Comments on Atlas Shrugged II

Atlas Shrugged II is wonderful: just the right themes for our times. The central action here concerns the imposition of martial law over the economy and the emergence of the producer strike. The stark contrast between the private-sector producers, barely holding on to their property and profitability, and the government parasites, maliciously regulating and looting, comes through very clearly. Parts of it just made me want to jump up and cheer!

I didn’t see the first part, but I heard plenty of criticism; I don’t see how any of it could apply to part II. The best feature, in my view, is how the story put economics up front, never taking prosperity for granted but showing how it necessarily extends from entrepreneurs and owners. And the politics are extremely satisfying to watch on the big screen. It helps me understand why this book was so celebrated by the free market thinkers when it came out, and why people like Mises and Rothbard were so fired up about the success of Atlas.

Of course praise like this necessarily comes with the caveats of the whole Randian worldview. The ethics of egoism seem to play something of a minor role in this film, so that usual target is not really the issue. The real problem is that conception of the producers themselves, the belief that they are a tiny class of geniuses, dependent on no one, and holding the world on their shoulders.

I’m sure someone has written a detailed critique of the Randian view of invention but it seems like a fable to me. In reality, most all technological progress takes place through copying, emulating, improving on the margin, one step at a time. Economic progress takes place in small steps guided by sharing and learning, and familiarity with the realities of the digital age are enough to demonstrate that. The notion that there would be a machine or an industrial process in existence that only one man knows how to make work is completely inconsistent with everything we know about economic development.

Of course this gets us into the Randian view of IP, that great industrial ideas — appearing out of nowhere in the minds of a few — must somehow be assigned to owners and protected by government. And sure enough, patents and copyrights as property play a major role in Atlas II, as when Hank Rearden is blackmailed into assigning his patents as a gift to the government. It’s a scene that completely overlooks that these patents themselves were actually granted by government in the first place and would not exist in the free market.

In fact, for any viewer schooled in the role of patents today, this scene actually makes the viewer less sympathetic to Rearden. For a brief moment, he actually looks like a member of the monopolist class who is afraid of competition and dependent on government favors. Not good.

This scene reinforces for me my sense that the single biggest mistake Rand made was not in her ethics, economics, or religion but in her view that ideas are property, held by individuals and sliced and diced by government decree. Strangely, Rand’s problem was not that she was wildly pro-capitalist but rather that she wasn’t capitalistic enough: competition should not be arbitrarily restricted by government for any reason, especially not on grounds of protecting something that doesn’t even exist, namely the owned entity of a single idea in isolation from all other ideas.

But, really, all of this is beside the point. The movie is well done and a much-needed warning about the fate of any society that permits a government to unleash itself on the private sector. I can’t imagine that any viewer, even someone completely new to the ideas of liberty, wouldn’t be spooked by the unfolding of events shown here. Extremely well done!