Atlas Shrugged: Regulatory Capture

Atlas Shrugged, p.48-53

Orren Boyle, Jim Taggart, Hank’s friend Paul Larkin, and someone named Wesley Mouch are having a conversation over drinks in a bar on top of a skyscraper in New York City. Boyle is complaining bitterly about being snubbed by Taggart Transcontinental, insisting that his failure to deliver the rail they needed isn’t his fault.

“My purpose,” said Orren Boyle, “is the preservation of a free economy…. Unless it proves its social value and assumes its social responsibilities, the people won’t stand for it… After all, private property is a trusteeship held for the benefit of society as a whole.” [p.49]

Obviously, Ayn Rand considers “social responsibility” a dirty word, and since these assertions are placed in the mouth of an evil socialist, we’re meant to reject them outright. (John Milton did the same trick in Paradise Lost, giving Satan some perfectly reasonable arguments against Christian theology.)

But it’s worth asking, regardless: What does an Objectivist world offer the vast majority of humanity? No matter our talents, most real people aren’t inexhaustible, omnicompetent super-capitalists like Rand’s protagonists. What would make Rand’s ideal civilization different from a feudal oligarchy, where a handful of ultra-rich control all the property and extract rents from everyone else, consigning us all to perpetual debt slavery? We’ve seen societies like that, many times, and they often don’t end well for the rich. (Pre-revolutionary France comes to mind.)

Like it or not, you can’t build a civilization with just a handful of corporate executives. Any functioning society, whether it’s capitalist, socialist or something else entirely, requires the assent and the cooperation of great numbers of people. And if you want people to cooperate, you need to answer the question of what your society offers them in return. If the answer is “nothing”, there’s no reason to expect them to play along. And make no mistake, a peaceful free market isn’t a spontaneously arising state of affairs; it absolutely requires the supervision and protection of a government to thrive. I’ll discuss this in more detail later.

Orren Boyle had appeared from nowhere, five years ago… He had started out with a hundred thousand dollars of his own and a two-hundred-million-dollar loan from the government. Now he headed an enormous concern which had swallowed many smaller companies. This proved, he liked to say, that individual ability still had a chance to succeed in the world.

We’re meant to laugh scornfully at this line, and in isolation I suppose it’s pretty funny. But the humor seems more than a little hypocritical when we find out that most of Rand’s protagonists are the scions of rich families, and inherited their own immense wealth and privilege. I’ll write more about this later as well.

Getting back to that bar, the four of them are discussing a national policy aimed at “giving everybody a chance at his fair share of iron ore”, by which they mean taking over Hank Rearden’s mines. This is meant to set alarm bells ringing, especially because one of the four, Wesley Mouch, is Rearden’s Washington lobbyist.

Let’s just quickly check off the implausibilities here. First: How does a huge steel company employ just one lobbyist? This doesn’t seem at all probable. In the real world, in 2013, U.S. Steel alone had nine lobbyists, plus many industry coalitions and trade groups employ their own. This makes sense when you consider that a large corporation would want to lobby all the hundreds of members of Congress who might cast votes on bills that concern it, not to mention all the government agencies that might create rules or make purchasing decisions involving its product.

Second: How is Rearden so disconnected from the workings of government that he apparently doesn’t even know who his own lobbyist is talking to? How does he not deal with the government regularly, even as a customer? Don’t they buy steel to build bridges or to make reinforced concrete for roads and buildings? Doesn’t the military buy steel to make missiles and tanks?

Third: How did this guy get hired in the first place? As is obvious, Mouch is about to stab his employer in the back. Clearly, he’s one of the evil socialists who has no concern for private property or free enterprise (because people with those beliefs are very common among private-sector corporate lobbyists, don’t you know). So what did Rearden ever see in him? What did Mouch say in the job interview?

I just want to dwell on this bizarre idea of a corporate lobbyist willingly siding with the government against his own employer. In the real world, most countries have to grapple with the problem of “regulatory capture“, where government agencies whose purpose is to enforce the law are gradually taken over by the industries they’re supposed to be overseeing. Usually, regulatory capture is the product of a revolving door between government and industry, where regulators who turn a blind eye to violations or hand out lucrative no-bid contracts are rewarded with a cushy job offer at the firms they used to regulate. The Japanese name for the same phenomenon is “amakudari“, which literally means “descent from heaven”.

