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Stephen Colbert on Atlas Shrugged: Rand Illusion

March 12th, 2009 by Max Gladwell · 14 Comments

Tonight’s Word: Rand Illusion. The Colbert Report features objectivism. We offer a defense.

Stephen Colbert took a shot at Any Rand last night. Evidently, sales of her magnus opus Atlas Shrugged are up quite a bit due to the recession and government involvement in the markets i.e. nationalizing Wall Street and bailing out irresponsible mortgage owners. As you may know, Max Gladwell is inspired by John Galt, the hero of Atlas Shrugged, and we subscribe to Rand’s objectivist philosophy. However, we do approach Rand from a unique perspective.

Rand advocates for self interest. It’s a key principle in the objectivist philosphy. Another way to put this is that we ought to behave selfishly. It’s the belief that we’re all better off if everyone acts purely in their own self interest, and we believe this to be the case. However, many Rand supporters take this as a license to act immorally i.e. like an asshole. It’s one thing to be selfish, quite another to be a selfish prick. There is a huge difference. What these people fail to appreciate about the heroes of Atlas Shrugged is that they had incredible integrity, a quality that is sorely lacking among today’s corporate and political elite.

Rand’s heroic ideal was defined by a strict value system. Galt, Reardon, Taggart, and their peers had respect for one another, for their competitors, and for those who worked for them. And this wasn’t from a place of altruism; it was because respecting others and being a moral human being was absolutely in their self interest. They took responsibility for their actions and accepted the consequences because that’s how a reputation is built and because having a solid reputation is also in their self interest. Above all, though, they valued the qualities of innovation, intelligence, self-reliance, and one’s ability to produce i.e. to create value.

To compare those responsible for this financial crisis (Wall Street bankers) to the heroes of Atlas Shrugged is to do Rand a great disservice. It’s not an accurate comparison. Is it a coincidence that there were no bankers among the titans of Atlas Shrugged? No, because bankers don’t produce anything. A big part of our trouble is that we let our financial services industry grow to about five times the size that it should be, all because there was easy money to be made in what amounted to a massive, international Ponzi scheme that was the global financial markets. Make no mistake. Madoff and Stanford were the tip of the iceberg. All of Wall Street and it various affiliates were in on it. They’re all culpable. And in Rand’s world, they’d be allowed to fail so that more responsible and innovative entrepreneurs could take their place.

If we’re to make comparisons, let’s not think about all of the companies and CEOs getting government bailouts. Instead, we should be measuring the heroes of Atlas Shrugged against those who don’t need bailouts, because none of Rand’s characters would have found themselves in a position to ever need one. Does Steve Jobs need a bailout? Does Sergy Brin need a bailout? Does Peter Chernin need a bailout? No. Today’s smart leaders whose companies actually innovate and produce value are doing OK.

So the suggestion that we should “Go John Galt” is just absurd. This blog suggests that all the smart folk should go on strike, as they did in Atlas Shrugged. It’s pure politics and has nothing to do with actual business realities or the principles for which Rand stood. In Atlas Shrugged, the government seized control of functioning, profitable businesses like Reardon Steele. It would be like Obama nationalizing Google or Exxon.

Granted, John Galt would not approve of bailing out destined-to-fail businesses like GM and AIG with taxpayer dollars or any dollars for the matter. These companies have earned the right to go bankrupt, and we should let them. But he would not be going on strike. On the contrary, Galt and his ilk would view this recession as a tremendous opportunity. He would work on innovations that would capitalize on these new economic realities. He would create efficiencies that saved time, energy, and money, because that’s what the market demands. In short, he would produce.

That’s the only thing that’s going to get us out of this mess. We need to produce. And we need to create value. That’s what Galt would do.

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Tags: Economy · Entrepreneurs