In Ayn Rand’s imagination, there is a perfect correlation between self-interest and moral goodness. This sentiment was expressed in her famous book Atlas Shrugged – required college reading for every budding libertarian. I read it and very much enjoyed it. I even flirted with libertarian political thought for a while. Then I actually thought critically about it and realized economic libertarianism results in the destruction of the middle class and all the political and social instability that comes with an economically polarized society. Rand was guilty of cherry-picking plots and characters so that in her fictional world, selfishness is virtuous.
In one sense Rand is correct; economic self-interest turns out to be the best system we’ve ever created to spread general wealth and well being (we call that system capitalism). She simply took that idea to the extreme and claimed that un-checked, excessive self-interest (aka ‘greed’) must be the greatest good. To demonstrate the folly of this, Jeremiah Tucker has written a humorous update to Atlas Shrugged based on the current economic crisis. I admit that if you haven’t read the original, the update will probably not be all that funny, but if you have, you’re in for a treat (assuming you’re not a Randroid).
Here are a couple of excerpts:
With your advanced alloy and my high-tech railroad, we’ll revitalize our country’s failing infrastructure and make big, virtuous profits.”
“Oh, no, I got out of that suckers’ game. I now run my own hedge-fund firm, Rearden Capital Management.”
“We who live by the mind could’ve been engineers, scientists, doctors, extreme-sports enthusiasts, but there is no purer pursuit than the pursuit of money. A is A. Money begets more money, and …”
Galt went on like this for what seemed to Dagny like hours, until, finally, something he said piqued her interest.
I’m hoping the recent economic collapse will fatally injure the libertarian movement that’s been gaining steam in the last few decades. There’s been a repeated pattern in recent economic history – deregulation within a sector reaches critical mass resulting in exploitative greed then economic collapse. It happened with savings and loans crisis in the late ’80s, the California energy crisis at the turn of the millennium, and last year with the mortgage and derivatives market. Throughout that whole time, the middle class has been shrinking and economic disparity has increased.
Economic libertarianism may sound good in theory and even better in a great work of fiction, but has repeatedly failed in practice.