Tag: Atlas Shrugged

Amtrak Shrugged

Watching one of the first showings of Part II of Atlas Shrugged was a surrealistic experience for me after testifying earlier in the day (September 20) to the House Transportation Committee about Amtrak. In the movie, government officials piously argue that for the “greater good” they need to provide “guidance” to the nation’s capitalists—and the more guidance they give, the more capitalism fails, which naturally justifies even more guidance.

In the hearing, I testified that Amtrak can’t be reformed because, as a government entity, it will still be controlled by politics, and the only solution was privatization. This led Peter DeFazio, my own former congressman (I moved to an adjacent district four years ago) to reem me out for not having faith in government.

“You don’t believe government should run our air traffic control? You don’t believe government should run our highways? You don’t believe government should subsidize the Port of Los Angeles?” Before I could fully answer each question, he would roll his eyes and interrupt me with incredulous moans. Fortunately, one of the other committee members rescued me and gave me a chance to answer.

Ironically, one of DeFazio’s own questions should have been his undoing. Somehow, he didn’t think Americans could manage to buy cheap goods from Asia unless the federal government subsidized the Port of Los Angeles. Aside from the fact that he probably bemoans the import of cheap goods from Asia, why subsidize the Port of Los Angeles when there are so many other suitable West Coast ports—and in particular, the heavily underutilized Port of Coos Bay in DeFazio’s own district?

Of course, DeFazio also thinks the feds should subsidize the Port of Coos Bay. But given that the Los Angeles metro area has 12 million people and therefore some two dozen representatives in Congress, while the Coos Bay area has about 60,000 people and therefore a fraction of one representative, subsidies are mainly going to go to the former and not the latter even though the latter is a much better natural harbor.

But it was not just DeFazio who supported government control of the economy. Republicans and Democrats at the hearing were equally guilty of thinking that they, the enlightened representatives of the people, should decide where “investments” should be made in transportation, how much people should get paid, and who should produce what “for the greater good.”

“Everyone here believes in creating jobs,” said one Republican. I wanted to raise my hand and say, “No, I believe in creating wealth, not jobs. Your idea of ‘creating jobs’ destroys wealth by taking from some people the wealth they created and giving to others who aren’t creating it.” But I realized that by “everybody here,” the Member meant “every elected official in the room,” not us non-entities who were there to testify or witness the hearing.

Later, another Republican who had been critical of Amtrak’s losses said, “No one here wants to destroy Amtrak; we just want it to run more efficiently.” Once again, I wanted to raise my hand and say, “I want to destroy Amtrak, because Amtrak is spending phenomenal amounts of money running crappy trains.” But again, I restrained myself.

Rather than privatize Amtrak, at least some Republicans propose to contract out Amtrak’s trains to private operators. Congress would still decide where those trains should run. The Republicans who support this proposal would also require the private operators to honor Amtrak’s contracts with workers. Those two requirements would destroy most of the benefits of contracting out.

In Atlas Shrugged, a man named John Galt convinces all the smart people in the country to “go on strike” until the government fails from mediocrity. Fortunately, such a strike won’t be necessary in real life as the mediocre results of government control will lead to failure all by itself. We just have to hope that there is enough wealth left in the country that we can put it back together.

Atlas Shrugged Comes to Detroit

In a perverse way, I’m glad that there are places such as Greece and Illinois. These profligate jurisdictions are useful examples of the dangers of bloated government and reckless statism.

There also are some cities that serve as reverse role models. Detroit is a miserable case study of big government run amok, so I enjoyed a moment or two of guilty pleasure as I read this CNBC story about the ongoing decay of the Motor City. Here are some excerpts:

Detroit neighborhoods with more people and a better chance of survival will receive different levels of city services than more blighted areas under a plan unveiled Wednesday that some residents fear may pit them against each other for scarce resources.

…[T]he boundaries of the 139-square-mile city aren’t receding. The plan also backs away from forcing the redistribution of what’s left of the population into areas where people still live and where the houses aren’t on the verge of caving in.

…Detroit’s population of about 713,000 is down about 200,000 from 10 years ago, according to U.S. Census figures, and has fallen more than 1 million since 1950. Some areas have fewer occupied homes than vacant ones.

…A 2010 survey found Detroit had 33,000 vacant houses and scores of empty, weed-filled and trash-cluttered lots.

How predictable, I thought. This is what happens when vote-hungry politicians adopt policies that reward people for riding in the wagon and punish the folks who are pulling the wagon.

But there was also something about this story that rang a bell. It took a few minutes, since I’m getting old and decrepit, but then I realized that “blighted areas” was an eerily familiar term. Didn’t Ayn Rand use that term in one of her books?

Indeed, she did. Thanks to the miracle of Google Books, here is one of several passages in Atlas Shrugged that references Detroit—oops, I mean “blighted areas”:

No railroad was mentioned by name in the speeches that preceded the voting. The speeches dealt only with the public welfare. It was said that while the public welfare was threatened by shortages of transportation, railroads were destroying each other through vicious competition, on “the brutal policy of dog-eat-dog.” While there existed blighted areas where rail service had been discontinued, there existed at the same time large regions where two or more railroads were competing for a traffic barely sufficient for one. It was said that there were great opportunities for younger railroads in the blighted areas. While it was true that such areas offered little economic incentive at present, a public-spirited railroad, it was said, would undertake to provide transportation for the struggling inhabitants, since the prime purpose of a railroad was public service, not profit.

