Posts Tagged ‘Stupid’
So. The childhood of Dagny Taggart.
“[S]he always ran when Eddie yelled, “It’s Frisco d’Anconia!” and they both flew
down the hill to the car approaching on the road below.”
This sentence tells us two very important things. First, that Dagny and the shadowy Francisco d’Anconia are childhood friends, which will substantively affect their entire relationship right up through the end of the novel, where she flies off with him to his secret richy-rich fortress.
Second, it tells us that she and Eddie Willers are childhood friends, which will substantively affect their entire relationship right up through the end of the novel, where she abandons him in the newly post-apocalyptic world.
This should tell you everything you need to know about Dagny. This is a novel that spends enough pages on the concept of integrity to have those pages turned into their own separate novel, but has characters who act with the integrity of a particularly rapacious robber baron. The intensity of this fuck-you-jack-I-got-mine mentality transcends even the internal logic of the novel.
According to Rand’s beliefs, the poor, disabled, old, less than perfectly brilliant (more on that in a bit) are, at best, grist for the mill. At worst they’re actively evil through the mere fact of their existence, and most of the time they have the same moral weight as a marshmallow- they can stick around for them as likes that, but you aren’t taking any on the lifeboat.
But Eddie is not just another poor person who never pulled hard enough on their bootstraps. Eddie is incredibly useful. When Dagny has to go off and have rational sex with Hank, or Francisco, or John, Eddie is the one left in charge. Eddie works hard, Eddie doesn’t complain. The only thing Eddie is not, is a total fucking bastard. Excuse me- the only thing Eddie isn’t is aware that his business abilities make him fundamentally superior to, oh, say, steelworkers.
Which, incidentally, and not to get to far ahead, is another problem with this book. It’s elitist. Well, that is to perhaps cloud the issue. Undoubtedly Rand would brag about her elitism. Rather, this book is aristocratic in the nastiest sense- noblesse without the oblige. Throughout the novel, ordinary workaday schmucks will appear. Not the entitled commies, or the lazy bums, but characters we are clearly supposed to like- hardworking, loyal, intelligent. Caring more for work than reward.
And these guys….get fucked. Left to rot in what Rand makes very clear is a hellish, medieval world. Oh, true, in Galt’s gulch we will see what may be best described as token poor people. For the most part, though, the defining characteristic of those who go Galt is their wealth and (presumed) intelligence. Rand pays lip service to the idea that she values hard work and integrity and so on, but in reality, what Rand values is success. In Rand’s world, the unprincipled greed of Jack Abramoff is worth more than 40 years of work by a Detroit assembly line worker, because Jack made money and the worker didn’t. When the dollar is elevated above all (and by the end of the novel, it is elevated to the status of religion) how those dollars are acquired ceases to matter.
And thus, a young Francisco d’Anconia (hereafter referred to as FdA because unlike Rand, I’m sick of typing that ridiculous name in full) says the following:
“We are the only aristocracy left in the world—the aristocracy of money”
Lil’ FdA is one of the most punchable creations since Christian in “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and for much the same reason- unbearable sanctimony and always being right. FdA is the perfect person.
“The running to meet him had become part of a contest among the three of them. There was a birch tree on the hillside, halfway between the road and the house; Dagny and Eddie tried to get past the tree, before Francisco … they never reached the birch tree …Francisco always won, as he always won everything.”
“The reason my family has lasted for such a long time is that none of us has ever been permitted to think he is born a d’Anconia. We are expected to become one.”
He pronounced his name as if he wished his listeners to be struck in the face and knighted by the sound of it.”
“He spoke five languages, and he spoke English without a trace of accent, a precise, cultured English deliberately mixed with slang.”
And he can do so many pushups, and he knows karate and one time he went up to a rampaging bear and pulled a thorn out of its paw and the bear was his friend and they stayed up as late as they want and drank milkshakes all the time and then they made Francisco the king of the world because he had great abs. Or something.
Perfect protagonists (known in some parts of the internet as “Mary Sues”) are boring. Perfection is dull-it removes any hint of excitement from the plot. Drama is, functionally, seeing someone face an obstacle. English 101- Person Vs. Person, Person Vs. Themselves, Person Vs. Nature, Person Vs. Society. Arguably, those four categories cover pretty much everything ever written. Perfect people triumphing isn’t a surprise. Of course FdA becomes rich and awesome- he’s perfect, so naturally he’s perfect at becoming rich and awesome.
And drama doesn’t need to be huge- sure, War and Peace is pretty freakin’ epic, but so is To Build a Fire. There are two fundamental conditions that must be met in a good drama, however- the characters must have something to overcome, and the character must change. Grow, shrink, rise, fall- a good story is about someone changing in some fundamental way.