Rand appears to be positing a reverse regulatory capture, where richly-paid private-sector lobbyists are seduced and corrupted by the temptation of a coveted job in the government bureaucracy. Needless to say, this never happens in real life, but it does fit into her vision of a bizarro world in which wealthy businessmen are powerless outsiders cruelly mistreated by the government. The reality is that the wealthy have always had enormous power and influence, if not outright control of politics.

As I’ve mentioned before, you could come up with an explanation for how the rich came to be so despised, but that might require treading on dangerous ground for Rand. It might involve things like sweatshops, factory fires, building collapses, colonialism, banana republics – in short, some suggestion that the rich might have done something wrong at some point. And that’s a possibility she steers well clear of. It’s safer for her to say that the opposition to capitalism is entirely irrational, that people hate the rich for no reason at all.

Other posts in this series:

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Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Tim Wicklund

    Thanks for these discussions. I read “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” last year, and even though politically I lean Libertarian, there were things that didn’t sit well with me about those books. You’ve done a great job analyzing the characters, and you’ve been able to vocalize the feeling of uneasiness I had about Rand’s philosophy. I am still wondering why so many people laud her works when there are obvious flaws in her reasoning.

  • arensb

    (Just thought I’d mention, in passing, that I’m using this series of posts as a tool to help me actually read this book. So thanks.)

    How is Rearden so disconnected from the workings of government that he apparently doesn’t even know who his own lobbyist is talking to?

    I can sort of imagine that he felt some need to have a man in Washington, if only to bring him steel-related news, but considers lobbying to be a very minor part of his business, and therefore one not worth spending much time or effort on. If we can also assume that no movers and shakers, only moochers and parasites, applied for the job, perhaps he picked one more or less at random.

    But this brings up another point: the great thing about capitalism is that it rewards people for coming up with cool stuff (new inventions, cheaper technology, beautiful music, etc.). But really, capitalism rewards those companies that do what it takes to make money.

    Ideally, “what it takes” means inventing new things, exploiting resources, building cheaper products, etc. But it can also mean suing your competitors out of business, or convincing the government to give you a tax break, or even advertising (why spend money on R&D, if you think the same amount spent on advertising will bring in twice as many customers?).

    I live in the Washington, DC area, and have at times heard ads on the radio for things like aerospace companies. These are ads whose entire target audience works on Capitol Hill. That can’t have been cheap, and yet the companies presumably thought the investment was worth it.

    And that’s something I see no mention of in Atlas Shrugged so far: the recognition that no society is a perfect meritocracy, and that often people are rewarded for the “wrong” reasons. Possibly because the moment you open up that door, you let in things like government regulation and other socialist evils.

  • Russell Wain Glasser

    “Orren Boyle had appeared from nowhere, five years ago… He had started out with a hundred thousand dollars of his own and a two-hundred-million-dollar loan from the government. Now he headed an enormous concern which had swallowed many smaller companies. This proved, he liked to say, that individual ability still had a chance to succeed in the world.”

    I wonder if anybody thought to bring up this description in last year’s election. It sounds like a dead on description of Mitt Romney’s business, right down to the bragging about what an independent “maker” he is.

  • busterggi

    “What would make Rand’s ideal civilization different from a feudal oligarchy, where a handful of ultra-rich control all the property and extract rents from everyone else, consigning us all to perpetual debt slavery? We’ve seen societies like that, many times, and they often don’t end well for the rich. (Pre-revolutionary France comes to mind.) ”
    Or the US of A today -how long it continue is anyone’s guess.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Rand appears to be positing a reverse regulatory capture,

    Role reversal is a well-known plot device in comedy; one prominent example would be reversal of sexual roles in Shakespeare’s plays. So it all makes sense if you accept that Ayn Rand was writing comedy.
    The next question might be whether she realized it or not.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Right down to his telling college students to borrow money from their parents to start a business.

