Atlas is shrugging

By Stephen Bowen | Apr 25, 2009

The economy may be in terrible shape, but sales are booming for a 1957 novel foretelling with surprising prescience the collapse of the nation’s economy. Today, more than 50 years after it was published, Ayn Rand’s "Atlas Shrugged" is ranked 25th on Amazon.com’s overall bestseller list, and in its various editions is first, third and sixth on the Web site’s “classics” list. Sales of the novel are up 300 percent from this time last year.

And why not? As Wall Street Journal columnist Stephen Moore observed in a recent column, developments over the past few months have demonstrated the extent to which "Atlas Shrugged" has gone “from fiction to fact.” “With each passing week,” Moore writes, “and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that 'Atlas Shrugged' parodied in 1957.”

In "Atlas Shrugged," these acts of “economic lunacy” generally amount to one ill-considered government policy or program after another. Each of these makes the situation worse, because they target the very individuals whose talent and ingenuity the economy so desperately needs.

The novel’s heroine, for instance, is Dagney Taggert, a highly skilled railroad executive dedicated to the success of her family’s transcontinental railroad. Unfortunately for her, she lives in an age, increasingly like our own, in which successful businesses are eyed with distrust and resentment. It isn’t fair, Taggert’s critics say, that her railroad is so successful.

Rather than look for ways to cut costs or improve the quality of the service they provide, Taggert’s rivals head to Washington, where they get government regulations enacted to prevent Taggert from competing against them.

Industrialist Hank Reardon, who spends millions developing a new miracle metal, gets much the same treatment. Once he starts production of his eponymous “Reardon Metal,” which is stronger and lighter than steel, his competitors launch a coordinated effort to undermine him. First, they go to Washington and get the bureaucrats to release a report questioning the metal’s efficacy and safety. When Reardon’s metal proves to be a success, his rivals then get the government to force Reardon to hand over his metallurgical secrets. It’s not fair, they claim, that they are losing business because Reardon has invented a much better product.

Reardon is subsequently slapped with a whole host of regulations determining how much of his miracle metal he can produce and to whom he must sell it. Much the same is coming from Washington, D.C. today, where members of Congress feel it within their power to determine what the employees of privately held companies should be paid, even those that did not receive federal bailout funds.

In the novel, as government meddling in the economy increases, the captains of industry that are the targets of these policies begin to disappear. Oil baron Ellis Wyatt, who strikes it rich after developing a method for converting Colorado oil shale into petroleum, destroys his own refinery and vanishes after being targeted with exactly the kind of windfall profits tax many would impose on the oil companies today. Financier Midas Mulligan, who had been “the richest, and, consequently, the most denounced man in the country,” closes his banks and disappears after being ordered by the courts, in the name of fairness, to loan money to a business concern that could never repay him.

What? Banks forced by the government to loan money to people with no ability to pay it back? Who ever heard of such a thing?

As the economy begins to spiral downward, the collectivists try their approach. The new owners of Twentieth Century Motor Company, for instance, launch an initiative under which “everybody in the factory would work according to his ability, but would be paid according to his need.” As a consequence, the factory’s most productive employees are ordered to work overtime and weekends. The harder they work, the more work is required of them. They had no claim to their wages, though, because the wages belonged to the collective, and were distributed according to need.

Sound far-fetched? Legislators here in Maine recently proposed replacing the state’s minimum wage with a “living wage” based on need. Under such a system, employees with children would be paid more for the same work than those without children, for instance.

"Atlas Shrugged" describes the poisonous effects of such an approach. In the novel, the more productive workers at the Twentieth Century Motor Company come to hate the less productive “for every meal they swallowed, for every small pleasure they enjoyed,” because it was taken from the productive and bought with their “privations and hunger.”

“We used to celebrate if someone had a baby,” one of the factory’s employees explained, “but now if a baby was born we wouldn’t speak to the parents for weeks. Babies were to us what locusts were to the farmers.”

Sounds very much like what Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in January of this year, explaining why more federal stimulus money should be spent on birth control: "Family planning services reduce cost. The states are in terrible fiscal budget crises now … contraception will reduce costs to the states and to the federal government."

Think about what she is saying. Babies are a problem for the government. One of the keys to economic recovery, according to the third highest-ranking elected official in the U.S. government, is to prevent Americans from having babies.

"Atlas Shrugged" from fiction to fact indeed.

Author Ayn Rand, of course, could not have foreseen all that has transpired in recent years. She did not anticipate, for instance, that the U.S. government would borrow from future generations, yet unborn, to fund the “economic lunacy” it has undertaken in a vain effort to undo the damage its policies caused in the first place.

It remains to be seen whether the economy will eventually collapse entirely, as it does in Rand’s prophetic novel. It should be of concern, though, that she was so disturbingly right about so much else.
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