Many people say that Atlas Shrugged is not very good literature, despite the amazing sales figures. Others say Ayn Rand’s philosophy is flawed, despite the profound influence of her writings.

I’m not competent to comment on those debates, but I can say that Atlas Shrugged does an amazing job of capturing the statist mindset and it tells a compelling story of how excessive government is self-destructive.

Fifty years ago, the book was viewed as a dystopian fantasy. Today, Greece, Illinois, and Detroit are making Ayn Rand seem like a prophet.

Ayn Rand on the Front Page of Ecuador’s Major Newspaper

El Universo, the newspaper with the largest circulation and the paper that publishes my weekly column, ran a mostly blank front page today that features only this quote from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged:

When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion–when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing–when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors–when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you–when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice–you may know that your society is doomed.

This quote is from Francisco D’Anconia’s speech on “The Meaning of Money” which you can read here. (I used it in my column last month.) How did Rand’s quote get there? It’s a response to the latest and most prominent attack on freedom of the press in Ecuador and Latin America.

In less than four months the Ecuadorian courts, known for being slow, resolved the specious lawsuit President Rafael Correa filed against op-ed writer and editor Emilio Palacio, the directors of El Universo and the newspaper itself for libeling the country’s president. According to Correa, Palacio slandered him in this op-ed (in Spanish), and the newspaper and its directors “contributed” to committing the supposed crime. Incidentally, this court has had five different judges overseeing this case since February; the last one came in on Monday and issued his judgment yesterday, minutes before his authority expired.

The court’s decision sentences the directors of El Universo and Emilio Palacio to three years in jail and orders them to pay a total of $30 million to the President. The judge also ordered that the newspaper company pay an additional $10 million to President Correa.

This decision sets a dangerous precedent of making third parties responsible for what an individual says. It is a clear act of intimidation of all independent media outlets and of the citizens of Ecuador. Even though this is not the first blow to freedom of expression during this government, it certainly is the most radical given the context. On May 7th, a referendum gave the President unprecedented power to essentially pack the courts. Soon, the entire judiciary will be on the long list of state institutions captured or co-opted by the executive (including the constitutional court, the electoral authority, and the national assembly, among others).

Once the judiciary is completely captured and after this historic decision, we can expect more self-censorship or more people sued/jailed for expressing their opinions, or a combination of both. It is a harsh blow against liberty in our country, but a logical outcome of Correa’s populist push to centralize ever more economic and other power in his own hands.

The Libertarian Moment?

On NPR, Mara Liasson tells Melissa Block that we’re in a “libertarian moment” in politics:

BLOCK: And Ron Paul appears to be running. Again, he got a lot of devoted followers on the Internet last time during the 2008 bid, not so many votes in the primary. So this time around, is he a significant addition to the Republican field or more of an asterisk?

LIASSON: Well, I don’t think he’s a huge factor in terms of the nomination. In the 2008 GOP primary, he got only about 6 percent of the Republican vote. However, as you said, he does have a devoted following, lots of libertarian-leaning young people. He can raise millions of dollars online in a single day in one of his famous money bombs. So he brings energy to the party, and the Republican Party base seems to have caught up to him on the issues.

The GOP is in a real libertarian moment right now, and Paul has always been all about the debt and the deficit and taxes and spending. You could call him the godfather of the Tea Party.

Of course, Paul may have to split the libertarian Republican vote with former two-term governor Gary Johnson. Johnson also was “a Tea Partier when tea-partying wasn’t cool,” according to the Capitol Report of New Mexico. He vetoed 750 bills in eight years, not counting line-item vetoes. And since today’s libertarian moment goes beyond spending and health care to include rising support for gay marriage and marijuana legalization, Johnson might be better positioned to ride that wave and attract younger and independent voters.

Footnote: Two weeks ago NPR speculated about an Ayn Rand moment building from the financial crisis to the opening of Atlas Shrugged.

Thursday Links

  • DON’T FORGET: Our fiscal policy conference, “The Economic Impact of Government Spending,” featuring Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), former Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), Representative Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), and other distinguished guests, begins at 2:00 p.m. Eastern today. Please join us on the web–you can watch the conference LIVE here.
  • Atlas Shrugged Motors presents the Chevy Volt.
  • The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us about the moral value of voluntary charity toward the needy–it says nothing about using coercive government programs of the modern welfare state.
  • It is not the role of the Court to rewrite laws for Congress.
  • The failed “war on drugs” has reshaped our budgets, politics, laws, and society–and for what?

Friday Links

  • They passed the bill, and now we’re finding out what’s in it.
  • We’re finding out that the war in Libya could really be about protecting European interests.
  • In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand described a world in which government both partly produced and partly subsidized goods; we’re finding out she wasn’t far off the mark.
  • We’re finding out that “American exceptionalism” is a cloak for military adventurism.
  • The longer America fights a war on drugs, the more we find out about how detrimental it is to our fiscal outlook:


Friday Links

  • What are Republicans doing to stop ObamaCare? Not much.
  • Conflating the Taliban with al Qaeda isn’t helping our foreign policy dialogue.
  • “Sitting in a Volt that would not start at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show, a GM engineer swore to me that the internal combustion engine in the machine only served as a generator, kicking in when the overnight-charged lithium-ion batteries began to run down.”
  • The new issue of Regulation looks at price gouging, soda taxes, the Durbin Amendment, and more.
  • Who should decide when we tap into strategic oil reserves: The president? Or market forces