Food for Thought #6: Backs to the Future

Welcome to the part where the book gets good.  Yes, as of Chapter 9 we’ve finally been introduced to Atlas’ MacGuffin: a lean mean clean green motor that could replace the internal combustion engine and save the world from environmental disaster if only it weren’t broken beyond repair in an abandoned warehouse.

You may have also noticed that in Chapters 8 & 9 I started referring to Rearden Metal as rMetal, expanding on the comparison to Steve Jobs that I made in Chapter 2, and started calling Taggart Transcontinental Taggart Transcon, which sounds more like a telecom company.

1.21 carbon-free Gigawatts!

Slowly but surely, we’re drawing the Randverse away from its steampunk alternate history and towards a cyberpunk future more like our own. And while we could really use that motor here in reality, the most obvious and important cyberpunk element of our world that the Randverse lacks is cyberspace itself — the internet. No doubt the open-source, democratizing, community-building, often non-commercial culture of the web would horrify Ayn, but that’s exactly why it will be a major element of this blog during Part Two (Chapters 11-20) in the same way that lobbying and climate change have been the major motifs of Part One (Chapters 1-10).

And as we are still in Part One, it’s worth revisiting the post I wrote after Chapter 3, “Political (and Actual) Climate Change,” to see how the themes I introduced there have paid off handsomely now that we’re near the ‘season finale,’ so to speak.

"Can you tell me how to get, how to get huge tax subsidies"

That earlier post focused mostly on the lobbying, which rears its head again here when Dagny’s former contractor mentions Wesley Mouch, the shadowy influence-peddler who has now become a government official overseeing economic management.

Before, I emphasized how lobbying corrupts legislation even if individual lobbyists and congressmen aren’t corrupt. I didn’t even mention the infamous revolving door of K Street (DC’s lobbying district), the part of the lobbyist-politician axis that makes conflicts of interest most obvious to the layperson. Now that Mouch has walked through that door, it’s worth adding a bit more to the picture.


Here in real life, we see the negative influence of the revolving door on both sides of the aisle. A decade ago, former House Majority Leader Tom “The Hammer” DeLay (R-Texas) actively encouraged lobbyists to become Republicans and Republicans to become lobbyists in what was called The K Street Project (in which Rick Santorum pariticipated). Three years later he was convicted of money laundering and conspiracy in Texas elections.


More recently and less criminally, former senator Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut) became the top lobbyist for the MPAA after leaving office, despite promises that he would never become a lobbyist, which means his job for the past year has been to promote SOPA and PIPA and other roads to cyber-serfdom.

By contrast, this sort of problem is what President Obama has specifically sought to avoid by setting rules for his campaign and administration that ban registered lobbyists from fundraising for him and former lobbyists from taking jobs regulating industries that they’ve recently lobbied for.

Butt plug?

The latter scenario is exactly what happens with Wesley Mouch, but even if Obama’s policies address the danger of Ayn Rand’s fictional example (and there is some debate about the rules’ effectiveness), the real world examples above suggest the danger isn’t just lobbyists becoming G-men, it’s G-men becoming lobbyists.

Because as Matt Yglesias illustrates in this post, for the middle class on down a government job is a sweet gig with good benefits relative to the rat race. That’s why populist rhetoric often includes the accusation that government workers of being do-nothing bureaucrats living cushily off the taxpayers’ dime. But for civil servants with a doctorate or professional degree, which is to say the highest ranking ones, private sector work pays better than public sector work, so public service at the elite level is genuinely a sacrifice, presumably made out of a sense of patriotic duty.

But this nonetheless warps the incentives of our top public officials away from representing genuine public interests and towards networking with the people they’re supposed to regulate, so that they will have good job offers to look forward to when they’re done regulating. For many, that may not even be an explicit plan, and certainly not at first. But if they aren’t consciously avoiding it, it becomes the path of least resistance pretty easily.

So let’s grant that the institutional corruption circles back and corrupts individuals. Those individuals still don’t think of themselves as corrupt because the costs of selling out are external and don’t fall on the corrupt people themselves unless they get convicted of a crime like DeLay. From their own subjective position, their choices are self-interested in an entirely reasonable way.

Hey what do you know, that’s how climate change works too! When I wrote on it before, I acknowledged that a strict reading of Atlas Shrugged doesn’t involve climate change per se so much as a general energy crisis. Yet climate change is actually more vital to the story. Not only because it makes the book better and more suspensful, but because it shows clearly how Rand’s philosophy fails to work in reality, due to natural conflicts between individuals’ incentives and how those seemingly reasonable choices have unseen costs that compound over time and burden every individual in the society.

The only real difference between that argument for climate change and Rand’s argument for the road to serfdom is that on the road to serfdom the crisis is one of dwindling liberty, but on the road to climate change the crisis is one of abusing liberty. Abuse which takes the form of negative externalities.

Negative externalities are any cost of a transaction that affects the market as a whole but isn’t factored into the price between the producer and the consumer. For example, we learned in 2008 that unregulated derivatives and other financial products didn’t actually reduce risk as claimed, they just turned it into a negative externality. The risk became an invisible danger building up in the economic atmosphere until things reached a tipping point and the real cost of the products became apparent — a cost that had to be paid by the country as a whole.

Negative externalities therefore require one to admit limits to self-interest. If you exceed those limits, there are costs, but they’re paid by everyone and especially by future generations living further down the road, who will face even stricter limits on their liberties and opportunities due to their forefathers’ excesses. It brings whole new meaning to the phrase so popular among supporters of the War on Terror a decade ago: freedom isn’t free.

Climate Change Deniers by Demo

And that’s the bottom line here. For people who believe in Rand’s radical vision of capitalist philosophy, whether they would call it Objectivist or libertarian or just Republican, the idea of climate change provokes a nearly unbearable degree of cognitive dissonance, because the negative externalities involved in climate change are created by billions of individuals behaving mostly reasonably and thus addressing the issue threatens individual liberty across the board.

This is a very legitimate concern and important to consider in shaping a solution to the climate change problem. One doesn’t want to get off the road to environmental apocalypse by getting on the road to serfdom. But we must admit that there is a problem and that course correction is necessary. Unfortunately many conservatives reject the whole premise as false because it would call their entire value system into question.

So yes, Ayn Rand considered herself a hard-nosed realist as well as an opponent of social thought. But the threat to the techno-industrial lifestyle presented by climate change requires all realistic individuals to take social concerns into account if a free and prosperous civilization is to survive. To ignore this would be to resent the facts and live in denial about the truth, while promoting willfully ignorant consumption that will inevitably climax in nihilistic self-destruction. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, is a real Jim Taggart move.

Once again, just as I pointed out in Hayek Anxiety, Rand turned out to be remarkably insightful about what the major issues of the early 21st century would be, even as her philosophy turned out to be not only unsuited to address those issues but to have made them worse.

You know, maybe I should have mentioned earlier that Part One of this book is titled “Non-Contradiction.”

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