Sunday, March 21, 2010

Atlas twitches

I eventually got around to reading Atlas Shrugged about 5 years ago. I don't really want to talk about the book's literary merits, but rather the book's ideas and, in particular, why I don't think "atlas shrugging" is going to happen.

In the novel the world seems to consist of a tiny number of astonishing geniuses, a small number of semicompetents who hold the geniuses in awe, a larger number of twisted malcontents, equal to the semicompetents in ability but so enraged by their own incompetency that their chief pleasure in life comes from tearing the geniuses down, and a vast horde of incompetents who are capable only on following the simplest instructions. Further, the geniuses all have utter contempt for the opinions of anyone else as to the value of their works, and are so outraged that their works may be expropriated from them to benefit others that the genius destroy their own creations. This destruction of of their creations, and their refusal to continue creating, is what is meant by "shrugging". The world collapses into primitivism because the productive few refuse to serve the interests of the inferior many.

Obviously the characters are deliberately exaggerated to make a point, but I think the point is fundamentally a wrong one. The picture presented is in several ways very different from the truth.

Most (but by no means all) people are reasonably competent to their everyday affairs, it is only when they called upon to make judgements on issues outside their experience that they display startling ineptitude. And even the most intelligent frequently blunder when presented with unfamiliar situations, although they will tend to learn more sensible ways of doing things faster.

Perhaps the fundamental changes to the ways we understand the universe really are due to a few geniuses, but the technological advancements that make direct improvements in our lives are made by a huge number of people making small individual contributions. So as I know, Einstein never invented anything.

The idea that then geniuses know when their work is good really only makes sense in restricted circumstances. Reardon's alloy can reasonably said to be objectively better than steel, since it is stronger, lighter, cheaper, and more corrosion resistant, but it's a bit silly to claim that the composer Halley writes objectively superior music, and the scene in which the philosophy professor makes objectively superior sandwiches is just fucking ridiculous. People seek fame and fortune largely because this achieving them is often the best way of determining that they are actually creating value.

Finally, most successful people feel a certain degree of sympathy for the poor. The idea that one's work is benefitting humanity in general is viewed by most people as a plus rather than a minus, even if the fruits of one's labors are taken without one's consent. But an intense sense of outrage at taxation is really necessary to make "gulching" seem worthwhile. The advantages of mass production and specialization are such that, for most people, the costs of avoiding taxes are generally higher than the costs of paying them. Given a choice between making 100 grand a year and coughing up half of it in taxes and being isolated and self sufficient and iving on the equivalent of about 5 grand a year, almost everybody would choose the former.

Rand's primary flaw as a philosopher is that she is just way too much in love with her own ideas. Her characters (and many of her disciples, although I think not Rand herself) are willing to dismiss any who do not agree to then objective correctness of her philosophy as stupid or deliberately evil, but observation of the real world should quickly demonstrate that this is not the case.

The point is not to criticize Rand (who I think is both vastly overrated by her fans and vastly over-criticized by her detractors) but, again, to explain why "Atlas shrugging" just isn't going to happen.

What will happen, what is happening, is what I will call "Atlas twitching". Some small number of people will completely drop out of the taxable "labor force", and a much larger number will devote an increasingly large portion of their efforts towards improving their lives in ways which do not generate "income" or taxable property. It won't be insignificant, but it also won't be nearly enough to starve the beast.

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bandana said...

Einstein is not the best example, because he started out working in a patent office and later co-patented some inventions of his own. But I'd guess it's probably true of most theoretical scientists that they don't invent.