Why Progressives Will Enjoy Atlas Shrugged, Part I

I had the opportunity to see Atlas Shrugged, Part I on Saturday in the only theater in which it is being shown in Tampa, FL. It is running at Cinebistro, a specialty theater where you can enjoy a high-end meal and fine wine served at your seat, which is very similar to a first class airline seat. Admittedly, it is just the kind of venue that progressives might associate with an elitist gathering of selfish capitalists. However, the movie itself tells quite a different story than they might expect if their understanding of Rand is limited to her interviews with Phil Donahue or Mike Wallace.

Like libertarians, Rand’s Objectivist economic theory was rooted in what we today call “the non-aggression axiom,” which Thomas Jefferson and the liberal faction of America’s founders called “the law of nature.” According to this philosophy, each individual has an inalienable right to keep the product of his labor and to dispose of it as he sees fit. The non-aggression axiom forbids any individual or group from using force to take away the justly acquired property of another. Neither does it allow for anyone to interfere with voluntary contracts, as long as those contracts do not involve the initiation of force against anyone else.

This prohibits the government, which is by definition the societal use of force, from redistributing wealth or enacting laws which go beyond prohibiting aggression. Establishment media figures who interviewed Rand immediately focused on the implications of her philosophy for social safety net programs, charging that Rand’s philosophy would not allow for programs for the poor or handicapped. While this is true, it obscures the most important implications of Rand’s philosophy for economic policy in the United States.

What would likely startle progressives watching the film is its emphasis on the evils of what free market proponents would call “crony capitalism.” This is completely consistent with the novel, which demonstrates that the beneficiaries of government regulation supposedly enacted for “the common good” or “the benefit of society” are really the super-rich. Indeed, the film never criticizes the beneficiaries of social programs. Instead, it spends all of its time demonstrating the difference between those “capitalists” who acquire their wealth through government privileges and those true capitalists who acquire their wealth by producing products that consumers voluntarily buy.

This is a crucial distinction that has eluded progressives from Woodrow Wilson to Michael Moore. After seeing Moore’s film, Capitalism: A Love Story, I pointed out in my review of that film that there was very little that libertarians would disagree with. All of Moore’s criticisms of what he calls capitalism are really the result of crony capitalism. The biggest culprit in the economic collapse of the last decade was the Federal Reserve, a central planning/wealth redistribution institution that Rand explicitly condemns in her novel. Unfortunately, Moore incorrectly concludes that the economic distortions, inequitable distribution of wealth, and widespread harm to middle and lower income Americans were the result of a free market.

Rand would agree completely with progressives on the injustice of today’s American corporate state. That might also surprise progressives who probably assume that Rand would have supported the mainstream Republican policies of George W. Bush. Not only would Rand have condemned Bush’s version of state capitalism, but she was openly critical of Republican hero Ronald Reagan. When asked by Phil Donahue about Reagan during his administration, Rand said in so many words that he should have stuck to acting.

The only opportunity that progressives might have to disagree with anything in the film is the portrayal of the labor union official who tries to sabotage Dagny Taggarts launch of a new railroad line. This encounter takes all of about 3 minutes of the 113 minute film and is not a condemnation of labor unions in principle, but rather the illegitimate power that corrupt union officials can wield because of government privileges. 

However, the true villains in the film are not union officials, beneficiaries of entitlement programs, or any other group associated with progressive philosophy. The villains are exclusively corporate executives and the government officials they get in bed with to illegitimately acquire wealth. The heroes are those who acquire their wealth by productive achievement and voluntary exchange. If one had to sum the film up in one sentence, it is an effective demonstration of the evils of crony capitalism and its difference from a truly free market.

I encourage progressives to see this film and to read Rand’s novel. If there is one thing that I hope they take away, it is that even great wealth can be acquired legitimately, when it is the result of human beings trading the products of their labor with the mutual, voluntary consent of all parties. Once progressives begin making the distinction between legitimately acquired wealth and wealth acquired because of government privilege, they will find libertarians and all other proponents of truly free markets standing by their side, fighting the evil corporate state.

27 thoughts on “Why Progressives Will Enjoy Atlas Shrugged, Part I

  1. Claire M

    I’m not sure whether the distinction between crony capitalism and true capitalism will be that compelling to progressives. the ones I have spoken to maintain that the rich owe money to the society that allowed them to acquire their wealth regardless of whether or not they have acquired that wealth by selling goods or services people want to buy. According to collectivists, if someone gets wealth by selling things people want, he could not have earned his wealth without customers. Without “society”– that is the mass of potential customers regulated by laws that protect property, the entrepreneur would have no wealth at all, therefore the wealthy capitalist owes his customers something beyond– and this is the crucial part– the goods or services he has sold them. He owes them a minimum standard of living, health care, education, etc…, the whole list of so called “rights” that progressives wish to enshrine, and he owes this to them because if society and the people in it did not exist he would have no wealth.

