An Ayn Rand Economic Reality

Atlas Shrugged

Rep. Paul Ryan, the author of the Republican budget proposal in the U.S. House, famously acknowledges that his understanding of economic reality has been hugely influenced by a work of fiction, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The novel is so important to Mr. Ryan’s way of thinking that he requires all his new staffers to read it. He apparently believes it is real.

The author of this right wing utopian fantasy novel was a rather nasty and unpleasant woman who was angry that her family had lost all of their wealth and privilege during the Russian Revolution. This was perfectly understandable. During the awful dislocation and bloodletting of that historic upheaval (one based on a leftist utopian fantasy), a “Death Tax” on the Super Rich often had a considerable amount of actual death involved. Ms. Rand made it to the States and, in the midst of our Red Scare, wrote a work of fiction setting forth her anti-Soviet “objectivist philosophy” and describing a utopian society where the government did nothing for nobody. In her idealized world, everyone would be strictly on their own. If the world would only do that, she and her fans believed, life would be just swell.

But in the real world, the United States had actually run a great, long-term social and economic experiment that basically had the U.S. following Ms. Rand’s precepts. It was a great experiment called the 1920’s and ‘30’s. It was a time in this country where everyone was basically on their own. There were no social safety nets. There was no social security, no Medicare, no Medicaid, and no unemployment benefits. Just the way Ms. Rand and her fans would like to have it today.

On January 20, 1937, in his second inaugural address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorably observed the results of America’s great experiment in “objectivist philosophy.” FDR said: “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”

In truth, widespread misery is what we had back then. And, in truth, it is what we would likely get again if Paul Ryan, the Atlas Shrugged crowd, and the Tea Party types get their way. Paul Ryan and his supporters can look at a staggering level of human misery, and just shrug.

Thankfully, most of us can’t.

Utopian fantasies, of the right or the left, fail because they are not based on what human beings are really like. They are not based on the real-life conditions engendered by the unfathomable complexities of an urban-based, globally connected, economic system. If we really want to base running the world’s largest, most complex economy on a work of fiction, I think we could pick a better book than the bible of selfishness, Atlas Shrugged. One of my favorites from my childhood was Freddy the Pig And the Men from Mars. As a blueprint for how to run the world, I’m sure it couldn’t work out any worse than the Rand book.