be the most important sentence in this entire book. A bit of context: Eddie is thinking about Ellis Wyatt. (Q: is he a good guy or bad guy based only on the name?) and how he has turned his oil wells into the lifeblood of the nation by being bootstrappy. (A: Good guy.) He is reflecting on the symbolism of a map of railway lines as a chart of the United States’ arteries, and Ellis Wyatt’s role in filling them with oily lifeblood. To Eddie, Wyatt is an almost mythic figure.
One man had done it, and he had done it in eight years; this, thought Eddie Willers, was like the stories he had read in school books and never quite believed, the stories of men who had lived in the days of the country’s youth.
And there you have it folks. That is the quintessence of the Tea Parties, the Libertarians, the Randites beliefs. That the world today is somehow inferior to some unspecified prior golden age. And that is somehow the fault of restrictions on business. Life, they believe, was better in the age of Carnegie and the Battle of Blair Mountain, of Rockefeller and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Of J. P. Morgan and the Battle of Homestead. It is no coincidence that these things are paired. The existence of uncontrollable monopolies, of a pure free market, was what permitted the Gilded Age; filled with unbelievably wealthy nabobs and incredible suffering. There were no controls, no checks, no balances. And for 99% of everyone, it sucked.
Of course, one of the fundamental, unstated beliefs of this Tea Party worldview is that they will somehow all be among that one percent. That they are all so bootstrappy, so skilled, and so talented that should all checks on the pure free market be removed tomorrow, they would all be John D. Rockefellers, lighting their cigars with hundred dollar bills.
And in all honesty it is more than likely that, should that unhappy state of affairs come to pass, they would hang on quite well for a while. Of course, this would have little or nothing to do with their inherent abilities, but their whiteness, their education, their prior economic status…in other words, almost everything else but their inherent skills. To use my favorite phrase, they were born on third base, and think they hit a triple.
The essential belief of the Tea Party is that when they release the perfect free market, that all inequities will swept away, and the only rubric will be pure talent. They believe in some idealized pseudo-Peter Principle. That instead of rising to the level of their incompetence, people will instead rise to the level of their greatest competence and be happy there. In other words, they believe in a world of happy-crappy BS.
Ironically, their blind embrace of the free market is nothing more than the embrace of the free reign of mankind’s least noble impulses, expressed as far as the profit margin. As long as there is no profit (or at least no extra profit) in hiring women, in hiring minorities, in improving destitute communities, and so on, there will be no free market incentive to do so. And as long as it doesn’t impact the profit margins, anyone in power is free to exercise whatever bigotry they choose. It would be simple to slide back into the sort of system that existed before the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Mysteriously enough, only white males could go to college and get a good job. Which is, of course, proof that only white men have the natural genius required for industry. And so therefore women and minorities shouldn’t go to college. And so on ad nauseum.
Returning to the narrative. The discussion that consumes these pages is essentially this. There is another railroad, the Phoenix-Durango that is competing with Taggart Transcontinental in the newly industrial state of Colorado. Wyatt’s oil fields have caused a sudden economic boom in the state, one that Taggart’s railroad was poorly posed to take advantage of. The Phoenix-Durango is outperforming them, and Eddie wants something done about it. And Jim is going to do something about it, just as soon as their Mexican railroad starts to pay off.
Throughout this conversation a few themes are endlessly repeated. “Talk to my sister” and “No one can blame us” The first theme..well, we’ll meet Dagny in just a bit. But the second theme is very interesting. In Ayn Rand’s world, what Liberals care about is not results, not progress, but not being blamed. The world can go to hell (and it does) as long as no one can blame them.
That’s…that’s so stupid I don’t even know where to start. It’s like talking to someone about the latest mission to Mars and discovering that they believe the sun is a giant lamp in the sky, and the stars are places where the paint has chipped away. The flaws in their thinking are so grotesquely fundamental that you don’t even know where to start. However, we’ll put off that question until later, when one of these poor-straw men actually tries to defend themselves.
Then we come to a bit of good and rather effective writing. As Eddie leaves Jim’s office, he bumps into old Pop Harper, the office repairman. And Pop asks Eddie if he knows where he can get any good woolen undershirts.
Pop Harper glanced up at Eddie Willers as he came out of the president’s office. It was a wise, slow glance; it seemed to say that he knew that Eddie’s visit to their part of the building meant trouble on the line, knew that nothing had come of the visit, and was completely indifferent to the knowledge. It was the cynical indifference which Eddie Willers had seen in the eyes of the bum on the street corner.
“Say, Eddie, know where I could get some woolen undershirts?” he asked, “Tried all over town, but nobody’s got ’em.”
“I don’t know,” said Eddie, stopping. “Why do you ask me?”
“I just ask everybody. Maybe somebody’ll tell me.”
Of course, it immediately degenerates into a long maudlin speech after that, but let’s take a moment to appreciate this detail. An old man who just wants some good woolen undershirts. But these things don’t exist anymore. Everyone remembers them, and they are such a small detail, so easily overlooked. You simply buy the cheaper cotton ones, and how often do you buy undershirts anyway? You just assume they’re out of them at the moment. No one ever mentions it, no one ever notices that they’re gone, because they don’t realize they are. But this small detail has slipped away forever, the first small stone of the landslide that’s coming. And the only one who even notices is a half-crazy old man, who just wants to be warm in the long, cold winter. That’s a lovely detail, and a surprisingly delicate touch in a book that is usually about as subtle as a nine pound hammer to the kneecap.
And finally, finally we meet Dagny Taggart. Take a deep breath campers, we’re about to be up to our eyeballs in it.
Her leg, sculptured by the tight sheen of the stocking, its long line running straight, over an arched instep, to the tip of a foot in a high-heeled pump, had a feminine elegance that seemed out of place in the dusty train car and oddly incongruous with the rest of her. She wore a battered camel’s hair coat that had been expensive, wrapped shapelessly about her slender, nervous body. The coat collar was raised to the slanting brim of her hat. A sweep of brown hair fell back, almost touching the line of her shoulders. Her face was made of angular planes, the shape of her mouth clear-cut, a sensual mouth held closed with inflexible precision. She kept her hands in the coat pockets, her posture taut, as if she resented immobility, and unfeminine, as if she were unconscious of her own body and that it was a woman’s body.
You thought I was joking about the obsession with angles, didn’t you?
And to be honest, not much happens in the next few pages. The train stops, Dagny gets out. She discovers that no one wants to get the train started, because if they take action they could be blamed, dontcha see? And then Dagny sorts it out easily. Not because it was a hard problem, but because it’s an easy one. Which apparently no one else thought about. Also, she hears a piece of music, which she recognizes as the work of Richard Halley, a composer who disappeared some years ago. The thing is, this is a new work. *PLOT POINT*
Then she sweeps into Jim’s office, tells him that she’s not ordering the rails from Orren Boyle who hasn’t delivered it in over a year.