    This kind of thinking is precisely what Rand condemns in her novels and essays. The idea that anyone has a claim on anyone else, just by virtue of the fact that he exists, is the main justification for forced wealth redistribution. Of course I do not endorse this view, but I think it is important to understand it. If we want to make headway against the collectivists we have to counter this view of the rich being indebted to society for their wealth, perhaps by pointing out the ways in which the goods, services and employment good stewards of capital provide are in themselves a net benefit to all of us. We should also point out the ways in which confiscating capital from those who can best dispose of it harms everyone, most especially the poor and the middle class.

    It is true that distinguishing crony capitalism from true capitalism is a good place to start, but even if we accomplish that we will still have to defend true capitalism. I agree with you that the best way to do this is by appealing to the principle of non-aggression and the ideal of of liberty, but it can’t hurt to advance the more pragmatic economic arguments as well.

    1. Andy

      I agree that most progressives, at least the progs I know in Burlington VT will not agree with Ann Rand.
      Mainly the difference is that capitalists have capital ergo they are all greedy pigs to the progressive who dont have capital or will not work hard enough or save enough to acquire capital,

      The progressive greed is to transfer wealth from capitalists via government decree while they sit on their asses doing nothing.

      Having done much carpentry work for both progs and rich capitalists i prefer the capitalist. Progs never want to pay ever and certainly they complain about paying a living wage to me. They caterwaul all day long about the man not paying them enough but good luck asking for a decent wage form a Burlington prog who is suddenly put in the position of employer. Cheep greedy bastards are the words I use to describe most of these folks.

      1. Hey You

        Yes, the designation as “cheep greedy bastards” is probably valid. My own description is “highly subjective persons”. That probably covers it all, as “subjective” is apt for those who don’t consider much beyond their own nose.

  2. DeeDee

    Mmmm, the libertarians may be on the side of the MALE progressives, since they oppose the right of women to control their own bodies, and view a woman’s body as the property of the state, as long as they do not support reproductive rights and freedom for women.

    1. admin Post author

      Libertarians recognize the right to life of everyone, but do not support the authority of the state to invade the woman’s body for the sake of the unborn child. Therefore, most libertarians, like Murray Rothbard, are pro-choice.

      1. Mary Brown

        I find libertarians split on the abortion issue. Many issues are clear to Libertarians, but this one is not.

        1. admin Post author

          Abortion is the one issue in all of human existence where two human lives are inextricably connected. It is the only issue where the rights of two different people conflict. In all other cases, consistent application of the non-aggression axiom gives a clear answer where one person’s rights end and the other’s begin. However, libertarians (including Murray Rothbard) usually conclude that whether or not a third party agrees with the decision, no third party has the right to invade the body of the mother to protect the body of the fetus. Therefore, it’s left up to the mother to be sole decision-maker. For libertarians that believe that abortion is against God’s law, they can leave the judgment up to God.

      2. DeeDee

        Best known libertartian – Browne who ran for president on their ticket was against a woman’s right to control her own body. And what about Ron Paul – he apparently thinks that the state should be able to control one’s birth control choices as well. At it’s core, this is a profoundly anti-woman movement.

        1. admin Post author

          The true libertarians don’t believe that there should be a state (a coercive monopoly with the privilege of providing the service of protection of life and property without competition) at all. Read Rothbard’s “For a New Liberty.” He unequivocally supports the woman’s right to choose. Paul is the most libertarian politician alive right now, but he’s not perfect. He is a conservative in many respects. His stand on abortion (let each state decide whether it is legal or illegal) is better than a federally-mandated rule for everyone, but it is one of his few unlibertarian positions. The same goes for Harry Browne.

    2. Habman


      You haven’t been talking to a true libertarian.

      The base principle of libertarianism is self ownership, and if one owns oneself then they are free to do as they please with their body including terminating an unwanted pregnancy. Most are anti-abortion, but pro-choice.

      I think you are confusing Libertarians with ReThuglicans who preach limited government, however expand it every chance they get.

  3. jo veno

    liberals and progressives are well meaning dunces. i mean who in their right minds would lump a rich crony capitalist like goldman sucks prez blankfein with your friendly neighborhood grocer. both are capitalists but one is rapacious and the other is just trying to make a living on narrow margins.

    and as for the abstract argument that the capitalist (whether big or small) owes his wealth to society and must be forced to share it is another moronic idea. in that case i can choose not to be a small biz person and just suck on the teat of another who is making a profit on his business. see how easy it is to become a leech in an ideal progressive/liberal society?

    btw, there was a study done of PERSONAL giving to charities and guess who gave the most: the conservative. the stingiest person?: liberals and progressives. this was a non partisan study btw. lol!!

