Ayn Rand’s classic book, Atlas Shrugged, is set against the background of difficult economic times marked by collectivism and statism, not unlike the situation we see today. Large and small companies are failing and the government invokes the “too big to fail” and “national emergency” mantras and selects the winners in industry, not based on their merits but on the basis of political influence and “national interest”. One of the first industries to be deemed as such is the railroad network and the result was government intervention in the form of the creation of the Railroad Unification Plan.
One of the main antagonists is a man named Jim Taggart, president of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad. This railroad is one of the largest and serves many profitable areas of the country, specifically the oilfields of Colorado – yet due to poor management, it is in financial trouble. Taggart is under considerable competitive pressure from the Phoenix-Durango line simply because they provide better service and have invested in upgrading their rolling stock and rails. They are simply less costly, more efficient and better managed.
Taggart uses his political influence in Washington to convince a collectivist leaning government that this situation is unfair and it is really the “people” who are suffering and “something must be done” because it is a “crisis”. The result was the “Anti-Dog Eat Dog Act” preventing “destructive competition” and allowing the National Alliance of Railroads to ban competition in certain areas of the country. Taggart uses this Act to drive Phoenix-Durango out of Colorado and resume his poor service to the oilfields. As a result of the regional monopoly and poor service, the oil company can’t get its product to market and the oil industry in Colorado quickly collapses.
Killing off customers is never a strong calculus but when collectivism replaces capitalism, the answer is never allowing honest competition; it is always another commission, program or czar. In short order of the oil industry collapse, another national “crisis” was declared and the Railroad Unification Plan was born, a plan under which all railroads would operate as a team, pool their revenues, and then receive payment in proportion to total miles of track owned, not necessarily for services rendered. Under this regime, Taggart’s profits swelled, mainly because the railroad was paid for owning miles of useless track that served no one. Of greater consequence was that the Director of Unification might cancel service at any time in order to lay on special trains to haul any cargo, not based on need but based on political influence.
There is a telling quote taken from Friedrich Hayek’s book, The Road to Serfdom: “That hodgepodge of ill assembled and often inconsistent ideals which under the name of the Welfare State has largely replaced socialism as the goal of the reformers …This is not to say that some of its aims are not practicable and laudable. But there are many ways in which we can work together toward the same goal, and in the present state of opinion there is some danger that our impatience for quick results may lead us to choose instruments which, though perhaps more efficient for achieving the particular ends, are not compatible with the preservation of a free society.”
Hayek and Rand provide examples that are simplified views of our current times and the evolution of governmental control using collectivist policies in a “crisis” as an effective approach to problem resolution. A similar march toward a predictable endgame pitting the “looters” against the “producers” of value is clearly visible today, should we choose to see it. “Progressive” tax schemes that seek to “soak the rich” while absolving almost 50% of the population of the tax burden, a broken “social security” system created as a safety net – yet has been raided for political largesse, welfare programs that disincentivize work, public and political contempt for productive industry (i.e. Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Pharma, the insurance/ health care industries, for example), subsidies to non-productive industries, de facto nationalization of our financial and auto industries, uncontrolled spending by our leadership, explosive growth in taxpayer supported public employment and the destruction of individual rights under the guise of “too big to fail” and “national crisis” are all as evident in contemporary politics as they are in the pages of Atlas Shrugged.
This is not specifically a Republican or Democrat issue; it is one critical to the future of our Republic, a battle between collectivism and statism versus liberty, freedom and self-determination. This is an issue of creating such a distorted system where the marginal utility of creating the next unit of productivity is worthless because it will be taken from the productive and given to the non-productive and ultimately wasted or destroyed. Upon, reaching this point, economies and societies will collapse. Atlas will shrug and the world will fall from his shoulders.
When used in reference to our president, the words “socialism” and “progressivism” have taken on the quality of epithets. The problem is not Obama, who seems to defy an exact determination of his core beliefs, the problem is a malignant political belief system that proposes that we should give up even more individual liberty for benefit of all, even those who have not evidenced an interest in the preservation of their own liberty, a belief that we must provide for them solely based on the miles of track they own, not the value of their effort. As Marx said, “From each according to his ability to each according to his need.”
Let us hope that we can realize that we have already enacted our very own Railroad Unification Plan and make the changes necessary before it is too late.