The Czars come to America (Part II)
In mentioning the parallels between our current economic situation and the story of Atlas Shrugged in Part I, I pointed out that in the face of Nixon’s wage and price controls (and other depressing events in the late 60s and early 70s), Ayn Rand argued that dictatorship could not yet take hold in America. Americans would rebel. But I indicated that the current embrace of “stimulus czars” and “regulatory czars” is a small sign that this distinctively American attitude may be eroding. Let me now develop this last point.
A Czar is a tyrant who ruled over Russia. As monarch or emperor, he is the superior one, possessing the privilege to command; you, his lowly Russian subject, are the ignorant one, whose duty is to unquestionably obey. This captures the unstated premise that is responsible for the Czars now popping up across America.
Consider the economy. A free market is a complex integration of the voluntary decisions and actions of millions of individuals producing and trading services and goods, from a barber cutting a customer’s hair to Apple manufacturing and selling you an iPhone. No government Czar is needed to plan or run any of this: those who “plan” and “run” a free economy are you, me and every other productive individual who makes decisions and takes actions for his own individual life.
The idea that a handful of men sifting through mountains of data could plan a productive and prosperous economy is absurd. Does no one remember the central planners of Soviet Russia? Yet on a lesser scale, a central planner is precisely what the Fed Chairman is supposed to be. By manipulating money, credit and interests rates, he will allegedly coax us to produce. And now, in the midst of our crisis, few intellectuals or commentators will tell Americans that our economic problems were caused not by a free market but by the very idea of a “monetary czar.” Few will explain to Americans how Alan Greenspan’s low interest-rate, inflationary policies practically mandated unproductive actions on the part of the economy’s participants.
And no, Greenspan is not an advocate of capitalism or of Ayn Rand’s philosophy; when he was, or at least when he seemed to be, he wrote in favor of the gold standard and against the very existence of the Federal Reserve. That was in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. The recommended bibliography in the book includes the works of the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, who painstakingly explains how government Czars’ manipulation of money and credit destroys economic production and leads to uneconomic, unsustainable booms followed by inevitable busts. If you want to understand the fundamental economic forces responsible for our present crisis, tune out the New York Times’s coverage, turn off Fox News, and instead read Human Action, particularly Chapter XXXI.
Of course average citizens can’t be expected to be economic experts. The principal failure of understanding here rests with our intellectuals and commentators. But what is disturbing is how readily Americans seem to accept that the form of a solution, whatever its details, will look like this: concentrate even more unchecked power into the hands of government Czars. Give Bernanke or Paulson or Geithner even wider authoritarian powers to dream up new schemes, and they’ll tell us what to do. People seem unfazed by the palpable look of uncertainty in the faces of these “financial czars”–i.e., by the fact that the Czars don’t have a clue what to do.
And now we’re going to witness an $800 billion “stimulus” bill. Obama said in his press conference that “the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back into life.” But ask yourself this: From where do the federal government’s resources come? Your pocket. So the real meaning of the government’s becoming the spender of last resort (seriously, this is what some advocates are calling it) is that you are too incompetent or irresponsible to invest and spend your own money wisely, so some all-seeing government official will do it for you.
This same basic approach is contained in the notion of a “regulatory czar.” Through “expertly” designed regulations, Cass Sunstein will nudge (i.e., coerce) you and me into “making” the correct choices. But if they’re the correct choices, why can’t someone convince us that we should make them? Because we’re too ignorant, irrational or irresponsible to understand what is good and bad for us. But then who is left to determine which of us needs to be pushed around, when and into what? Cass Sunstein and other “regulatory czars.” Do Americans rebel at this slap in the face? Unfortunately not.
Similar things can be said for the other Czars who will be running more and more aspects of our lives. The common premise is that individual citizens, left free, will act irrationally; therefore, we need a paternalistic government to tell us what to do.
Which brings me back to the topic of dictatorship. A dictatorship can take hold only if Americans want to be told what to do–only if we no longer trust and value our own judgment and thus no longer see ourselves as independent individuals who must jealously guard our freedom. The current embrace of Czars suggests that the American sense of life is not as hostile to being “pushed around” as it once was. No, I don’t think we are on the verge of dictatorship, but I suspect its possibility is a bit closer than it was when Ayn Rand wrote in the 70s.
But it is certainly not inevitable. There was a time when Americans threw off the yoke of another Czar, King George III–a time when Jefferson asserted an American’s supreme right to live his own life by following his own rational judgment. To recapture this distinctively American spirit, we need to renew our understanding of and respect for reason. Only when people revere their reasoning minds will they be prepared, with Jefferson, to assert their rights and to swear “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Only then will we once again regard the government not as a master who must tell us what to do, but as a servant who must secure our rights. Only then will Americans once again proudly rebel against “being pushed around.” And then America’s drift toward dictatorship will end.
This is why Ayn Rand, even though she was an uncompromising advocate of capitalism, held that the battle for freedom is not essentially political but moral-philosophical. It is a battle for reason and for self-esteem. The theme of Atlas Shrugged is not political but philosophical: its theme is the indispensable role of man’s reasoning mind in his existence. The story focuses on a man who had the self-esteem to assert to the world that his life was his and that he would not surrender control over it to anyone: he would allow no substitute to do his thinking and no pinch-hitter to live his life. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Atlas Shrugged is America’s second Declaration of Independence.