Reactions: Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

The next few blog posts will mostly likely be me obsessing with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s Objectivism should ring true to those who read her book and those who believe in Capitalism. Man should be free to pursue happiness by creating, inventing, and selling his products for however much he can sell them for. Profit is the primary goal; work is the means to that end. Rand’s creed that you love for yourself and not any other can ring true. Bill Gates created billions for himself. Steve Jobs did the same for Apple. Both created jobs, livelihoods, wizardry (aka computers), and in doing so they created billions of dollars for themselves and others. Rand would most likely argue that Mother Teresa did far less for humanity. I’m not writing this on the iPad Mother Teresa invented.

I do take issue with a few of Rand’s concepts, however, her concern that government regulations place far too high a burden on industry as a key one. The idea is that burdensome regulations constrain profits and, by extension, the individual and his right to happiness. The New York Times recently published an article highlighting the new Ford F-150. Government regulations under the Obama Administration require higher MPGs in the coming years for all vehicles. Ford responded with building an aluminum truck, an industry first. And the truck will get something like 30 MPG, which for a truck is unprecedented. Even Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggert would be proud. The lighter metals allow consumers and the environment to benefit from the fuel savings. Ford expects consumers to buy Fords over other brands.

Government regulations can spur innovation and generate benefits for consumers, and they can also protect consumers from dangerous products. In Atlas Shrugged the main character (and just about everybody else) smoke. In fact, they light up all the time. Cigarettes are immensely profitable. They also are the only consumer product that, when used exactly as intended, kills you. in addition, smoking kills nonsmokers through secondhand smoke. Should profit come at the expense of health? Governments are right to restrict tobacco advertising, establish smokefree areas, and promote other kinds of tobacco control policies.

Governments therefore serve a purpose that is wider than the boundaries Rand sets out. To regulate productive, profitable industries precisely because of their negative externalities. The result, at least in the examples above, is net benefits in health, innovation, and environmental quality. Rand is right that too much government regulation is burdensome. I would agree, but add that too little regulation is not enough.

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