Sweet JESUS NO. OK? I could understand if, say the rail was two weeks, even a month late. Then we would have some energy in this scene. You have Jim Taggart, trying to be loyal to a friend who is having some trouble, and no-nonsense Dagny Taggart who wants that rail yesterday because she has important work to do. Neither one of these people would be evil, or moronic. They’d be two people, with different motives, caught in the struggle between rational and emotional impulses. It could explore the nature of the business world, the question of whether the quest for money is ultimately uplifting or dehumanizing. Jim could defend his principles and Dagny could shoot him down, but as one treats a brother. As one treats a fellow human being. Give the man some dignity, for Christ’s sake.
But no one, no matter how liberal, no matter how communistic, waits THIRTEEN MONTHS for something they need. Let alone something they desperately need. No one at all. It is just a stupid, overblown detail to show how wishy-washy and mealy mouthed Jim Taggart is compared to his sister. And, if she is so on the ball, why in hell didn’t she do this twelve months ago? There is no indication in this scene that once she has put her foot down, Jim will display any resistance. She effectively runs the company, so why is she just getting to this now? It seems to me that she has been waiting just as long as he has, to no appreciable end, for no appreciable purpose. But because she is the one finally taking action, we’re supposed to respect her.
And then this happens.
“The human element is very important. You have no sense of the human element at all.”
“We’re talking about saving a railroad, Jim.”
“Yes, of course, of course, but still, you haven’t any sense of the human element.”
“No. I haven’t.”
And you know what? I’m with Dagny on this one. Because I have no clue what the “Human Element” is, either. Except a buzzword from IBM. But it sounds like the sort of thing a shitty
author would put in the mouth of a strawman lib….Oh, I see what you did there. Very clever, Ayn.
And then she decides they’re going to use Rearden Metal. Which is a magical new type of metal that can do…well, just about anything. Of course, it’s completely untested under any sort of long term strain, there have been no replicates of the data, no one except Rearden has had a chance to see it.
And then this happens.
“What do you go by?” [Jim asked.]
“Well, whose judgment did you take?”
“But whom did you consult about it?”
“Then what on earth do you know about Rearden Metal?”
“That it’s the greatest thing ever put on the market.”
“Because it’s tougher than steel, cheaper than steel and will outlast any hunk of metal in existence.”
“But who says so?”
“Jim, I studied engineering in college. When I see things, I see them.”
Apparently when she was studying engineering she missed out on…well, the entirety of the scientific method. You don’t “see” things in engineering. You don’t have a gut feeling that something will work and use that to go on. That gut feeling might be the start, but it is step one of about ten thousand. Then you collect data, and compare data, and run tests and simulations and calculate all sorts of variables and you do all this because no matter how good you are, at least half the time you’re Just. Plain. Wrong. Because you forgot to include some little detail in your gut feeling. And this isn’t just Timmy Testtube that does this, either. You think that Einstein just came up with relativity? No. He had a gut feeling, and he followed it down many, many blind alleys until he found something that worked. Because that’s what science is, methodically testing your educated guesses or gut feelings until you get them right.
And on that note…I’m tired. I’m really, really, tired of this book. I’m gonna take a break now. But next time, I think I’ll start exploring some of the similarities between this and the Left Behind series, and why they both seem to have a death grip on two very similar and often overlapping groups of people. Stay tuned.
Atlas Shrugged pgs 2-5
I don’t wanna do it, don’t make me! Please mommy, don’t let the bad lady hurt me anymore. I won’t use anymore wire hangers…
*sigh* So, without any further sobbing, wailing, attempts to give myself testicular cancer with a glow in the dark watch, or trying to change my name to Juan and move to Tijuana…Ladies and Gents: Atlas Shrugged!
“Who is John Galt?”
That’s how she starts the book off. Well, in case you haven’t heard, John Galt is the perfected man. He won’t show up for about another 700 pages though, so don’t hold your breath. In Rand’s world, the phrase “Who is John Galt?”is pervasive. It is an expression of despair and depression, that the world is fundamentally screwed and there is nothing that can be done about it.
Of course, this is also a sign of the incredible low level of curiosity shown by anyone besides Our Craggy Heroes ™. No one bothers to do any research, investigation, zip. At the end, it will turn out that “John Galt” has been on the payroll of Taggart Transcontinental all along. And no one noticed. No one looked at his pay stub, none of the people he worked with, none of the people who paid him ever commented on it. These people aren’t just uncurious, they’re inhuman. Think of your reaction if you met someone named Thomas Cruise, or even Henry Ford. Their name, their face would stick with you more clearly, even though they only shared a name with someone famous. Humans search for patterns, and the idea that no one would comment, that no one would notice this guy has exactly the same name as the guy in that saying is literally impossible. Humans don’t work like that.
So the book opens from the perspective of Eddie Willers. And here’s the thing. I like Eddie. Eddie is a nice guy. Eddie acts like a human being. He isn’t some inhumanly dramatic Nordic God of Industry, he isn’t some whiny schmuck. He’s just a guy, caught up in events beyond his ken. Actually, Eddie might be the most important character in the book. See, Eddie is one of those people that keeps things running. The secret that Rand missed, even though it runs through the book like a thread, is that the John Galt’s and Dagny Taggart’s of the world don’t actually run things. Dagny spends about half the book traveling, in hiding, working on another railroad, and generally doing things that are not “Running Taggart Transcontinental.” Who runs it while she’s gone? Eddie. When she goes missing in Colorado and plays “hide the gold bar” with Galt, who runs things? Eddie. When she and Rearden travel around the US hunting down motors, who runs the office? Eddie.
One of the turning points of this book will be the eventual, inevitable downfall of Taggert Transcontinental. Dagny spends pages raging against this like the good lil’ ubermensch she is. Eddie doesn’t. Eddie just keeps things running.
I like Eddie.
When we meet Eddie, however, he is having a little crisis. A bum has asked him for a dime.
“Who is John Galt?”
The light was ebbing, and Eddie Willers could not distinguish the bum’s face …yellow glints caught his eyes, and the eyes looked straight at Eddie Willers, mocking and still-as if the question had been addressed to the causeless uneasiness within him.
“Why did you say that?” asked Eddie Willers, his voice tense.
“Why does it bother you?” he asked.
“It doesn’t,” snapped Eddie Willers.
He reached hastily into his pocket. The bum had stopped him and asked for a dime, then had gone on talking, as if to kill that moment and postpone the problem of the next. Pleas for dimes were so frequent in the streets these days that it was not necessary to listen to explanations, and he had no desire to hear the details of this bum’s particular despair.
