Friday, October 23, 2009

Who Builds Stuff, Then?

It’s been a good year for Ayn Rand, aside from the fact that she’s still dead. Her books shot up the best seller charts at Amazon over the summer as the Tea Party brigade embraced her as an icon. A new biography of Rand is also developing a lot of buzz. That’s the jumping off point for a couple of posts over at The Volokh Conspiracy about Rand’s influence. One claim about her, in particular, from a post by David Bernstein, caught my eye. Among her accomplishments:

First, and as is most evident in Atlas Shrugged, Rand turns Marxism on its head. While Marxists argue that ‘capitalists’ make their profits on the backs of the working class, Rand illustrates that the working class, as such, makes almost no contribution to wealth, but relies on the efforts, risks, sacrifices, and most of all the genius of the entrepreneurial class.
I’ll admit, I’ve not deeply read Rand’s stuff, but I’ve read a bit and have the general feeling that Bernstein is right in describing her position. If so, it buckles and falls under the weight of what should be an obvious question:

Who builds stuff, then?

Really, all the great minds producing brilliant ideas aren’t going to amount to a hill of beans without somebody, usually further down the socio-economic ladder, to actually put those ideas into action. It seems so obvious.

Consider, for example, Howard Roark, the hero of Rand’s The Fountainhead (made into a major motion picture that would go on to be sampled on the first echolyn album!). Roark is a cutting edge architect, in the mold of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose demand to do things his way and without compromise keep him from popular success. Brilliant as Roark is (until he turns into a domestic terrorist, at least) and as boundary pushing as his designs might be, they only exist on paper. To bring them to fruition, he needs to enlist the working class – many of them even union members! – to build the actual buildings.

What’s lost in Rand’s philosophy is that without the working class, the idea people are essentially useless. Without both groups being healthy, the other suffers. That, at least partly, is the underlying them of Michael Moore’s latest screed, Capitalism: A Love Story. It’s not just that the rich get richer, it’s that the gap between rich and poor has widened to such a point that the symbiotic relationship between the upper and lower classes is on the verge of collapse.

For another, less political, example, look at major league sports. Sports in the United States, especially the powerhouse National Football League, is all about socialism. Think about it. Teams share wealth, not just commonly generated stuff like TV revenues but actual ticket revenue (as I understand it). The worst teams this year get the first crack and the top draft choices next year. Parity is praised because it keeps more teams in the hunt for the playoffs and the Super Bowl further and further into the season. That’s good for everybody, ‘cause it keeps more eyes on the TV and more butts in seats.

Compare that to major soccer leagues in Europe. They are cutthroat exercises in pure capitalism, in comparison. At the top, the same handful of big clubs make and spend the majority of the money and win the hardware. The only way the status quo gets upset is when some fabulously wealthy person buys a club and spends an obscene amount of money to reach the top (see, e.g., Chelsea and, maybe, Manchester City in England). Meanwhile, at the bottom the worst teams in each league get sent to the minors. Sure, the best teams in the minors get promoted, but most of the time they lack the resources to compete with the big boys and drop right back down.

What the big clubs in Europe are starting to realize is that the status quo isn’t going to last forever. The Manchester Uniteds and AC Milans of the world need other teams to play through the season. Small fries with no budget, no players, and no hope don’t exactly inspire enthusiasm amongst the fanbase. They’re starting to realize what the NFL figured out a long time ago – everybody prospers when the league as a whole prospers, so some reigns on individual teams are necessary.

So where does that leave Rand and her philosophy, at least what I know about it? Like other strains of libertarianism, it makes some sense as a starting point and has some fine principles to use as guideposts. But it tends to break down upon interaction with the real world, where we can’t just reset everyone’s position in life to nul and allow the best and brightest to thrive (and the rest to scrounge). As a thought experiment, kind of tantalizing. As dogma, not so much.

1 comment:

Muze said...

Atlas Shrugged is a nightmare to read, but if I remember correctly, all the intellectuals moved to a secluded area and were taking care of themselves. So, to take a shot at answering your questions, they will build their own stuff.

They were not so smart that they couldn't get buy, at least until things resolved.

I agree, and have routinely preached, a need for the ditch diggers, welders, pipe-fitters, and construction workers. We, as a society, push young people toward college and seem to forget, or ignore, that we need plumbers and electricians.

Now -- Mr. Moore -- If he was so true to his beliefs he would forgo all but about $75,000 income from his movies. But he won't do that will he?