  • David Cortesi

    > What would make Rand’s ideal civilization different from a feudal
    oligarchy, where a handful of ultra-rich control all the property and
    extract rents from everyone else…?

    I believe that Rand will be painting, mostly by implication, a vision of a utopian world in which everyone works diligently and proudly at their own competence level, like extremely Zen Japanese craftsmen, and thus are not only content in their lot but beatifically happy in it. You may only run a hot-dog stand but it will be immaculate and the hot dogs will be delicious because you CARE, and that fulfills you. Later (spoiler alert!) we will discover Galt operating a charming little diner in just this paradigmatic way.

    > So what did Rearden ever see in him?

    As I recall it, Rearden is being portrayed as innocent in his honesty. He is SO uprightly moral he cannot conceive of betrayal. I believe this same theme will be played out in other characters: good workers, who cannot conceive of anyone deliberately doing a bad job. (But how could anyone possibly be a successful manager and leader without understanding this?) The crux of the whole plot (spoiler alert!) is that they all undergo a painful loss of that innocence, come to understand the true evil of the takers, and so join Galt’s revolt.

  • smrnda

    I’m starting to see a big contradiction in Rand’s philosophy.

    On one hand, the MOVERS are the ones who really sustain all of us lowly moochers (despite being a successful entrepreneur, I was once on disability, so I’m assuming Rand would put me down as a ‘moocher’) so we owe them our submission and gratitude.

    On the other hand, if we’re all down and out, we can’t fault the MOVERS for not providing for us.

    If that’s the case, then we really should only be showing gratitude to the ‘movers’ provided our standard of living is actually high, otherwise, they’re doing nothing for us, so we owe them nothing.

    I’d permit her to say ‘everybody for his or her own self’ and could consider that consistent. If she said ‘here are the people who sustain your worthless existence’ and she actually proved that we all have great lives because of these people, that is something you can make a case for, but once you say ‘it’s these people that make your life livable, and if your life is unlivable, they still deserve your servile gratitude’ just makes no sense.

    It’s the whole ‘job creator’ problem. If we must honor the rich as ‘job creators,’ then they should be blamed when there aren’t enough jobs. You can’t both demand the rich be honored as job creators AND tell people that if they don’t have a job, screw off.

  • smrnda

    I think the appeal is psychological. Her protagonists are narcissistic, believe that everybody else is a lowly leech and just doesn’t appreciate how great they are, and have delusions of how nobody could survive without them, and are always disparaging the contributions of anyone else, and feel they should be above criticism. Some people who share these negative traits might relate to characters who are similar.

    Another problem is that she seems to think her ideas are perfect. No political or economic philosophy is perfect, and even fairly ideal systems will occasionally screw up. Most people are realistic enough to know there are trade-offs and no ideology is perfect, but her fans might be attracted to the One True Way, kind of like religious people.

  • JohnH2

    Which assumes one parents have money and that, if they have money, they are likely to loan it to their children at favourable rates. I gladly accept gifts from my more wealthy relatives but experience has painfully taught me that it would be better to go to a loan shark then to get a loan from them.

  • smrnda

    I tend to find that many socialists exemplify the dictum of how the enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect one. You can point out how Scandinavian nations have a comprehensive welfare state, low levels of inequality and a high standard of living, and then I get an earful about how the workers aren’t *fully empowered.*

  • Michael

    I don’t think she said the rich were hated for no reason, but mainly because “parasites” were envious of them. Not a good explanation, no, but still.

  • Azkyroth

    Consider the difference between “an idea” and “a conceit.”

  • Jon Jermey

    ” We’ve seen societies like that, many times, and they often don’t end well for the rich.”

    To be fair, they ended well for the rich for hundreds of years. Any wealthy person born in, say, 1750 would still view supporting feudalism as a rational bet on their own wellbeing.

    But of course by the time Rand was writing it was clear that managed capitalism could make everyone better off than they were before, even the rich.

  • Jerrad Wohlleber

    Randian Objectivism is nothing more than the mirror image of Soviet Communism, prettied up with some pseudophilosophical nonsense.