“Go get your cup of coffee,” he said, handing the dime to the shadow that had no face. ‘Thank you, sir.’ said the voice, without interest, and the face leaned forward for a moment.”
Yep. This is the most likable character in the book. Look dude, you’re going to your high-powered, well paying job. Give the guy a fucking dime and spare us the drama, ok? You can afford it. Hell, he even thanks you. I mean you gave the guy a dime, what do you want, a boot licking? (Also, literary note. WE KNOW THE GUYS FUCKING NAME, AYN. YOU DON’T NEED TO KEEP REPEATING IT LIKE WE’RE UNUSUALLY SLOW KINDERGARTENERS.)
Again, this illustrates a fundamental part of Libertarian thinking. It’s not just the idea of charity or generosity that bothers them. It’s the idea that people aren’t grateful enough. Never mind that this is a polite, respectful bum, he is “without interest.” Because you know, when someone gives me a free dime, I am overjoyed. This poor bum doesn’t realize the simple joy of a dime. I mean, a dime! What ecstatic joy is in the word! Stupid bums not appreciating the value of a good dime.
But Eddie is feeling a “causeless unease”
“It’s the twilight, he thought; I hate the twilight.”
(Say it with me everyone: SYMBOLISM!)
“He turned a corner. In the narrow space between the dark silhouettes of two buildings, as in the crack of a door, he saw the page of a gigantic calendar suspended in the sky.”
Worst. Acid trip. EVER.
“It was the calendar that the mayor of New York had erected last year on the top of a building, so that citizens might tell the day of the month as they told the hours of the day, by glancing up at a public tower. A white rectangle hung over the city, imparting the date to the men in the streets below. In the rusty light of this evening’s sunset, the rectangle said: September 2.”
That’s a really, really, really stupid idea. I mean, really stupid. A giant calendar? Who the hell wants a giant calendar? I mean if it had some kittens playing with string, or a bunch of classic ‘vettes, yeah, I could see that. But just a plain old calendar? It’s like the worst present ever from your grandmother. Except that your grandmother is the Mayor of New York. And she just blew a few million of your tax dollars on a friggin’ sky calendar.
“Eddie Willers looked away. He had never liked the sight of that calendar. It disturbed him, in a manner he could not explain or define. The feeling seemed to blend with his sense of uneasiness; it had the same quality.”
Really? It doesn’t make you angry, Eddie Willers? You don’t think it’s a horrible waste of public money, Eddie Willers? It just makes you sad, Eddie Willers? You’re such a puss, Eddie Willers.
You know, I get it. I really get why their world is falling apart. Because none of the “movers and shakers” ever get angry. Well, they do, but it’s always a sort of helpless and confused rage. “What can we do?” they cry. “We’re only powerful industrialists! We have no ability to affect the course of anything!” They never start a petition or pay off a senator or even write a letter. They just sit around, and then get all sad and outraged, but in a quiet and noble way, like an Indian watching you litter.
And I find myself understanding old people now. The sort of anger that Dagny and Hank and John feel isn’t the anger of the dynamic and youthful men and woman of action they are. It is the sort of helpless, gnawing rage of someone grown too old, in a world they do not understand. And so they shake their fists and curse the youth and vote for whoever reminds them of Ronnie, because they don’t understand and this frightens them. It is understandable, and heartbreaking in the old. It is unforgiveable in the young.
And this is the same attitude we see among the superrich today. Witness the reactions of the car companies any time a new requirement is added, be it seatbelts, or mileage requirements, or safety glass. Instead of either A) doing it or B) listing reasons why it can’t be done, they simply wibble and whine like two year olds who just lost snack time.*
“But but but, we can’t possibly do that! Profit margins! Engineering! LAYOFFS!” You halfway expect them to bring their mothers to the Congressional hearings. And then, if they’re lucky, they get congressmen (*cough* Barton *cough*) apologizing to them for the heinous crime of expecting them not make a horrible mess of the entire world. Because they’re suffering!
So Eddie wanders down the street. He sees a stall full of fresh produce, and a well driven bus, and feels better. 🙂 But then he sees the calendar again and feels sad. 😦 And then he sees stuff for sale and he’s all 🙂 again. And then he thinks about a tree and is all :(. And then he gets to work and is all 🙂
Brutha needs some lithium, know what I’m sayin’?
So blah, blah, blah, childhood memories, the world is changing, I can feel it in the water, I can smell it in the air.
Two pages later, he finally gets to work. And meets his boss, the head of the company, one of the most powerful, wealthiest industrialists in the world. James Taggart. The very name is synonymous with trains, with energy, with motion. Oh, what a God this man must be!
“He had a small, petulant mouth, and thin hair clinging to a bald forehead. His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness, as if in defiance of his tall, slender body, a body with an elegance of line intended for the confident poise of an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout. The flesh of his face was pale and soft. His eyes were pale and veiled, with a glance that moved slowly, never quite stopping, gliding off and past things in eternal resentment of their existence. He looked obstinate and drained. He was thirty-nine years old.
He lifted his head with irritation, at the sound of the opening door.
“Don’t bother me, don’t bother me, don’t bother me,” said James Taggart.”
Now, let us be clear here. Ayn Rand is not saying that all Liberals are ugly.
*flips through rest of book*
No, I tell a lie. She thinks all Liberals are ugly. Presumably her books of philosophy contains, (besides the “Liberals are ugly” argument) the “Liberals are smelly” argument, the “Liberals are poopyheads” argument, and most devastating of all the “So’s your old man” argument.
Again, I refer you to the statement included in the author biography.
“I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don’t exist. That this book has been written-and published-is my proof that they do.”
Ayn Rand feels that her ability to write characters like Galt means that they somehow must exist. So presumably, in her mind, the fact that she writes liberals like James Taggart means that they too must exist.
And again, the sheer arrogance in that statement is so breathtaking, so very far beyond the ken of normal hubris, that it requires a full minute or two of thinking about before you realize what she has done. She has claimed that the fact that she has written something means that it is so.
“And Rand said, let there be Galt. And there was Galt.
And Rand saw the Galt, that it was good: and Rand divided the Galt from the liberals…”
Next time: Deals are made! Rail is bought! Woolen undershirts are sought! And introducing: DAGNY TAAAAAAAGART!
While I did not at all intend the particular edited line to be read that way, part of being a writer is being able to take criticism, and change what you did wrong. And yes, I’m still struggling with my male privilege. (I’m 21, cut me some slack.) And in this case…well, frankly, what I’ve got there now is a better metaphor that what was there before. Cheap shock value is one of those things I’m supposed to be rising above. And as always, thanks to Carolyn for calling me on these screwups. Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux and all that.
