Why Ayn Rand and Her Legion of Followers Are Hopelessly Wrong
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“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged . One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” – John Rogers, Kung Fu Monkey
The reviews of Atlas Shrugged (Part 1) are in, and “brutal” doesn't begin to describe them. Phrases like "barely professional," "sterile and lifeless" and "watered-down, uninspired bilge" abound in reviews that often say, "I don't much care for Ayn Rand's ideas, but even she doesn't deserve this!" Even a positive review in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post called the film, “a bit stiff in the joints and acted by an undistinguished cast amid TV-movie trappings."
But sheer incompetence is what we've come to expect from ideologues, and a close look at how the book's (and movie's) premise stacks up against reality can help remind us why. Atlas Shrugged 's rugged Randian individualist heroine, Dagny Taggert, is a determined builder of super-trains who faces an endless parade of corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and unions standing in her way. In reality, supertrains were part of Obama's undersized stimulus package, which the Randian right savaged with a vengeance. Republican governors across the land turned down billions of federal construction dollars, with high-speed trains one of their favorite targets for destruction. Even before taking office, Wisconsin's Scott Walker killed an $800 million high-speed rail grant, a move estimated to cost the state around $100 million in preexisting commitments. They really don't like supertrains.
Who does like supertrains? Socialist Europe and China, that's who! Europe began building them in the 1970s, and China started following suit two decades later. But China's more recent efforts have made its initial forays seem quaint. It now has almost 5,200 miles in service as of January 2011, with speeds ranging from 120 to 220 miles per hour. Another 11,000 miles are under construction thanks to substantial funding from the Chinese government's economic stimulus program. They're building supertrains about 100 times faster than Republican governors kill them here at home.
But it's not just the railroading present or future that Atlas Shrugged gets wrong. After all, one well might argue, so what if a futurist fiction is, well, fictional? The real problem is that really good futurism—fictional or not—has a strong grasp of at least one significant aspect of the past, which it then projects forward in order to explore in greater depth. Not so Atlas Shrugged , which gets the past utterly wrong as well, as explained in detail in Railroading Economics: The Creation of the Free Market Mythology (2006), by Michael Perelman, a professor of economics at California State University, Chico.
To be sure, there were strong, vivid individuals involved in the history of 19th-century railroad-building, Perelman admits. But market competition was the ruin of railroads, for the simple reason that competitive pricing of freight rates made it impossible for railroads to pay off the enormous initial costs of building them in the first place. Massive waves of bankruptcies devastated the industry, until anti-competitive measures were devised, first through collusion and monopolistic consolidation, then through regulation— the latter largely the product of industry figures and industry-friendly conservative economists.
It's a fascinating story, and proof once again that truth is stranger than fiction. Perelman was happy to talk about it in detail with AlterNet.
“The railroad industry is very, very interesting because it's an extremely labor-intensive industry and often there was a single promoter that was involved,” he said. But these promoters were nothing like Rand's protagonists. As Perelman explain, they were far more like Dagny Taggart's brother, constantly conniving with politicians in order to get ahead.