It has been fifty years since Ayn Rand first penned her opus.  Views vary widely on the importance of her work.  Unfortunately many folks actually believe she was saying that it was good to be greedy, as opposed to acting with unapologetic self-interest.

Robert Tracinski wrote an enlightening article on this special anniversary (read the whole thing):

The most important event of the past two centuries, with which artists and intellectuals ought to have come to grips, is the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution–a social revolution that has radically transformed human life for the better. Free markets and industrialization have produced a previously unimagined wealth, which is enjoyed not only by captains of industry but by the common man, who is able to afford luxuries–large homes, automobiles, air travel, everything down to his caffe latte at the corner book store–on a scale that could not even have been conceived in earlier centuries. Capitalism has also afforded the individual a degree of personal independence and unlimited opportunity that has fully liberated men from the stultifying tyranny of previous aristocratic and feudal systems

The Historic Significance of Atlas Shrugged  Oct 2007

Atlas Shrugged illustrated in romanticized novel form the gifts that capitalism gives us.  She wrote it in a time when the world was neck deep in the allure of socialism, a grand experiment that western Europe has never given up, even as they grow poorer by the decade, and their governments inch towards bankruptcy.  But Tracinski draws associations not usually made:

A few decades later, a German intellectual named Karl Marx gave one of the most influential accounts of the new capitalist system–and he got everything wrong. An Industrial Revolution driven by scientific and technological advances springing from the minds of a few extraordinary individuals, he would describe as the anonymous, collective product of brute physical labor; an economic system of liberty, he would describe as a system of oppression; a system built on the right to property he would describe as a system based of expropriation–and then he would propose actual oppression and expropriation as the solution.

Of course Tracinski is correct.  As it turns out, Marx was a fascinating theorist, but fundamentally, tragically wrong.  The world is not a fight between the glorious worker and ‘evil’ capital.  If one is attracted to dichotomies, it is much more likely a fight between workers / entrepreneurs and government control.

I often draw the analogy of personal computing with mainframes.  For years mainframe manufacturers (sorry IBM, you’re the evil government in this story) viewed the PC as an expensive and irrelevant fad, not really useful for anything beyond an expensive terminal emulator.

Their management thinking was simple: mainframes are more efficient, cheaper per megahertz, easier to program and maintain, eminently more manageable and secure, and already had huge libraries of software (especially business) to run.  In our analogy, this is the central planning or socialist model.  The egalitarian central planning model implied by socialism is seductively more fair, efficient, safe, secure and moral than the capitalist model.

Except for one huge thing: the almost unfathomable power of millions of entrepreneurs, in our analogy allowed inside the computer itself to innovate, experiment, program and otherwise improve and proliferate.  They forgot the power of the solitary capitalist entrepreneur, in our model the programmer, whether he wants to make cash profits from his work or not.  The resultant explosion of innovation in computing power has literally rocked the world to its foundation.  And, like socialism, one of the most virulent backlashes has been by those who feel Microsoft, like any government, has attempted to control it.

In our computer analogy, every time we give government or any large organization more power over how our PC’s are built, or the Internet is governed or policed or managed, we give up some computing freedoms and our ability to innovate.  IBM’s mistake was huge.  All of Intel and Microsoft could have been theirs; they outsourced and sub-contracted their IBM chips and operating system to these companies because they didn’t think it was worth their time.

Mainframe computing, although retaining a place in our society, just as governments do, has been forever altered.  Before the capitalism of PC’s, no one could have envisioned how IT departments were stifling innovation and treasure (measured by money and happiness) and productivity.  They have been forced to open up and become more user friendly (Corporate IT departments still tend to force companies to run half as fast they could).  And this is the same indelible mistake socialists make; the power of entrepreneurs to innovate and create value.  Socialism stifles that creativity, just as surely as feudalism.

The analogy is a good one, and that is why Ayn Rand is absolutely right, and Marx is absolutely wrong.  Tracinski makes one more great point:

Throughout most of mankind’s history, moralists have warned that individuals driven by “greed” and left free to pursue their self-interest would plunge society into a destructive war of all against all, a system of brutality, plunder, and exploitation–precisely the qualities Marx projected onto the new capitalist system. Instead, capitalism produced a system of freedom, independence, prosperity, and super-abundant creative energy–while the societies most thoroughly dedicated to the sacrifice of the individual to the collective, the 20th century’s Communist regimes, were guilty of the greatest crimes ever recorded…

This has been the pattern of the artists and intellectuals in dealing with the most significant phenomenon of our age. While the world was transformed around them, they refused to grasp the real meaning of these events, choosing to ignore or denigrate the forces that were rapidly improving human life.

And so it continues to this day.  Where are the intellectuals espousing the greatness that is capitalism (innovative entrepreneurs)?  As the socialists grow more emboldened here in America, I see more articles questioning the merit of free trade, encouraging protectionist proclivities, and increasing numbers of articles urgently arguing the need of more government control.

It shall be the ruin of us.  More folks should be shouting from the rooftops celebrating the unfettered human spirit.

 

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