So, inspired by the brilliant and talented Fred Clark, whose smackdown of the atrocious Left Behind series is both beautiful, humane, and elegant (and you should read it at: slacktivist.typepad.com) I’ve decided that someone should take on that other great book of the whackjob right, and do a page by page breakdown of Atlas Shrugged.
May God have mercy on my soul.
So the game’s afoot: follow your spirit, and upon this charge, cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George! (Enjoy it while you can folks, that’s the last good writing you’ll see for a long time.)
To properly understand this monolithic monograph, it is perversely necessary to begin at the end. The very end. The very last sentence, as it so happens.
“He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.”
(Get your ass back in that chair, Jack. If I have to read this shit, you’re coming with me. )
So, ironically enough, I think most of this first post will be spent unpacking this very last line in the book. For those fortunate souls who are unfamiliar with Atlas Shrugged, here is a bit of background. The story is primarily told from the viewpoint of Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive in a vaguely defined 1920-1950 world. The rest of the world has become communist/socialist/leftist (Rand seems unaware of the distinctions) and the various People’s States are reliant upon the United States for, well…everything. The world is increasingly dominated by weak and whinging men who believe in loving their fellow man above all else. This, combined with rampant corruption, means that all the things built by men of industry are slowly decaying. One of the worst of these corrupt lovers of their fellow men is Dagny’s brother Jim. He is the titular head of the company, but anyone that knows anything knows that Dagny runs the company.
That’s the damn background. Maybe the first hundred pages. This book is literally longer than the Bible, and trust me, an even semi-decent synopsis would run somewhere close to the length of a normal short story. What I’m trying to say here is that this is a fucking epic tome. And for millions of Tea Partiers, it’s better than the Bible. Probably because the Bible doesn’t have quite so much creepy sex or smoking.
So, with that background in mind, bottle of whisky on the desk and, just in case of emergency, a gun with a single bullet in the drawer–lets go.
As I mentioned before, the final sentence is the key to understanding much of the mindset of these books, and I think that most of this first post will be taken up by examining the inherent meanings of this one sentence. Don’t worry, things will speed up later.
So there is a lot going on with this sentence, but the key word is “desolate.” The entire idea behind Atlas Shrugged is that all the movers, the shakers, the competent and skilled, abandon society, apparently leaving it populated entirely with theater majors. These people left behind (oh, trust me, we’ll get into the connection between this and Left Behind VERY soon) die. YAY! But they were all worthless anyway, and they had nasty ideas. Like taking care of the sick and weak. And taxes. But they’re all dead now, so we can go back to a world of strong men who build railroads and angular women who build railroads and get off on being owned by the strong men. And they all smoke. A lot.
From what I can glean, Ayn Rand was one of those people who believed that because she enjoyed something, it meant that that something was automatically a universal good. There are heavy elements of Nietzsche running through her work and life, particularly the concept of the ubermensch, the ultimate man. In John Galt, Ayn Rand essentially creates a fictionalized version of Nietzsche’s ideal man. However, she also viewed herself as a sort of living ubermensch; whatever she did was the best thing. She was a chain smoker, therefore chain smoking was not only a personal choice, but a sign of your worthiness. On page 48, she puts this sentiment into the mouth of an old cigarette seller, a man who has been broken by this new order.
“I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone, watching the smoke of a cigarette, thinking. I wonder what great things have come from such hours. When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind-and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression.”
To Rand, the act of smoking was sacramental. It must be, because she smoked. The same ideas apply to her views of sexuality. Rand was apparently a bit kinky. (We’ll get there soon enough folks, keep it in your trousers.) But again, rather than doing what sane people do and simple saying “Ok, this is my kink, it’s my choice” or even having it show up in her work tangentially, she see’s her particular brand of kink as the only proper one. She is in herself the perfection of humanity, therefore whatever she does must also be perfect.
You’re starting to see the connection, aren’t you?
The other notable focus of this sentence besides, you know, Rand’s desire to let everyone who disagreed with her die of slow starvation while she presumably cackled madly and stroked a white Persian, is the almost religious overtones. Galt’s actions are overtly religious; a man who is the savior of humanity stands over a desolate wasteland and reverently traces the symbol of the concept that is most important to him. As his lover watches. It is a blatant and deliberate choice on Rand’s part; the other great theme that runs through this book is that money (Gold, specifically) and Work are holy things, practiced with sacred reverence that is only questioned by those who do not get it and are therefore evil.
It is no coincidence that Glenn Beck routinely shills this book. It is everything the modern Tea Party believes; that working is holy, that they are not merely a bunch of slightly slow people, but they are the wave of the future, the new ubermensch. That what they believe and feel is correct in its totality not because of some outside standard, because outside standards are imposed by liberals. And not by rational, introspective thought, because philosophy is a suckers game. It is correct because they believe it is correct, and they are the superior people, therefore theirs is the superior belief.
Terrifying, isn’t it?
So with that in mind, realizing that Rand and her followers believe in their own infallibility, view money as a religious sacrament with gold a sort of new and lustrous Eucharist, and that if it wasn’t for their presence, we’d all starve to death and we deserve it too…well, lets move on next time to answering that all consuming question.
Who is John Galt?
I’ve been writing about how Libertarianism is stupid: because it doesn’t take into account any part of the real world. But just as there comes a point when silence is betrayal, there comes a point when active, willful denial of reality transcends the line between stupidity and active evil.
The Slacktivist has discussed this phenomenon of willful stupidity many, many times. For example, here. And the conclusion he draws is simple. To be this stupid requires not just a lack of knowledge, but a constant and active denial of reality. Never tell them otherwise, and it is understandable if someone thinks the world is flat. But to show someone the history of the 1870-1920 period in American history, and still have them insist that a full, unfettered free market is the solution to everything from the recession to Chlamydia is a delusion that requires a certain effort to maintain.
Now, don’t get me wrong. One of the things I love about this country is its incredible tolerance for cranks, creeps, freaks, and jackasses of every stripe. You can believe whatever you want, however you want, as loudly as you want, and hell, if it’s weird enough, you might even make a buck. The Emperor Norton was the sort of all American whackjob that I love. This all-American tradition runs the gamut from the harmless, like Norton, to the…well, at best, mixed result of William Jennings Bryant, to the hostile and hateful madness of Fred Phelps. There is a common thread that runs through these men, a certain mad strangeness, given a separate twist in each one fixing his destiny to a different star. But Libertarians are another expression of this uniquely American strangeness, and ones that are usually worth tolerating.
