Food for Thought #2: Political (and Actual) Climate Change

Okay we are now three chapters deep in Atlas Shrugged and the plot skeleton has finally developed real meat on its bones, specifically in the bar scene with Jim Taggart and the other villains of the piece. On the surface it’s pretty dry stuff, flat even, but it’s meaty because this is where Rand starts making points that are, at least from today’s perspective, both conservative and liberal.

Right off the bat she illustrates what she learned in Russia about how leftist socioeconomic policy can ruin the competitiveness of the market. The Tea Party approves. But the context of this lesson, strictly speaking, is a cabal of established businessmen who instigate the government’s malfeasance by warping the law to their own desire. Occupy Wall Street approves too! The Randverse, it turns out, is not as partisan as conventional wisdom would have you believe. In fact, despite Rand’s heroic feats of oversimplification, her world is riddled with dilemmas. I’ve embellished the text in two places to accent this:

The bigger and more dramatic of the two updates is the nature of the energy crisis in the book (or, “in the book”). Ayn puts the phrase ‘natural exhaustion of the mines’ in the mouth of the evil Orren Boyle, while the valorous Ellis Wyatt has struck new oil through sheer force of will. So Rand sees the problem as a withering of human ambition and not a genuine environmental limitation or the cause of catastrophic climatic side effects. Granted, she was writing in 1957 and you can’t predict everything about the next half-century.

Up means good, right?

But if the energy crisis (“in the book”) is legitimate, the villains while still villainous are at least reacting to real threats, just poorly, and our two main protagonists, Dagny and Hank, are effectively the champions of 21st century progressive projects like high-speed rail and sustainable development. All this reorients the way Atlas maps onto our real-life politics in ways that are far more interesting than going by the author’s, you know, actual intentions, and as such this new paradigm will become increasingly important as we progress.

The second update I make is the substitution of the word ‘lobbyist’ for Rand’s phrase ‘men in Washington.’  Again, by Rand’s account, the catalyst for state interference here is a syndicate of elite market players who work with influence-peddlers like Wesley Mouch to protect themselves from market forces. The vast majority of Americans today recognize that as a real problem and see lobbyists as the poster boys for it.

Generally speaking, conservatives blame government bloat for our troubles, because bureaucracy is inefficient and creates opportunities for rent-seeking (political science for ‘bribes’). Unfettered business is the natural corollary to their desire to shrink the state. Liberals blame the concentration of power in the corporate class for our troubles, since this class can fetter business to its own ends through lobbying, as a sort of covert class war. The truth is that the distinction is akin to arguing over whether a coin is all heads or all tails.

But the reality of how we ended up this way is more complex than the Randverse can contain. To explain that reality in three paragraphs I’m going to draw heavily from Lawrence Lessig’s new book Republic Lost, which you should buy here for more info. Here it goes:

Over the last three decades, the cost of running a campaign has skyrocketed into a financial arms race. Candidates need either a personal fortune or corporate backing just to compete. The average member of Congress now spends 40-70% of her time raising money, and the more competitive her district is (that is to say, the more a vote actually counts), the more money she’ll need (so the money counts first). She also no doubt won office by championing a couple of high-profile issues that she genuinely cares about, but now she has hundreds of votes to make on a wide variety of issues about which she knows very little. With no time to study obscure technical matters, she needs help to know how to vote and why. That’s where the lobbyists come in.

They aren’t buying results per se. They’re providing congressmen who don’t have enough hours in the day with vital background on all sorts of wonky topics. Is the research in their reports slanted towards the interests they represent? Certainly. But that’s obvious and they naturally work with the congressmen who are already friendly to their interests due to a vague sense of shared values (just like how voters pick their congressmen!). In short, they provide what political scientists call a “legislative subsidy.” If, for example, you agree with this post so far but didn’t have the details to back up your opinion before, I’m providing you with an “argumentative subsidy.” That’s the value lobbyists ostensibly bring to the table, but in the case of governing it creates a vicious circle.

Not that representative.

The laws of the land end up de facto written by various lobbies in various uncoordinated bits and pieces, resulting in ever more technocratic votes that leave Congressmen relying ever more on lobbyists’ help. The tangle of statutes produced gets so convoluted that you need, say, a phalanx of lawyers to understand it. That creates a bias towards big companies, which creates barriers to entry for start-up businesses, stifling competition. In the end the established businesses have done right by their investors but wrong by the market as a whole. The congressmen have done right by their constituents, voting their values on the issues that defined their campaigns and sending pork projects back home to boost the local economy, but they’ve done wrong by the country and our Constitutional institutions as a whole. Everybody hates Congress but likes their Congressman.

Maybe you noticed what this perverse dynamic doesn’t require: explicit pay-offs or quid pro quos. The ways in which lobbyists introduce politicians to major donors definitely skirts that line, but everybody networks, right? Individually, everybody’s doing what you would do too. Considering the social structure of their day-to-day lives and the personal cost/benefit dynamic, everyone’s behavior is in their rational self-interest, and pretty normal. Even if no one is corrupt, everyone’s actions in the aggregate produce a corrupt society. How can that be? Everyone is satisfying their rational self-interest just like Rand wanted, with the end result being the societal decay that she feared. All the powerbrokers are getting what they need but not what they’ve earned, while the true innovators who could address real, impending, potentially apocalyptic issues like energy scarcity and climate change are tarred as controversial figures whose goals are obstructed by a dysfunctional civic culture. Hey wait, that’s the plot of the book!

So in Rand’s favor she gets the broad strokes of today’s problems right, but her personal life philosophy actually enables those problems. Rational self-interest, it turns out, will not suffice as an ethical standard of behavior unless the impact of the individual on his culture is part of what defines that rationality. Anything too selfish is corrosive to the climate, political or otherwise, and exposes ‘self-interest’ as having been defined too narrowly.

Yes, in the recaps I joke that Ayn has a thing for fascism when describing her heroes. But fascism is often described as collusion between big business and big government, and that’s exactly the state of affairs we live in she depicts as villainous. Likewise, if you read Benito Mussolini’s definition of fascism, certain phrases about human values and the failures of egalitarian democracy seem straight out of Rand, even as the statist politics he promotes are the total opposite of her libertarian vision.

Dagny would be so disappointed.

By the same token I think updating Atlas to include modern lobbying and the climate & energy crises is actually true to the spirit of Rand’s work despite her political legacy because of the cognitive dissonance it provokes. Keep in mind that many of those who fund the most powerful lobbies and shower money on politicians preach Rand’s philosophy even as it condemns their behavior (Koch Brothers, I’m looking at you) — a self-contradiction in the very style of James Taggart.

And that makes Atlas Shrugged a self-fulfilling prophecy about a philosophy of self-fulfillment whose adherents are self-contradicting in direct contradiction of their self-styled philosophy causing the philosophy’s prophecy to become self-fulfilling.  Holy Meta!

Next week I’ll be following the Monday Chapter 4 recap with more Food for Thought on Wednesday. If you’re intrigued, please subscribe by e-mail or RSS at the bottom of the page, and if you like, get caught up on the reading.

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