  4. hillcountry

    Unfortunately, people are generally pretty lazy about tinking things through based on principles and thereby their conclusions about what should be and what is are skewed to fit what they think they need for themselves. I live in a neighborhood of so-called liberals/progressives who haven’t got a clue about economics, the dollar, the political system, the rights of others. They live pretty much day-to-day and don’t remember the past other than in a way that matches their present reactions to what comes across on NPR and Democratic Underground. They have not been very productive in their personal lives and their relative poverty is not seen by them to be anything for which they were responsible. The fact that others have scammed the system in a larger way than they have is sufficient to justify their sense that the system owes them something. No one that I speak to has a plan to make the system better by generating more wealth to be shared by any who would participate in that endeavor. Yes, there is barter and shared suffering but no larger idea of how to emerge from the status quo based upon individual effort and intellectual innovation. It’s like they are hitting the wall and simply hoping that the ambulance is on the way. When they see others “bleeding on the pavement” they don’t have the resources or charitable sense to get the help needed. It is like a cult of suffering and they tend to be attracted to so-called spiritual philosophies that reinforce their world-view. I don’t think it’s possible to reform them in any significant way since that requires their personal attention to the responsibility they have in the matter. But I’m hoping that events will shake them out of their stupor and that some of them will come around to the facts of life. Better late than never. It’s like intellectual entropy has taken hold of their minds and they would rather go down the drain with others of like mind even when better options are available.

  5. hillcountry

    Tom, you might find the posts over at http://www.fofoa.blogspot.com/ interesting. I don’t buy into the Free Gold will be great for the world philosophy but FOFOA does a great job describing the reality that may soon be coming to a theater near us. It would be nice to have some sort of a level playing field prior to hyperinflation leading to a new international financial order where gold plays the role of reference point and a savings safety-valve versus the printing regimes, but that’s probably not possible in such a complex world.

    1. therooster

      Not only is gold-as-money possible …… it’s already here and has been for several years. The new hybrid is gold backed digital currency where the ownership title for bullion is the actual currency, fully backed. The system is already complete as per design. It simply needs more marketing and scale-up. Digital gold currency is a new integration of the measure (dollars) and the weight (bullion), but this time around, it’s in real-time so that we can buy a stick of gum or a house with debt-free , store of value and do so with instant liquidity & .exact payment.

      The new role and ultimate role of the USD is not that of a currency, although that’s been part of its evolutionary life-cycle. The dollar’s new role is to act as the real-time measure in order to “piece off” the right amount of bullion weight for the payment of something that’s inevitably priced in a fiat currency. The use of the dollar , in this manner, is embedded in the algorithms of every gold payment processor on the planet. This transitional role is/was why the USD peg was so important. The FIXED peg from Bretton Woods is what had to go. Reevaluating gold’s trade value and being able to “split the weight” was something for the marketplace. A new gold system cannot be a top-down endeavour. It must be bottom-up because any top-down support would cause the legacy (USD) system to crash. When migrating from a legacy system to a new system, it’s imperative that neither one crashes, so the consciousness on “moving over” must be left to the organic workings of the market for the sake of rate-of-change.

      Buy gold, drive the price, add to debt-free liquidity and free up debt currency for repayment.

      1. lonestar

        TheRooster …. that’s some observation ! I will digest that a little more. Thanks, very interesting.

  6. Pingback: Atlas Shrugged Review

  7. Marc

    Atlas Shrugged is a very simplistic way of looking at society. No matter how simple the underlying principles are, human nature is so diverse, selfish, practical and hedonistic that those enshrined principles eventually become interpreted to suit the individual. Our Constitution is relatively straightforward, and still it’s constantly under siege from both ends of the spectrum.

    So what we have in the world today is a blend of hardcore principles that proponents can point to and say “This is the way” but in reality end up as a compromise. Truth is, we need all these different viewpoints. We need the hardcore, fundamentalist, flag toting, right-to-lifer just as much as the hardcore, liberal, socialist, pot smoker.

    Otherwise, life would be so fucking boring…

  8. Jeffrey

    I agree with Mr. Mullen.

    My belief:

    After seeing the film I realized how I must completely go off the grid of mainstream television and movies. I’ve long since held the belief that Ayn Rand’s brilliance was misunderstood. My first run in was 30 years ago from my high school English teacher who applauded me for reading the book, but dismissed her ideas.

    I used to work at a large bank. Each day the bank gets a free loan from the Federal Reserve and then they use that money to speculate. They have not earned that money….they’ve stolen it! This is what is considered success in our country.

