Saturday, October 31, 2009

Why is Atlas Shrugged selling well again?

I don't know for sure, because I have no real data. But that doesn't stop lots of people from speculating.

Take Reason senior editor Brian Doherty in Why Ayn Rand is Hot Again :

"Readers and pundits alike look at America and see a world scarily reminiscent of Rand's government-choked dystopia in Atlas. It's a world with a struggling economy where political pull matters more than success in the free market, where the government blithely takes over huge transportation industries."

His claim about readers and pundits might be absolutely true. But somehow he doesn't point out that the readers and pundits he's discussing are idiots. Because the real world is NOT like the conspiracy plot of Atlas Shrugged. If government "looters" WANTED to take over transportation industries, it would take over the most profitable ones. Not the losers. Likewise the banking industry. Did government take over the profitable rail freight industry? No. It took over the unprofitable passenger rail industry. Did government take over the profitable foreign-owned auto industry? No, it took over our failing domestic auto industry.

The right-wing echo chamber is full of stupid assertions that the economy is behaving as in Atlas Shrugged. They're patently false, but ought to pump the sales up as a side effect.

Another factor that would push up sales of AS are the Twin Biographies of a Singular Woman, Ayn Rand. I don't think the publicity of these two biographies is nearly as effective as the right-wing echo chamber, because the media are saturated with the latter.

A third possibility is that sales to Asia have increased. With around 3 billion people in India, China, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, one thousandth of a percent would be 30,000 sales.

Of course, book sales are a bad measure of how many readers a book actually has. Atlas Shrugged is such a miserable read that I suspect most people don't finish more than a small fraction of it.

The libertarian movement crested around 10 years ago, and has been conspicuously declining ever since (judging from the collapse of the US libertarian party.) Its strongest economic claims have been usurped by neoliberal corporatists who want economic liberty for corporations, and the hell with real people. They're already very powerful (plutocrats have always been powerful), and Rand is just more grist for their continuous propaganda efforts. A bump in the sales of AS is nothing I worry about: all it signals is that AS is a talking point for this month.


Glen said...

Mike wrote:
If government "looters" WANTED to take over transportation industries, it would take over the most profitable ones. Not the losers.

Why do you believe this? What model of how "looters" should/would act leads you to this conclusion?

The Randian model is that government actors who want to increase their power, money and self-esteem still need a pretext to take over. Whether one is seizing a country, a company, or an industry, it can't just look like a naked power-grab; there has to be a cover story that includes an implied excuse for action and an illusion of consensus supporting it. Consider US unilateral military action: we don't simply take over a banana republic with our troops, we usually have to first get "invited" by some faction or another to send some "military advisers" to "help" in their "struggle for freedom". Then as things continue to deteriorate, the local troop and/or civilian deaths serve as a tripwire to justify further intervention until we're basically running the country. You must have read Chomsky; I'm sure you understand this dynamic in that context. You probably even get why that leads to us (and the Soviets and the British before us) preferentially taking over weak, conflict-ridden countries rather than stronger and more secure ones. No plausible pretext means no intervention.

So now go apply the exact same principle to domestic actions against companies and industries. Because GM is in trouble, government actors can credibly claim they "had no choice" but to "rescue" GM. That gives the "looters" their way in. GM's crisis provides a pretext to seize power and control which the same actors just don't have with respect to Toyota.

In short, Rand's model seems to explain the world we actually see to some degree and yours does not, absent some supporting argument or evidence as to why we should believe your raw assertion that real-world "looters" would naturally ignore weak targets and go after the strongest ones first.

Are your hypothetical "looters" expecting no opposition? Are they just idiots or strategic imbeciles, not clever enough to come up with a divide-and-conquer strategy? Do they let the best be the enemy of the good? In short, what's their motivation to act the way you assure us they surely must?

Mike Huben said...

You really live in lala land, Glen. What you are describing is Naomi Klein's shock doctrine of capitalism.

Real world examples of looting by government, such as in Russia, result in the most profitable enterprises being taken over: the petroleum and communications industries.

Pay attention to the real world, Glen. Not pathetically bad fiction such as Atlas Shrugged.

GlenH said...

Didn't the U.S government sell off it's GM stock and banking stocks once the companies stabilized and moved back towards profitability? Sounds like an odd way of looting to me...

Glen said...

So just to be clear: you're claiming that you, Mike Huben, are more of an expert, more of a keen observer on the subject of how "real world examples of looting by government, such as in Russia" would have to work than is Ayn Rand, who lived through the Russian Revolution.

Got it.

...backing away slowly...

Mike Huben said...

Please, Glen, since your idol was so wise, tell me what enormous failing business enterprises Rand observed being looted in Russia.

I've told you of the real world Russian looting that we've all heard about on the news in the past couple of decades.

And of course we've also got to note that the US government has a long history of unburdening itself of banks and other businesses that it takes over. once they are stable and functioning again. Hardly the actions of "looters".