Lately however, a particular virile and unpleasant little strain of libertarianism has been sweeping the nation in the form of the Tea Party. Now, these little bubbles happen from time to time, and, frankly, they’re kinda cool. A very interesting look at the nature of democracy, and of America itself. But this one has never sat well with me. Maybe it’s the leaders; I always kinda liked Bill O’Reilly-the “Cantankerous old bastard who says whatever he thinks” is who I want to be when I grow up (except not, you know…stupid.) But Glenn Beck creeps me right the hell out.* Or maybe it’s the undercurrent of racism in the virulent and irrational hatred of Obama that gets to me. Whatever it is, from its inception, the Tea Party has given me a certain uncomfortable twist in my stomach. As though there was something more than the usual right wing histrionics involved.
But I couldn’t put my finger on it until yesterday. And I had a rare moment, of slowly growing realization. Realization and a cold, pure rage I don’t think I’ve ever felt before. See, I was arguing with one of the Tea Party trolls that occasionally wanders through any decent blog. And this person, about as welcome as a leper at a buffet, was asked what, in his (or her) perfect little Libertopia, would be done about disabled people. Not access ramps, or push button doors, or parking spots…not anything as civilized as that. No, just how, without legislation like the Americans With Disabilities Act, could disabled people find a job?
I’d like to quote the “response” in full.(Emphasis mine.)
“The fun thing about the free market is that I don’t have to come up with a solution; other people have the freedom to innovate and come up with solutions. It’s much harder for the statist since they have to invent some sort of one-size-fits-all solution to accomplish whatever kind of social engineering they are trying to pawn off on society this week. If the handicapped can help someone make money, then someone will make it their business to help them do so.
Ok. We can discard the first sentence as “I don’t have to think about my philosophy based around destroying many fundamental parts of our society. FREEEEEEEE
DOM MARKET!” And the second is the usual “HAW HAW! Trying to run a government is hard!” bullshit. But the third sentence…do you see it?
If the handicapped can help someone make money, then someone will make it their business to help them do so.
Honestly, I was kicking myself that it’s taken me this long to see it. It was one of those slow dawning moments of realization, like standing in line at Starbucks, listening with half an to the lady behind you, only to slowly realize that she was telling you the pancakes in her basement told her to kill all her cats. The mind recoils at some things, even when they stare you in the face, as too inhuman. As things so antithetical to basic human decency as to defy belief.
And the hidden idea behind that statement up there is such a belief. Something that crosses the line from fatuous and defiant stupidity to active evil. And that idea is really quite simple. Tea Partiers/Tea Baggers/Beckians/Randites…whatever the hell they call themselves, believe that the only value a person has is their earning potential. Either you are useful to make dollars, or you have no worth.
“Well, sure.” You say. “A little messed up, I suppose, but what’s so bad about it?”
Well, think about it. Think about what it means to literally say (or imply) that the only worth people have is their earning potential. It’s always been there, the disgusting statement “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” has the same basic thread running through it. You aren’t worth feeding, you aren’t worth keeping alive, unless you’re working.
Now, of course, the obvious thing is for all the libertarians to go “Well, yes we want to cut all social services and privatize everything and eliminate the government, and leave everything to the gentle hand of the free market but but but we don’t want to KILL anyone!” Like fucking shit you don’t, Charlie. And, unfortunately, the “but but but I didn’t meanto!” argument doesn’t fly with anyone. Gun goes off and shoots the little old lady in the apartment above? Get drunk and drive home and plow into a busload of nuns? There’s no “whoopsie!” clause in the real world.
But even that isn’t the most disturbing thing. What bothers me most isn’t the minutiae of whether or not they want to let the poor starve to death or actively go out and cap them. What concerns me is that isn’t a concern at all. There are, as far as I can tell, no Tea Baggers going “Um…guys? What happens when we win and we get rid of everything?” Michelle Bachmann does not sit around at night planning out the details of her idealist society. She has no answer to the question “So, do we just dump all taxes immediately, or would it be better to scale down until private industry can catch up with the demands currently being met by the private sector?”**
That isn’t a step five hundred question. That’s a step-fucking-two question about a concept that dozens of commentators and millions of protestors spend hours hammering on. Lower taxes. No taxes. Fair taxes. They can tell us in detail exactly what the tax rate should be, and exactly who should be taxed (and more importantly who shouldn’t be taxed.) They’ve got step one (elect Tea Party candidates!) and step 1000 (Free Market Bliss!) They’ve just got no fucking idea how to get there. More importantly, they don’t seem to understand that their actions have consequences, that should they magically be transported into the halls of power tomorrow, they’d be expected to do stuff. That doing that stuff would change things. That changing those things would impact the lives of real people who feel real pain, real sorrow, and cry real tears when their job goes away.
There is a term for the place that Tea Party Libertarians seem to be stuck. The developmental psychology pioneer Jean Piaget called it the “Preoperational stage.” See, the stage after the Preoperational stage of human development is called the Concrete Operational Stage. And the Concrete Operational stage of human development (generally occurring in the 7-11 age span) is the one that lets us realize that other people are their own separate beings, with desires, wishes and thoughts independent of our own. In many ways, it is the place we learn empathy, because the root of empathy is understanding at a deep and fundamental level that other people feel just as we do. That they hurt and cry and love and hope and dream, just exactly like we do. And this is a concept that Glenn Beck and his ilk have fled from- remember all the flap about “empathetic judges?” Essentially, the Tea Party exhibits egocentrism, the inability to distinguish between themselves and others. Not only are they not asking about the possible effects of their policies, they seem to be literally incapable of comprehending such effects, a classic presentation of egocentrism if ever there was one. And egocentrism is one of the defining aspects of the Preoperational stage.
Of course, there is more evidence for this. In the Preoperational stage, children and libertarians exhibit centration: focusing entirely on one aspect of a situation versus all the others. Witness this in relation to their single minded focus on the effect of lowering taxes, or the magical effects of the free market. The fact that the free market has a beneficial impact in many situations is the only detail they seem capable of grasping and the idea that there is a problem the free market cannot fix seems to literally be beyond their comprehension.
Children in this stage also exhibit animism, the belief that inanimate entities are capable of actions and have lifelike qualities. Again, the fixation on the free market, on capitalism, on the economy, seems to almost present it as an independent agent. At the very least, capitalism is seen as a fundamental law of nature somewhat akin to the laws of motion; an immutable fact, rather than a human invention under human control. (And one general note on Glenn Beck, the heavy use of simple representational imagery is developing in this stage. I’m just sayin’, I haven’t been that fixated on drawing simple shapes on a chalkboard since I was, well, six years old.)