  • smrnda

    I’m guessing this could be explained by Rand’s experience in the USSR. Her 100% about-face could be accepted on a human level – people will be suspicious of anything similar to an ideology they have suffered under – but that doesn’t mean her actual ideas deserve respect.

  • J_JamesM

    When people say that today’s inequality is “worse than it’s been in 100 years,” they are implicitly referring to the Gilded Age of the 1890s, an era of extreme corruption, monopolization, few if any worker’s protections, robber barons, etc. Look to history, and you will find your answer.

  • Michael

    It can’t be, because the Soviet Union had no private sector. The cushy jobs were all government, and there was great corruption. Basically it was the same, if not worse-government bureaucrats got into special department stores with the best products, didn’t have to wait in line with ordinary citizens, had private villas, got chauffeured in cars (most ordinary people couldn’t own them), etc.

  • Michael

    It might be unintentionally comedic, but Rand certainly didn’t intend it that way. Everything she wrote seemed to be deadly serious. I have never seen any evidence that she had a sense of humor.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    The characters of Orren Boyle and Westly Mouch are fascinating to me, and the perfect counterpoint to all those Republicans who worship the ground that businessmen walk on. It seems to me that at least 95% of upper management in this country fits into the Boyle/Mouch group, not the Hank Reardon/Dagny Taggart group — Romney in particular.

  • Alejandro

    From me you would get an ear full of how “great” it would be to actually live there and have 50% of your income taken by the government. Go check that report from Oprah where she goes to Norway and starts praising it about how great it was that everything was “free”… only to walk into her host’s tiny condo five minutes later and be completely shocked about how small it was (“Four people living here! How do you live here? Where do you put your stuff? How do your kids play?”) The Norwegian host had no real answer.

  • GCT

    Taxes are “taken” for services provided. The receive services, like updates to their infrastructure, that we don’t get here in the US, and it pays off in terms of their higher standards of living and overall happiness. The size of one’s house is not the only criteria, and most people in the US have houses larger than they need. But, if that’s the only thing you can find to complain about, then you’re trying too hard.

  • Adam Lee

    So, your biggest objection to socialism is… the tiny houses. Compelling. Has it ever occurred to you that the size of a dwelling probably has a lot more to do with geography and population density than with the tax structure? Have you ever tried living in an apartment in New York City?

  • smrnda

    I have already been. European residences tend to be smaller owing to greater population density, the fact that the buildings are often much older then your average American house. I’m quite familiar with conservative think tanks pointing out how American houses are larger, which is, apparently, the only stat they can find that makes us better.

    On ‘taking’ your income, the only question is, do you get what you pay for? Think of what % of our incomes we spend on health care, and also how unexpectedly high medical expenses can turn out to be. It’d find it preferable to pay higher taxes just to know I’d never be surprised by a huge medical bill.

  • Jerrad Wohlleber

    I thought Americans were already paying about 50% of their income as taxes? At least that’s what the minarchists disguised as tax reformers are always telling me. You know, you take the top marginal rate, add the maximum possible state and local taxes, and voila! Taxed Enough Already and shit.

    But seriously, while Americans aren’t paying quite as high taxes as the Scandanavians (though not by a huge margin) we also have to look at what we get for our money. In America, we don’t get health care without being over 65 or being on some extreme edge of poverty, we have collapsing bridges, no mass transit, a cobbled together sham of a welfare system that is unusable by the majority of people who might need it, exploding education prices, and oh yes never ending war. Looks to me like the Norwegians got the better deal.

  • Azkyroth

    No, taxes are taken because the government is MEAN! Just like Alejandro’s mom when she makes him clean his room.

  • Jovan Koviljac

    What I find the most offensive about it all is that notice of “self-made man” that Rand is pushing as ideal and default state when there’s no such thing. Eventually, you get to “Batcave problem”: Batman is cool and awesome and superhero, but what happens when pipes clog in his toilet? When his boiler dies? When his crime-fighting supercomputer breaks or gets a virus? When the walls of his batcave get moldy or all the bats he keeps as pets start shitting on his gadgets? How is he getting those gadgets anyway, by personally making them from ore or raw oil?