And that is a critical failure on Rand’s part- This Francisco we see here- young, cocky, arrogant, strong, handsome rich accomplished tall blond able to eat all the cookies he wants without getting fat, is the exact same person we see at the end of the novel. Twelve-year old Francisco is functionally indistinguishable from forty year old Francisco. As are twelve-year old Dagny, and even twelve-year old Jim. There is no moment, or storyline, wherein Jim becomes the weak and miserable man we see in the present, there is no moment when a young, carefree, Francisco d’Anconia decides he will be rich and more awesome than Batman. They simply always were this way. FdA has blond hair and blue eyes and will be a great freethinking industrial potentate, and Jim has brown hair and brown eyes and will be weak and cowardly. As inevitable as DNA.
Anyway, another trend appears pretty soon- child labor. FdA decides, like pretty much every good guy in a Rand story, that he is gonna start working right away. He does this working for the Taggart railway as a call boy. Which- fair enough. Actually sounds like a good job for a 14-year old boy. My first job was shoveling snow in Maine, so I’m not all that impressed- running errands on a sunny railroad in the middle of the day sounds hella nicer than waking up at 5 AM to shovel a foot of snow before school.
Incidentally, my favorite bit of retarded St. Francisco-can-do-anything shows up here:
“They tried to follow him once, through the cold, pre-morning darkness, but they gave it up; no one could track him when he did not want to be tracked.”
Francisco d’Anconia. Business magnate. Olympian sprinter. Last of the Mohicans.
But this, of course, isn’t good enough. He also shipped out the summer before as a cabin boy on a cargo steamer. Apparently his father looked for him for three months, but the only thing he asked Francisco (who was apparently too busy cabin-boying to write a freakin’ letter) was if FdA had done a good job.
Nice. Loving, responsible parent there.
Anyway, Dagny asked him why he took this call-boy job, and he says:
“”To learn what it’s like, Slug,” he answered, “and to tell you that I’ve had a job with Taggart
Transcontinental before you did.”
Is…is it wrong to want to strangle a fictional child?
Anyway, FdA is awesome. His can play baseball. He drives speedboats. He…
“[Dagny’s] father picked them up…then asked,
“Francisco, how many years of algebra have you had?”
“Who taught you to do this?”
“Oh, that’s just something I figured out.”
…[W]hat her father held on the crumpled sheets of paper was the crude version of a differential equation.”
….Let’s just move on, ok?
This may seem like it’s not about Dagny, but it is. And Jim.
Imagine you grew up with, apparently, the Messiah. Someone with the Godlike power to do anything he puts his mind to. Now, my mother, and probably yours, told me that all the time. “You can do anything you put your mind to.” Except that for Francisco, there is no effort involved. He <i>watches</i> and then does it. Perfectly. Whatever it is- riding a horse or stripping an engine.
Francisco isn’t smart. Francisco isn’t even a genius. Francisco is what idiots think people with eidetic memories are like. I’m not sure there is a word for what Francisco is, because there is no one like him- at least, not in every possible field of human endeavor. There are people like Mozart who have a literal genius for music- they can transcribe a work they only heard once, for example. But Mozart couldn’t look at an engine running and reconstruct it from scratch. Mozart probably couldn’t just pick up a bat and ball and hit a home run (something else Francisco does).
(What’s more, even in music, Mozart wasn’t perfect without effort. His earliest works are beyond belief for a ten year old, but compared to the work of an ordinary mature composer, they’re only decent. Even Mozart needed to put in some work before he mastered music. )
But imagine living with this literal freak of nature, this being hardwired for mechanical perfection. Imagine seeing all your hard work, your practice, your struggles and triumphs swept away in moments by someone who just watches you for a moment, then does it better than you.
No wonder Jim Taggart ends up the way he is. His entire childhood, no matter how hard he works or how hard he tries, he can never win. The simplest victories- running faster, hitting a ball harder, being a faster reader, better at math, or history, or building a treehouse- are snatched from him again and again. Imagine that. Imagine living with that. You’d develop an inferiority complex like Superman’s younger brother, Tim Kent (Tim’s a farmer on a little spread outside Smallville. Grows peas.)
You might grow up feeling overwhelmed by the world. You might even be so fucked up you develop a philosophy that equality should be enforced by law. Either that, or end up worshiping them as your superior to be aped and followed blindly into whatever dumbass cult they end up starting.
Next time: We finish up Dagny’s childhood, and return to the plot.
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?