It's a peculiar dementia to view modern liberal government as looters.

Mark Plus said...

Glen: I think Mike meant the Russian government's recent nationalization of Gazprom, not what happened under the Bolsheviks.

Mark Plus said...

As an aside, the effort by both Burns and Heller to show Rand's adult world view as a reaction to a dysfunctional culture and a disastrous historical situation in her youth (Jew-hating, mystical and inefficient late Tsarist Russia, followed by the Bolshevik Revolution and the founding of Soviet collectivism) raises the question: What about the equally valid experiences at that time which radicalized millions of people and turned them towards socialist or communist political movements? Something about that era alienated a lot of people, enough to make them resort to, or support, violent efforts to change social relations in some very non-Randian ways. Why does Rand's idiosyncratic reaction to that period deserve special consideration, when millions of people who had defensible grievances against the previous system felt differently about it?

Glen said...

There are many different scenarios that lead to governments seizing companies and industries. Sometimes governments seize large businesses, sometimes small ones. Sometimes the businesses being seized were profitable, often not. You can find examples of all of these scenarios both in real life and in fiction. Near as I can tell, Mike has fixated on exactly one of these models and is defining that as "real" looting to the exclusion of all others.

In real life, the "urban renewal" movement in the 1970s involved government declaring areas "blighted" and on that basis seizing all the local property (for a nominal payment) in order to give it to developers who wanted to put up a shopping mall or a condo development. Rand would certainly call that "looting". But a lot of what gets torn down then is things like SRO hotels. If we take Mike's claim seriously, this sort of takeover should be impossible (or perhaps idiotic to complain about) because, to paraphrase, If government "looters" WANTED to take over hospitality industries, it would take over the most profitable ones [say, the Hilton chain].

Government also regularly seizes and distributes the assets of "crack houses", yet seems strangely uninterested in entirely seizing the assets of, say, the Bayer or Miller corporations.

[It's rare for large, successful American firms to get seized. Instead, they tend to get taxed and harassed by regulators right up until the point that they hire lobbyists and lawyers to defend their interests- basically paying protection money to the political class in order to be left alone.]

Mike, did you read AS all the way through or do you count yourself among the "most people" who you say "don't finish more than a small fraction of it"?

Did you notice that the word "looters" doesn't actually appear anywhere in Doherty's article? So what made you attach the word "looters" to those on the taking-over side rather than the taken-over side of the transaction? If we think of the taking over of GM as primiarily a looting of the taxpayers (and of rival car manufacturers) that was assisted by government actors, then government tending to "unburden itself" until the time comes for the next bailout actually fits perfectly.

Mark Plus said...

On a related note: Can we view Atlas Shrugged as propaganda for Austrian economics? Specifically it reads like Austrian economics doomsday porn. Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard apparently saw it that way, at least until Rand cultism creeped out the latter and he distanced himself from the Collective.

I ask that because I notice that people calling themselves Austrian economists tend to get on the media (including business news sources like CNBC) to promote economic doomsday scenarios which never seem to happen. Yet I never see anyone hold these people to account for their nonsensical predictions.

Ryan Bowman said...

At Mike bringing up of Russian takovers (be they past or present) doesn't validate your point about American government takeover. American liberal governments must work under the pretense of free-market ideals, therefore overt government takeovers would be simply impossible as the public would react harshly. Russian governments have never had to work under that strict pretense, making overt government takeovers possible. I'm not saying there is a government conspiracy to gain power...I happen to think they actually think they are doing a good thing by slowly phasing out capitalism. That, however, doesn't take away from the fact that American governments (liberals more than conservatives, but they both contribute) are in fact slowly increasing their size and influence which necessarily inhibits the free market. If you doubt this, I only ask you to look at a timeline of American government from 1900 to present.

Mike Huben said...

Ryan wrote: "[...] therefore overt government takeovers would be simply impossible as the public would react harshly."

A typical ahistorical libertarian response. Ever hear of Amtrak?

There have been numerous government takeovers throughout US history, mostly of failing but important enterprises. Not least substantial parts of the finance industry in the past 2 years.

Of course, Amtrak makes Glen's argument look idiotic as well.

Rekenavri said...

These 30 000 copies are probably the new edition, published in Russia.

Alice Rosenbaum strikes back! Hey, Russians, didn't you think that the most of Soviet Age books were boring? I think this way just because you hadn't seen REALLY BORING ONES!

Unknown said...

Chinese people get most of their "knowledge" of the US from movies like "Sleepless in Seattle" and are suckers for all kinds of US business books, including such nut-classics as Napoleon Hill's _Think and Grow Rich_. A fad for Ayn Rand's nonsense would fit right in, although I haven't seen any in the local bookstores. (I did see a translation of Goodman's _Sun Signs_, a guide to Western astrology.)

Lester Ness, Kunming