I tried reading Atlas Shrugged once upon a time. I couldn’t finish it. Not because I hated the message, but because I got bored before I figured out what the hell the message was. I can breeze through a book arguing for a view I hate as long as it’s entertainingly written, but this Atlas Shrugged was not. But now I can say I understand the basic idea of the novel thanks to this summary, which I found a couple weeks ago via Alex Tabarrok.
I was very interested to learn that the premise of Atlas Shrugged, is, apparently, that a bunch of businessmen get together to conspire to rig the system in their favor, and this leads to the collapse of the economy. This is a choice of villains I applaud. All too often, stories that cast businessmen as the villains show them engaging in cartoonish, unrealistic forms of evil, rather than doing the kind of bad things you see them doing in real life, like using lobbyists to rig the system in their favor. A novel that portrays business men that way also sounds like it would be a good rallying point for the OWS/99% movement.
Except… well, of course you knew that’s not where Rand’s novel was going to go with this, because Rand is infamous for a rather extreme and nutty form of libertarianism. You see, apparently Atlas Shrugged (as explained by Bryan Caplan, anyways) takes the view that the problem is not a lack of checks against corruption or anything like that, but “statist politicians.”
What’s a statist politician? Well, it’s hard to imagine what a non-statist politician would be; presumably anyone who seeks out a job taking part in running a state is going to think having states is a good thing. But maybe the idea here is that the only way to avoid having certain government functions co-opted by special interests is to refrain from giving the government those functions at all.
That’s an argument I’m sympathetic to in some areas. I certainly don’t trust anyone with the power to decide what ideas can and cannot be expressed, nor would I trust a president with the power to have his own citizens killed without trial. Yet unfortunately, that approach simply can’t be applied to every area. Even libertarians (the ones who aren’t actually anarchists) accept the need for police, but police power (even when officially operating under the rule of law) is also one of the powers of government that has the most potential for abuse. Just look at, say, civil asset forfeiture (or a bajillion other things that I don’t feel like looking up the links for right now).
We also–and this is one of several places where I part ways with more hard-core libertarians–need some regulations on businesses. Environmental regulations are an especially clear case of that. Ed Brayton recently wrote a good post on the theoretical side of this. In more concrete terms, just consider the fact that thanks to environmental regulation in the United States, we’ve managed to clean up cities that were once plagued by smog and lakes whose water was once unsafe to drink. Have some environmental regulations been corrupted by corporate lobbying? Probably. But that’s no reason to scrap all environmental regulations.
In both the police case and the environmental regulation case, the solution to the misuse of government power is to fix the specific problems, and maybe try to develop better safeguards against future misuse of power (or influencing of laws by lobbyists, etc.) The same goes for the general problem of businessmen and corporations rigging the system in their favor. The solution is to find ways to reduce the amount of power they have, not give up and say, “okay, you guys do whatever the hell you want.”