Finally, children at this stage are incapable of understanding conservation. For example, they are not able to grasp the idea that if you pour liquid from a short, wide container into a tall narrow one, that it is the same liquid throughout. Again, the Tea Party seems fixated on the idea that if you change the outward appearance of a thing; in this case the economy, you will somehow change the thing itself, that problems and issues are not conserved. That there is no inherent structure to these things, but that they just are, as if sprung out of the ether to which they will return when things are set “right.”
It seems to me that the Tea Partiers are not fully functional adults, as that word is traditionally understood. They are children somewhere from the age of two to seven. And this is most frightening of all. Simply put, this stage of mental development is sociopathic; children from two to seven do not care about the feelings, wishes, beliefs, or others. More properly, they <i>cannot</i> care about them because they do not comprehend them.
Are they truly evil then? If there is truly this lack of comprehension? And the answer is: of course they are. These people are not idiots. Well, not in the technical sense. They are intelligent. They can feed, dress and drive themselves. They can run businesses, and carry on conversations. They can understand movies and that people are separate entities. What it comes down to is willful stupidity. Anyone can be willfully stupid: your boyfriend simply cannot be cheating on you. Of course she still loves me. One more round of blackjack and my luck will change.
Being willfully stupid is part of the human condition. But it seems that what this Tea Party nonsense requires is not the mere suspension of disbelief, nor denying the facts, but a level of systemic denial that requires its adherents to function on the intellectual level of small children. Children who cannot understand that other people have feelings. Children who cannot understand that problems have many sides.
Children who are still somehow adults. And responsible for their actions, for their madness, for their reductionism, and for the damage they have done and will do in their blind fits of uncomprehending pique.
It is not their lack of understanding that makes them evil. It is the will necessary to maintain that illusion. The will that makes them stupid, evil children.
*Seriously, am I the only one who thinks that Beck would be the perfect person to cast as a Nazi? I mean, I don’t want to call him an actual Nazi, but if I had a casting call for “Auschwitz Guards,” Beck would be perfect. And not for just the “normal” Nazis, but the extra fucked up ones. Like Mengle. Can’t you just see him playing Mengle? Creepy, isn’t it?
**Ok, in all fairness, she probably does have an answer. But that’s only because she will have a full blown Pavlovian response to the words “no taxes now” and go into foaming paroxysms of orgasmic joy at the thought. So yes, in the strictest, most technical sense of the word, she does have an answer.
So last time, I discussed some specifically stupid things that libertarians say. But it is easy to mock, easy to disprove. But to me, the harder question is asking ‘why?’ These statements are so obviously obtuse, so blatant in their disregard for reality, that there must be some compelling reason to believe them.
The glib answer is that no, they really are that stupid. All those people you see at the Tea Party rallies, at the Fair Tax rallies, calling into Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, really are dumber than a bag of hair. But I think that is too simple. Far too simple, far too glib, and far, far, too alienating. One of the main charges to be laid at their door is that their hatred of anything liberal and progressive has a nasty, personal slant to it. I’ve been told many times that “you’ll understand when I was older.” Nothing is more infuriating than to have your thoughts, your beliefs, waved aside as the folly of youth. Nothing is more condescending.
And so, because I like that Jesus guy, and we should do unto others as we would like them to do unto us, and because I like that Gandhi guy, and an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and because I like that King guy…well, you get the point. So to simply go, “Ah, screw it, they’re all morons” and commence with the sarcasm and the insults, is too easy. It wouldn’t make them proud. (Having heroes is easy enough, but actually trying to listen to what they have to say makes you feel like a recalcitrant child. But, even though you don’t wanna, you gotta. )
And so I’ve thought about this. As I said in part one, I understand the appeal of Libertarianism. There is an attraction to the frontier mentality (horribly misnamed, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) But why? What is it about this mentality that makes it so much more attractive?
I think there are two things. One of them is the implied simplicity of libertarianism. And the other is the implied fairness. And although the two go hand in hand, let’s take them one at a time, shall we?
It is perhaps fatuous to point out that libertarians have a simplistic view of the world. Their insistence in processing the world in terms of the free market is obviously stupidly reductionist. But I would characterize libertarian beliefs in the purity of the free market as something more akin to faith than political belief. Indeed, this new brand of Tea Party madness goes well with certain strains of Christian Dominionism. (But that’s another blog entry.) And like religious faith, libertarianism is fueled not by the way things are, but by the way things should be. And things, they believe, should be simpler. And, like religious faith, the how of that transformation is often vague and general to the point of uselessness.
Take a moment here to reflect on the sheer complexity of our lives. On the tight, almost impenetrable web of connections that fuel our economy, our lifestyle. Our food comes from almost every point on the globe. Our toys are from China, our shirts are from Taiwan, and our apples are from Chile. It’s a big scary world out there. And what ends up happening is that talent, skill, intelligence and even hard work are removed from the equation to a certain degree. And it all starts coming down to luck.
Or so they think.
Well, let’s not be disingenuous. It always was about luck. The luck of being white, the luck of being born in the right place, to the right family. And truthfully, when you look at America today? Luck has less and less to do with the world. For example, I can remember one moment that shook me to my core. It was back in high school, in my AP US History course. And as luck would have it, we had a substitute one day. And after I finished my assigned work for the day, I was talking with her about the subject, which, as luck would have it, was civil rights. And this woman, who was perhaps in the middle of middle age, told me that she had gone to a segregated school.
I cannot easily explain what I felt. It was a sudden shock of knowing at a visceral level what I knew intellectually, that the sins of our past were not buried so very deep. That within the woman’s life, there had been segregation. That she had been one of those segregated. It was the long shadow of something evil reaching out, and it shook me to realize how near the shadow was.
I am most definitely not trying to say that racism is at an end, that we’re all perfectly equal and hunky-dory. But we don’t segregate our schools anymore, and there is something to be said for that.
But Tea Partiers (who are mostly older, richer, and white as snow) don’t see that. It is an interesting phenomenon. What it boils down to is that these people have been given privilege for so long that the removal of that privilege, or even removal of the exclusivity of that privilege, feels like disenfranchisement. And since they’ve never actually been disenfranchised, they have no idea what that word really means. This leads to people like Michelle Bachmann saying that taxation with representation is as bad as taxation without representation, without really comprehending what the word “representation” means.
I wandered a bit into “fairness” there. But its all chocolate-and-peanut-butter around this issue. And so here’s where the simplicity enters into it. They long for a perceived ‘simpler’ time. I guess one where the men were men, the women were women, and all of the children were above average, to steal a line from Garrison Keillor. But regardless of exactly what they believe this time to have been, there is no doubt they long to return to it. And there are two reasons they long for its return, if, indeed, it ever was. The first is that, for the upper-middle-class, straight, male, Christian honky, those times weren’t so bad.