    It is best to stop trying to convince the masses…..they will never get it……even when they are standing on the bread lines they will be applauding the death of Osama.

  9. overtheedge

    Much of the problem most have with Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is its demand for existentialism (personal responsibility) versus the widespread notion of objectivism (we are products of our past and therefore not guilty of our choices, ergo it’s someone elses fault.) Both of these are psychological attitudes with most folks falling somewhere in between the two extremes. Collectively we endorse both sides and permit gov’ts to redistribute lawfully seized assets from the productive sector to support the non-productive sector. But even this distinction between the two sectors are muddy.

    Most of the developed world’s commerce sector is non-productive. The true PGDP (planetary GDP) is only increased by creation of tangible assets, ie. extraction of raw materials and manufacturing. Everything else is just redistribution. Couple this with rampant consumerism and demand increases for controlling the profits of the productive sector. Consumerism is redistribution.

    Add in the financial sector and its attendant middle-man sector and we are faced with products that few need, but due to free advertising (yes Dorthy it is free if you charge the customer for the cost and then deduct the cost from taxable income) and most people will jump on the latest and greatest gizmo that NEVER increases personal wealth. Toss in a dash of the liberal idea of folks deserve and we face the mess of all messes. This creates demand for credit. Any loosening of credit just excerbates the problem.

    Mix thoroughly, keep warm until dough rises to double its size. Well we got a lotta mouths to feed so how about triple its size. Or maybe just a bit larger ad nauseum. True wealth is a tangible asset who’s value is only measured by the actual sale of the asset. Credit and the paper value of the goods/services it creates is not an asset but rather a liability for all parties not fully hedged against default. But even the hedging is a potential liability (see AIG).

    Every tax is a seizure of productivity for the common good of the body politic. Tis unfortunate that those who define the “common good” (uh, just who are they and what are their qualifications*) demand under threat of force that all productive peoples must accept this seizure. Once again we have the objectivist psychology in play. The people are just products of their environment and it takes intelligent manipulation of the body politic to bring every productive person in line with “our” common goals. But once again, who is defining this common goal? The common goal being a robust consumer economy.

    As more get on this merry-go-round, the bearings start to overheat until failure is assured. Only John Galt recognized this certainty and avoided the amusement park.

    * The experts define who is an expert. The decide the qualification criteria. Oddly enough, they produce no tangible goods. Who are we to question their qualifications? John Galt did. BTW, who is John Galt?

  10. Michael A. Banak

    Lot’s of focus these days on the Corporate State. This is good, timely and important. But THAT problem will soon be overshadowed by another. To put it succinctly.

    – The way our government does business, it costs us hundreds of of billions just to get by.
    – The Corporate State (Bailouts, subsidies, corporate welfare, etc,) has cost us trillions.
    – Forthcoming Entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) will cost us tens-of-trillions.

    The real problem: As a nation, we have forgotten what sin is, and refuse to indict it when our buddies traffic in it. We do not know right from wrong. Ayn Rand speaks only to one side of this multi-faceted problem.

  11. Innovisual

    Tom Mullen has given you a wedge to push between various people and their disfunctional attitudes and most of the commentary on this article just as disfunctional . . . as to how intractable They all are . . . take a look in the mirror. Get your head on straight use this tool, find common ground, move our society forward . . . AS Gandhi said “Cultivate the part of your enemy which knows the Truth”

    I mean Ron Paul, arguably one of the most well respected Libertarians in Society today oftentimes votes along the same lines as Congressman Dennis Kucinich because those two men both believe in Individual Rights !

    On a Related topic one of my bones to pick with my fellow libertarians is about “Green Technology” which most Libertarians are against due to their Republican roots. Sorry Folks but Green Technology is the most Libertarian movement in the last 100 years. Why? because it takes power away from central power dealers and puts it all in the hands of the individual . . . talk about Libertarian that is the very definition! So Libertarians with Republican ProBigEnergy Programming running in your subcoinscious (Freudian Slip) get that crap cleared out!

    1. admin Post author

      Libertarians have no problem with green technology. They have a problem with the government using money stolen from its rightful owners and given to politically-connected companies to invest in green technology. Like all human transactions, the decision to invest in green technology should be voluntary. When it’s funded by the government, the investment is not voluntary because the money was taken by force from someone else. If the government were removed from the economy, prices would determine the time when it is profitable to invest in green technology because as oil becomes more scarce or when consumers become dissatisfied enough with the effects of fossil fuel, they will choose to A. pay a higher price for green energy or B. choose green technology because it is cheaper. With the government interfering and destroying the natural price system everywhere, these natural market forces are not allowed to let green technology emerge.

  12. Pingback: » Tom Mullen – Why Progressives Will Enjoy Atlas Shrugged, Part I

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *