One of the central problems, I feel, with Ayn Rand’s work in general, and Atlas Shrugged in particular, is that she was a very black-and-white thinker.
To her, any “governmental coercion” equals the Stalinist USSR.
Of course, I have hindsight she doesn’t have, but it is also my experience that Objectivist-inspired neocons have a convenient and peculiar way of historical interpretation.
So, after World War II, the United States was as close to a socialist democratic republic that we’d ever get, from the New Deal to the Marshall Plan, Keynesian economics held sway. The highest tax rate was around 95% both here and abroad.
It was the greatest economic boom the world has ever seen in the US and Western Europe, in terms of GDP growth, lasting until the 70s.
AND it wasn’t the gray, dismal affair that Soviet and Chinese totalitarianism turned out to be. This time, in the West, created the sexy excitement of the 60s, for instance, which was one of the most culturally brilliant periods of human history. Our culture, today, is the child of the 1960s, and is likely to remain so for quite some time. Even with an upper tax rate of 95%.
Of course, the show had to close, but it wasn’t because of the tax rate. It was because the Johnson administration overextended the US economy. We could have EITHER a Great Society OR a giant ass war in Vietnam – not both. Johnson chose both and when the Vietnam War ended, the US was cast into a recession.
I mean, let’s not exaggerate. It was nothing like the Great Recession starting in ’08. But it coincided with historically high gas prices, there was an energy crunch to go along with the recession, and inflation was out of control.
It drove the United States into the arms of the neocons, where we remain, today. But they have yet to match the quality of the economic book from ’48 to ’72, and real wages have stagnated for the majority of Americans, to the benefit of a tiny number at the top. Looking at the economy of the US in the post-war period to Reagan, and then from the neocon Reagan to the present, the earlier period was more economically successful *if* you define economic success as real economic growth, both nationally and internationally, as well as far better success in controlling the number and size of economic bubbles.
If, on the other hand, you had this fanatical belief that personal profit is more significant than general economic growth, the Keynesian post-war period sucked. If you looked back to the Gilded Age as the idea economic condition, then that 95% top tax rate was a killer and had to go, no matter what the cost to society – because your model of success was *personal*, not *collective*.
(This also applies to the higher level of corporate taxation of the Keynesian period, of course.)
So, under Reagan and subsequent US administrations (both Republican and Democratic), there was this shift to Objectivist-inspired neocon economics – lower taxes for individuals and corporations, huge slashes to public services and other government programs focused on collective well being, while creating conditions for wealth concentration which neocons believe to define economic “success”.
So, in Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s dystopian future revolves around an outwardly American society with draconian economic policies taken from the USSR.
She doesn’t care that during the USSR there was a great deal more economic growth, in terms of real wealth, than during the Czarist reign (and the provisional democratic government didn’t last long enough to do anything). I’m sure her counter would be that she didn’t like the Czars, either, which also had limits on business. But at that time, we’d be having this rather weird discussion about the transition from an absolutist monarchy to a Communist military dictatorship in Russia . . .
Which has NOTHING TO DO WITH THE UNITED STATES.
Which makes Atlas Shrugged a weird book. There’s this attempt to equate Keynesian economic practices – which were fully in place during the years she wrote Atlas Shrugged – with the economic practices of the Stalinist Soviet Russia. Except, there is no parallel. The US wasn’t transitioning from a literally serf-based agrarian economy to an industrial economy. We weren’t transitioning away from an absolutist hereditary monarchy to a Marxist-inspired military dictatorship run by a genocidal madman.
Of course, it is science-fiction. I get that. It is a *fantasy* about a dystopian central government quashing free expression and economic pursuits and the romantic individualist capitalists who struggle against that oppression.
But it is significant that the book has no bearing on reality if you’re writing a satirical sequel, which I am. So, writing a well-researched novel about the economic consequences of the actions in Atlas Shrugged is futile. Atlas Shrugged isn’t about *research*, it is about Rand’s passionate hatred of any form of “collectivism” (a meaningless term, really – the businesses she praises use many forms of collective action, it’s essentially what a corporation *is*) and her psychic drive to symbolically defeat what she hates.
Still, as a person writing an parody (in the legal sense, meaning a work that comments upon and criticizes a previous work, not in the sense that it’ll be funny) it nevertheless falls on me to make *sense* of the mess that Rand left behind.
And this is my sense of it: Rand’s society sorta “feels” like the modern Putinist Russia. It is oppressive and dreary, with individual and economic freedoms quashed for the average person, but it got there NOT through excess of government taxation and powerful unions but because the Chicago school of economics boys came in and turned the place into a neo-con paradise and then abandoned it when it turned into a kleptocracy. All along the way, even as the wealth of Russia was being drained into the oligarch’s coffers, the Chicago school of economics – the Rand-inspired mess of Milton Friedman – called for even *less* taxes and less control over business.
Because to these guys, like with Rand, herself, there is only absolute freedom or Stalinist statism.
So they are blind to what *really happened in Russia* and other places after the fall of the USSR, just as they *honestly believe* that if there was no government regulation of business that economic bubbles would cease to exist. They didn’t see that in a world with no regulation that there’s nothing at all to stop greedy assholes from just seizing assets for their own profit and the Devil take the hindmost. Freed of any ethics beyond that of ambition and greed, they used their wealth and power to eliminate competition through seizure of the apparatus of government, which in turn used violence and intimidation to suppress personal and economic freedom for the vast majority of Russians.
But people in the Chicago school of economics really think that the problem is that “capitalists” STILL have “too many” regulations! Even in places like Russia where they, functionally, have none.
While the case in Russia and other Soviet-bloc nations is particularly compelling because of blank economic slate after the fall of communism AND because of the clear and direct involvement of the Chicago Boys in creating the post-Soviet economies, similar dramas play out all over the world, particularly in Africa and South America. The problems on both continents do not arise from too much regulation, but too little, and what does exist does so without enforcement. So, for instance, in Nigeria, Royal Dutch Shell can do pretty much whatever it likes, including murder, but the country is consistently rated one of the most corrupt in the world. Pretty much anywhere that’s seriously, profoundly corrupt, you don’t find too many regulations on business, but effectively none at all, especially for big businesses – which literally do as they please without legal consequence. Again, this absolutely includes murder.
So that’s how I’m going to play it in Atlas Stumbles. It isn’t that Rand’s dystopia is created by excess regulation and taxation, but that the people down there in Galt Gulch honestly *believe* it is created by excess regulation and taxation, when the real problem is that THEY are the people doing the oppressing.
Which, honestly, gives me a place to go to do research about some of the characters – Chicago school of economics investment banker types with a rightist libertarian bent. Y’know, dudes like Dick Cheney. It’ll be “fun”.