And the second is that they’ve been lied to. (This will be a continuing theme throughout these blogs, by the way.)
The first reason is fairly obvious. For the well off, straight, white, WASPS, the ‘50s were pretty damn good. They were in charge, America ran the world, the commies were on the run, we had all the stuff we wanted, and the cars were nice. Of course, if you were black, brown, female, gay, leftist or Hindu, it kinda sucked. And even the times before that, when it was hard for everyone, were better for WASP Men. It’s always been better to be a WASP man. So when, all of a sudden, those privileges had to be shared…well it was easier to feel that they had been getting by on hard work and skill, and all of a sudden, now that these women and blacks were looking for equality that it was all about luck.
That’s the first part, and that part is most positively, definitely, their own fault. But the simple fact is that they have also been lied to, constantly, since they were children.
The most egregious example of this comes in that pile of pap that Glenn Beck shucks like the Bible’s smarter, prettier sister: Atlas Shrugged. I have desire to go into a list of why that book is a pile of shit, at least not right now. But there is a moment in it that so completely sums up everything that is wrong with the Tea Party/Randite/Libertarian worldview that it is breathtaking in its elegant stupidity. It is when Dagny Taggart finally gets to Galt’s Gulch, and it is a breathtaking panorama of loveliness with fertile fields and little houses, and people fishing and etc. It’s para-fucking-dise. And John Galt himself leads Dagny around showing her all the wonderful things they’ve done. And there are oil pipes in the mountains, and fields full of…stuff (She’s not much for details, our Ayn.) And it’s the most hilarious moment in the book, because you realize, at that moment, that Ayn Rand has no clue how the world works.
See, I grew up on a farm. And I’m familiar with the sheer, bloody amount of work it takes to run a farm. Notice, I am not saying build a farm. Building a farm from scratch is an almost impossible undertaking. (Which is why *gasp* the pioneers did it all together in groups. No payment expected, just help out when its their turn. Buncha commies.)
Certainly, a few years after this project got started, they would still be on the frontier edge of starvation, desperately going hungry in the winter so they wouldn’t have to touch their seed corn for the next year, anxiously scanning the skies for clouds. Living in one room cabins. Of course, Rand handwaves this by essentially giving them cold fusion, but even so, it Doesn’t. Work. Like. That.
It is at that moment that you realize Rand probably never did a day of real work in her life.
And when you hear the Tea Partiers, or Glenn Beck naively parroting her back as if her words were found in the desert, cut into the living rock by the invisible hand of Adam Smith himself, it is worth remembering that a lot of them haven’t done an honest day’s work in their life either.
And I think the cure for this is simple (or I am very naïve.) The cure, as I see it, is to have them all read the Laura Ingalls Wilder classic, Farmer Boy. Any of her books would do, but the others are about the struggle of poor pioneer families. Farmer Boy, on the other hand, is about what it was like to be one of the richest families in upstate New York in the late 1800’s.
Long story short? It was hard, long, bloody, miserable, sweating work. You woke up at five, you went to bed at 9, you took a bath once a week, and you didn’t get any time off. You busted your ass every single day of the week to make a buck.
But Glenn Beck and Ayn Rand and all the others lie to people. They tell them that their complicated life is wrong. That life should be simpler. That we should go back to some unspecified “way things were” without any apparent knowledge that life wasn’t all peaches and cream. That, actually, there weren’t all that many peaches or cream at all. That the complex web that we are all tangled in has made us more free, not less. More free to learn, to love, to choose what we want to do, instead of doing what we must.
The simple fact is that when we all work together, that when we don’t subscribe to some arcane philosophy of individualism, we prosper. We spent a few million years learning how to walk, how to think, how to use tools, but of all these things the one that has served us the best is our ability for collective effort. It was collective effort that moved us out of caves into huts, turned us from a species of nomadic hunter gatherers forever on the edge of starvation to agriculturalists. We built cities together, and empires. It was our collective action that ended slavery, that got the vote for women. It was a million people in front of the Lincoln memorial that had a dream and had it together that ended an ugly and brute reality that the libertarian cannot acknowledge. It was the government that integrated Little Rock, and it was the government that put us on the moon. To deny this penchant for collectivization, to argue instead that we should go it alone, and that the motivation of mankind is only in his pocketbook, is to deny what makes us human, to deny the struggles, the victories and defeats of the millennia long struggle out of the cave. It is a struggle that is not over, that will never be over. But it is the struggle of a world infinitely larger, infinitely more painful, and yet infinitely more beautiful than the narrow world view of the Tea Party can permit.
I am a student of history, a discipline that does not lend itself to concrete analysis. But I can say with confidence that the great steps forward, the moments that should make us hold our heads high and be proud of our humanity, were not the acts of individuals. These are the beautiful moments of collective vision, when some fraction of the world raises its eyes to the horizon and, seeing the vista of what might be, agrees to walk that long path together. And there is no transaction that can contain that vision, in part or in whole. And that is to me, the ultimate and fatal failure of the Tea Party movement.
Well, I’ve already got one series going here (and there will be a new installment of that ASAP) so I might as well start another one. We’ll call this one “Stupid things Libertarians say.” Now let me make one thing crystal clear. Not all Libertarians are bad and stupid people. Only most of them.
That’s a joke, son.
To be serious, I have empathy for libertarians. Perhaps it’s the effect of too many John Wayne movies on my febrile mind, perhaps it’s some rogue masculine gene that wants to pack up a covered wagon and a pistol and head out for Oregon. But I feel the same instinctive pull in the idea of making it or breaking it on my own. And I think this is a deeply human instinct.
At root, we are pack animals, but we have, thanks to that big ol’ wrinkly brain of ours, a deeply rooted sense of the individual. It is possible to create a human whose will is reflexively conditioned to see the group first and the individual second. It’s not easy though, just ask Jim Jones. Or the Marines. For the most part we’re a cantankerous bunch of apes with nothing on our minds but getting more bananas and more poon than the guy next door. (And we painted the Sistine Chapel and wrote Moby Dick too, so don’t go all high school nihilist on me, Jack.)
The fundamental reason that we have governments is that we can’t do it on our own, so we create an overreaching organization to act impartially. In theory, no man is beyond the law, though man made it. Kings and peasants alike are bound by the law, because we accept that to not be bound by our law is to be bound by the jungles.
And then you’ve got this schmuck. You’ve probably encountered them before, the people so into capitalism you have a sneaking suspicion they jerk off to the Wall Street Journal. And they say things like this:
“I’m sure the bleeding hearts are going to hate me for saying this, but the only way to really create a “green economy” is for government to get out of the way.”
Direct quote folks.