    Also, there’s another problem in Rand’s books, the one I like to name “There’s no toothache in Middle Earth observation”. The same way there’s no toothache in Tolkien’s Middle Earth so there’s no need for dentists (in fact, as you read the books, you don’t even notice they are not there), there’s no children, elderly, sick or infirm in the worlds Rand is building. Everyone can work. Those that can but choose easier way than giving their full potential, they are moochers. Those that don’t choose easier way but harder one, are movers. Those that can’t work due to physicall disability or illness… well, there aren’t those in the world, right?

  • keddaw

    “Needless to say, this never happens in real life”

    Sure it does, just less so in the US than other countries. Even in the US, Cheyney, Romney etc. all chose to leave the private sector and try to get into the government, albeit for entirely different philosophical reasons than Mouch.

  • Alejandro

    Uh…. not quite. My biggest objection is that socialism is not long term sustaniable. We will see it in some decades when the economy in Europe continues to deteriorate (off course, it will be blamed on something else). I don’t actually give a damn about the house size, that was not the point. The Oprah report thing was just ment to be an example about how many liberal americans think everything must be great in the more socialist countries and then become surprised when they actually see how things are over there…try to go there and live for a year and then tell me how you like it.

  • GCT

    This is why arguing with Libertarians is like arguing with children.

    Newsflash: Capitalism is not long term sustainable either. That’s why a sensible policy that treads the middle ground is the way to go. But, that’s not good enough for Libertarians. They can only see this in terms of black and white. ‘Oh noes, you want to have taxes! This is complete Socialism and unacceptable!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11111111111111111!!!!!!!!!!’

    So, if that’s your biggest objection, then you should reject Capitalism too. When the markets are truly free, society collapses as the money all gets pooled in the hands of a select few with the means to gather it and everyone else ends up in abject poverty. Once that happens, society can not sustain itself because there is no injection of new talent to build things up, the masses end up revolting, etc.

  • keddaw

    “the Soviet Union had no private sector”

    Like there is no market for drugs because they are illegal?

    The Soviet Union had a large private sector because the country was filled with humans and humans always manage to have a private sector. The trade in illicit vodka alone was probably as large as the economy of some states in the US at the time. Plus, there is always prostitution.

  • Michael

    True. Let me clarify-they had no legal, official private sector, and thus no corporate lobbyists.

  • Michael

    The Gilded Age lasted about 70-80 years, so if we estimate that modern corporatocracy began in the ’70s-’80s… 2040s-50s?

  • keddaw

    Except they did have a very minor legal private sector (

    As to reverse capture, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario where a high up worker colludes with the state to drive the private company into the arms of the state, whereupon he becomes the head of the company.

  • GCT

    Actually, it is quite difficult to imagine that scenario, because it doesn’t tend to happen. Any examples of it actually happening?

  • Michael

    Ah, I was not aware, thanks. It doesn’t surprise me actually, since other communist countries which had collectivized agriculture eventually allowed private plots after they saw it was woefully inefficient.

    Your scenario seems pretty unlikely though.

  • keddaw

    While somewhat more public minded than interested in public capture this is what whistleblowers do. In an era where people strongly believe in collectivism there would be much industrial espionage and sabotage.

    However, since the state has the power to simply nationalize an industry (e.g. UK railways) then there are going to be few examples of a government needing a company to be seen to fail before taking it over.

    But since you say this doesn’t tend to happen let’s look at a rather major example of it, shall we:

    In 2000 Dmitri Medvedev was made Chairman of Gazprom’s board of directors. In 2005-6 their subsidiaries sold significant shares to the state owned Rosneft at what is considered a significantly undervalued price, allowing the state to take control of Gazprom.

    In 2008 Medvedev left Gazprom to become President of Russia.

  • GCT

    To compare it to whistleblowers is mind-boggling and wholly inaccurate.

    Secondly, for Medvedev, you’re only telling part of the story. He was appointed to the position of Gazprom’s chairman by the government. It doesn’t support your case.

  • smrnda

    The standard of living in the US is deteriorating more than the standard of living in Europe, despite our being less socialistic. I don’t see the evidence to support this.

