Posts Tagged ‘Ayn Rand’

Capitalism in Practice

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

I’ve started Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, a history of information industries in America; and having read Ayn Rand’s fictional Atlas Shrugged earlier this year — I wonder what Rand would make of this history of industrial warfare.

One of the motifs of Wu’s history is a theme of Rand’s novel — the extreme lengths the rich and powerful will go to in order to quash a disruptive technology. In the novel, it was Rearden steel — a metal stronger, cheaper, and better in every way than ordinary steel; in Wu’s history, it is every technological innovation from the phone to FM radio to television to the internet. In both history and the novel, the established industry used corrupt scientific experts, intimidation of suppliers, government regulation, and the blocking of financing to prevent the disruptive technology from taking off.

Rand’s novel though divides the everyone into two categories: the productive who are proud, competitive, inventive individuals who make everything of worth; and the looters who are unproductive and seek to leach off of the productive using the government, religion, and pity.

Wu’s history reveals a rather different story. There is no figure in history to match the strong, creative, independent, self-made industrial magnate Dagny Taggart. There are few who resemble her brother, the weak, dependent, self-loathing James Taggart who adds nothing of worth to the business except to plead with the government to stop his competitors because their superiority is unfair,

Only rarely do the inventors become rich. More often, they are outmaneuvered by corporate titans who use every means at their disposal to win. When Edwin Armstrong invented FM radio in 1934, he had pioneered a technology that allowed for better sound quality and that could fit more stations in the same radio spectrum with less interference. David Sarnoff, a major figure in the AM radio industry, was able to prevent FM radio from gaining wide acceptance until the 1970s through a combination of public propaganda, lobbying to change obscure rules relating to radio spectrum usage, and control over the manufacturing of radio players. David Sarnoff managed a vast business empire; he was at the cutting edge of innovations in radio and television. He won not because he was weak and unproductive (as Rand’s villains are) — but because he was ruthless.

Rand’s many fans aren’t typically the creative inventors. They are the very businessmen who see moral justification for their wealth in her philosophy. But they, like the businessmen in Wu’s history, are distinguished not for their purity of motive or love of competition, but their willingness to use any means at their disposal to achieve the corporate empire they seek. Unlike the fictional heroes of Rand’s novel, they do not seek competition. They seek a final victory and end to the competition.

In the theories of Rand and many of her acolytes, capitalism is about competition. In practice, capitalism has about brute strength and force used in restraint of competition.

[Image by Ron Schott licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Reagan Revolution (cont.)

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Some objections have been raised to my two posts on the Reagan Revolution earlier this week (here and here) that stem from a misunderstanding of what I was trying to say – a misunderstanding perhaps based on what I chose to emphasize when telling the story of the 1980s revolutions.

So let me re-tell the story briefly.

Ronald Reagan in 1980 was a man who met his moment. The nation was reacting to the excesses of the New Deal and Great Society liberalism and the 1960s revolutions – and they wanted a return to an older time. The country was in a reactionary mood, but still looking for optimism after the glum and depressing honesty of Jimmy Carter. Reagan blended the two in his own distinctive way. At the same time, the conservative movement that had been launched with Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign was finally reaching maturity. The infrastructure of think tanks, foundations, magazines, and other organizations that the Scaife family and the Coors family and the Koch family and later the Walton family and others had started to build in 1964 was generating new and innovative right-leaning ideas. The neoliberal philosophy that Reagan was sympathetic to still only had a small number of adherents, but thanks to the conservative infrastructure it had reach and with marketing savvy was sold. At the same time, wealth was already becoming more heavily concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, giving the rich benefactors of the conservative movement more power.

In this moment, Reagan became president – with liberalism tired and worn out, with a reaction against it’s excesses and the excesses of the revolutions of the 1960s reaching a boiling point, and a conservative movement heavily influenced at the top levels by neoliberalism finally maturing. Thus was launched the Reagan Revolution. 

This revolution wasn’t really about Reagan – but he was the figurehead at the top. A lot of the revolutionary changes had to do with society’s changing mores that allowed, “Greed is good” to became a positive mantra echoing the neoliberal Ayn Rand’s talk of the “virtue of selfishness.” Some of it had to do with the growing influence of the extremely wealthy. Some of it was a reaction against the silliness of the anti-materialism of the hippie generation. But like the 1960s revolutions, which were enabled though not created by the government, likewise for the 1980s revolutions. Reagan’s constant stimulus spending supercharged the economy; his trimming back the social safety net, his tax cuts for the wealthy, and his spending increases accelerated the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer. His acquiescence to the informal Bretton Woods II arrangement created an economy that “favored finance over domestic manufacturing.” His trimming back of regulations also accelerated this trend. To some degree, these changes had positive effects – as the market was freer, as the economy grew, as corporations thrived, as the overall wealth of America grew. 

But they spelled trouble down the road. The stimulus spending and tax cutting, the informal Bretton Woods II agreement, and concentration of wealth created an unstable system. Internally, the society was imbalanced as extremes of wealth and power were accumulated by a small minority. This eventually undermined the very free market and democratic discourse that is essential to the American tradition. A course correction later might have saved the Reagan vision – and for a time it seemed as if Bill Clinton’s moderate presidency had, as middle class wages finally began to grow again – but Bush doubled down on Reaganism when he should have pared back, and we are left with this mess.

Is this collapse Reagan’s fault? I wouldn’t say so. But he set the initial course towards this iceberg, even if the iceberg was out of sight at the time he set the course. He – and the 1980s revolutions in finance, economics, and government that his administration supported and enabled – are the true authors of this economic collapse, even if they cannot be blamed for not forseeing it.