And I know that it’s like wrestling like a pig, but what the hell. Let’s shred this quote-unquote idea, shall we.
First of all, do you know why there is an EPA? Because in 1969 the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Yes, you read that correctly. The RIVER was so polluted it burned. Several times, actually, but 1969 was the worst. Around the same time, the smog deaths in LA lead to the creation of the Clean Air Act. Let me make this clear. That wasn’t “Got lung cancer after twenty years” smog deaths. That was “This smog is so bad people just died” smog deaths.
Now, these two events neatly illustrate two separate and stupid misconceptions that lead to the statement above. The Cuyahoga River fires were a direct result of industrial polluters being absolutely incapable or unwilling to regulate themselves. A simple free market analysis shows why. I run company X. You run company Y. We’re both steel mills. You are a responsible mill owner, and have your toxic chemicals hauled away and disposed of, using a (now) basic, standard “Cradle to Grave” tracking system. I run a pipe to the river. Gee, I wonder which is cheaper?
The second, the LA smog deaths, illustrates the other problem. I have the right, in our capitalistic society, to buy a car. You have the right to buy a car. EVERYBODY has the right to buy a car, and, with the proper certification, drive. Grand. The issue that we run into is that when five million people within the same couple hundred square miles decide to buy and drive a car, it starts killing people. There is NO WAY for this problem to self regulate, because everyone is 1/5,000,000,000th of the problem. What’s more, at the time, there WAS NO WAY TO SELF REGULATE. There wasn’t an SUV/hybrid continuum of fuel efficiency. There were 8mpg cars and 7mpg cars, and that was about it. So the only way the problem got alleviated at all was by the government stepping in, including at the source of the problem, the car companies. Blah blah blah, catalytic converters, mileage standards, you get the picture.
HAH! the libertarian shouts. That is one situation, you cannot extrapolate from the specific to the general. Or, at least, they would say that if they had any idea how extrapolation works. Seeing as they are Libertarians, they probably can’t. So, to continue our trip down memory lane, look at the food and drug situation in the country before the FDA.
Again, let me illustrate my point with a simple example. You run 1890 Drug Company X and I run 1890 Drug Company Y. Lil’ Upton Sinclair hasn’t yet started to think about what he eats for breakfast. Now, you are a responsible drug company, ad you decide to test these new compounds using (now) standard LD50 tests, wide spectrum animal testing (with a special focus on using whichever animal is most similar to human beings in the particular organ system that the drug affects) and double-blind human testing.
I notice that when I give my patients this magical stuff called “heroin,” they have no more pain.
Again, which one of us is cashing in, which one of us is still trying to figure out what the LD50 for laudanum in rats is when we have to close our doors?
Or what about the rifle companies that knowingly sold sub-standard rifles to the US Army in the Civil War because there was no such thing as standardization or quality control inspectors? Or the ones that sold bad tinned beef to the US Army in the Spanish-American war and WWI? Or the factory workers pre-1920 and pre-union?
The simple fact is that a business exists for one reason- to make money. To make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible. And there is nothing wrong with that. However, it turns out that when you use sub-standard products, and stop caring about quality, you cut your bottom line and make more money. Which means that the purely free market ends up being a race to the bottom.
The job of the government is to set up an artificial bottom. This is the lowest quality X you can use, this is the oldest Y you can sell, it has to be this clean, this sanitized, etc. etc. etc. Many companies have made a killing, and will continue to make a killing, advertising their higher quality products-Tyson Chicken’s new ad campaign springs to mind. But it means that you, the consumer, can safely buy and use any product on the market, knowing that it meets certain minimum requirements. The job of a business is to make money. The job of a government is to protect its citizens. By farming quality control out to the businesses themselves, you make quality control a cost. When you have a cost, you have a cost that can be cut.
All of which is to say that there is currently no money in making a green economy, because the bottom is still cheap plastic and cheap oil. Until the government creates an artificial bottom, you will see no progress in this area because there is no. damn. PROFIT. Companies that are seriously trying to go green (and I mean seriously, not like Pampers and their 50% recycled thin plastic wrapping) are finding themselves the equivalent of the responsible business owners in my examples above, spending money to do good while their competitors happily profit from poisoning the earth. The good companies get eliminated-either through losing all their money, or because they give up in disgust. Long story short: you want a green economy? Make it profitable. And the only way to do that is to make pollution unprofitable. And the only way to do THAT is through government regulations.
And of course, the Libertarian will come back and point out that businesses that make defective products go out of business, or are at least punished. Toyota! they will cry, small bubbles forming at the corner of their mouths. BP!
And yeah, sure. If anyone knows that you’re selling a defective product. But in 1910, “Milk” was often chalk and water. You really, really, REALLY don’t want to know about sausage. Or about the amount of fecal matter in beef. Or the people who occasionally fell into the rendering pits for lard and got sold along with it. (OSHA? Government agency.)
But now, thanks to government laws passed by government officials who work for the government, there are watchdog groups. Like the FDA, the EPA, OSHA, CDC…I could go on.
But another example. You want to know HOW recalls happen? They are, it’s true, sometimes at the behest of the company, and good for them. But let’s say Jimmy Dean accidentally sent out tainted sausage. And no one noticed. Well, Jimmy Dean ships everywhere, so you might have the same batch infecting people in Missouri, Texas, Maine, and Florida. Fortunately, there is a group called the CDC that monitors little things like E. Coli, salmonella, botulism, etc. And they send government doctors and government scientists all over the country with government plane tickets and staying in government hotel rooms. And their job is to talk to people who suddenly get E. Coli. And they discover that the people in Missouri, Texas, Maine, and Florida have all eaten Jimmy Dean Breakfast Sausage, and they have them a recall.
And in our enlightened age, you can’t just sell Doctor Trustworthy’s Liver Cure and Goodforwhatailsya. (which, back in the good old free market days, was usually grain alcohol, food coloring, and occasionally laudanum) There is another group called the FDA that does a shit ton of testing so you know a new drug is safe.
See, here is the problem. Even with the internet, most people don’t have the time or ability to run down these patterns. The most notable case of amateur work in that field was probably Love Canal. In that case, a small, isolated area, with highly noticeable physiological effects caused by chemical contamination, in a fairly closely knit community. The doctors didn’t notice it, no one figured it out for years, until a few private people took it upon themselves to get it sorted. It took them years to put together the evidence right in front of them.
So I could pull out the usual old saws about how are you gonna pay for the roads without a government, or do national defense without a government, but there’s my question instead. And the next time a Libertarian, or Republican, starts blathering on about Big Government or Progressivist Socialist Nazi Kenyan Death Camp Government, ask them this: what is the free market gonna do about the Jimmy Dean Sausage?