  • keddaw

    How about Railtrack in the UK (later to become quasi-state owned Network Rail)?

  • Azkyroth

    While somewhat more public minded than interested in public capture this is what whistleblowers do.


  • Loren Petrich

    Alejandro, define “socialism”.

    Michael Kinsley once wrote a column for Time magazine in the early 1990′s in which he noted that at least in the US, political fashions travel from left to right. It seems like the indictment of decadence has also done so. The Left used to talk about how decadent capitalism is, and the Right now talks about how decadent socialism is, at least what they like to label “socialism”.

  • GCT

    What about it?

  • Loren Petrich

    What endpoints do you have in mind for the Gilded Age? Those points are more usually given as the end of Reconstruction to the turn of the 20th cy., about 25 – 30 years.

    I think that we are currently in Gilded Age II. I had high hopes for the Clinton presidency; I hoped that it would be another era of reform like the 1960′s. But he was too coward, and he meekly submitted to all the abuse that the right wing heaped on him. Abuse that sometimes involved them denying their most cherished principles, like there never being an American war that they didn’t like.

    I’d date Gilded Age II as starting in the late 1970′s, when the Sixties wave of reform petered out, meaning that it’s lasted longer than the first Gilded Age.

    Cycles of American History:

  • Michael

    I’ve heard it usually said to be about 1865-1914 or so, from the American Civil War to the First World War. It seems to me, however, that it lasted into the Great Depression, so the 1930′s-40′s, depending on when you date the end of that. By the usual dating, a second Gilden Age since the 70′s indeed has been longer so far. As to Clinton-power corrupts. The more one has of it, the more the corruption it seems.

  • Loren Petrich

    The Cycles of American History page dates it as 1869 – 1901. It was followed by the Progressive Era, which that page dates as 1901 – 1919.

    As to the Clinton presidency, Bill Clinton was notable for his wimpiness. He seemed like he was saving up political capital to run for a higher office than the Presidency. Look at his failed attempt at health-care reform. After developing it in secret, he wimped out rather than have a big PR campaign to support it.

  • pbrower2a

    That’s why people move to such dull places as Indianapolis — so that they can drive a car whose parking costs more than the car payments, so that they can have a couple large sofas, and so that they can have a back yard in which to go out in the sun in summer with some privacy.

  • pbrower2a

    “Some decades from now”… that is a cop-out.

    Being priced into the grave because one must compete with others for medical treatment, the one willing to pay the most getting the treatment, is itself a bad idea.

    If one gets a good education one does not need all the Kitsch that we Americans stuff our houses with.

  • pbrower2a

    Is Japan ‘socialist’? It is simply crowded, and the ideology would not matter. Likewise Hong Kong.

  • smrnda

    Good point. I live in a rather little place with very few things. I like to read, but there are libraries, including a huge one at the public research university. I like to *be part of a community* so I don’t need a huge house since I’m out at some public place (cafe, pub, local interest group) and not sitting around a house. Part of this is that I’m either educated or smart or savvy enough to know *buy shit and have a big house* is just a way to get someone to dig a hole they can never get out of to keep someone else making money off them as a ‘good consumer.’

  • Don Sakers

    To be fair (which is more than Rand and her present-day disciples ever do), the book was written in the mid-1950s, which was a different world. There weren’t thousands of lobbyists in Washington — I suspect that a big company having only one “man in Washington” was not unusual at the time. Similarly, the idea of big industrialists making major decisions by the seat of their pants, without feasibility studies, rings true for the period.

    Rand has many faults, but I don’t think failing to accurately predict the world of 2013 from a vantage point fifty-plus years earlier is a valid one.

  • Don Sakers

    > What would make Rand’s ideal civilization different from a feudal
    > oligarchy, where a handful of ultra-rich control all the property and
    > extract rents from everyone else, consigning us all to perpetual debt
    > slavery? We’ve seen societies like that, many times, and they often
    > don’t end well for the rich.

    Such societies endured for hundreds or even thousands of years, with the rich reaping tremendous benefits and living very well.

    And yes, I think such a society is precisely the goal of Rand’s heroes and her present-day followers.