Reality and Taxes

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EXCERPTS from Griftopia by Matt Taibbi, p. 39-43 

“Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged, for instance, remains a towering monument to humanity’s capacity for unrestrained self-pity—it’s a bizarre and incredibly long-winded piece of aristocratic paranoia in which a group of Randian supermen decide to break off from the rest of society and form a pure free-market utopia, and naturally the parasitic lower classes immediately drown in their own laziness and ineptitude. 

The book fairly gushes with the resentment these poor “Atlases” (they are shouldering the burdens of the whole world!) feel toward those who try to use “moral guilt” to make them share their wealth. In the climactic scene the Randian hero John Galt sounds off in defense of self-interest and attacks the notion of self-sacrifice as a worthy human ideal in a speech that lasts seventy-five pages.  

It goes without saying that only a person possessing a mathematically inexpressible level of humorless self-importance would subject anyone to a seventy-five page speech about anything. Hell, even Jesus Christ barely cracked two pages with the Sermon on the Mount. Rand/Galt manages it, however, and this speech lays the foundation of objectivism, a term that was probably chosen because ‘greedism’ isn’t catchy enough. 

Rand’s rhetorical strategy was to create the impression of depth through overwhelming verbal quantity, battering the reader with a relentless barrage of meaningless literary curlicues. Take this bit from Galt’s famous speech in Atlas Shrugged: 

‘Rationality is the recognition of the fact that existence exists, that nothing can alter the truth and nothing can take precedence over the act of perceiving it, which is thinking—that the mind is one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide of action—that reason is an absolute that permits no compromise—that a concession to the irrational invalidates one’s consciousness and turns it from the task of perceiving to the task of faking reality—that the alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only short-circuit destroying the mind—that the acceptance of a mystical invention is a wish for the annihilation of existence and, properly, annihilates one’s consciousness.’ 

A real page-turner. Anyway, Alan Greenspan would later regularly employ a strikingly similar strategy of voluminous obliqueness in his public appearances and testimony before Congress. And rhetorical strategy aside, he would forever more cling on some level to the basic substance of objectivism, expressed here in one of the few relatively clear passages of Atlas Shrugged: 

‘A living entity that regarded its means of survival as evil, would not survive. A plant that struggled to mangle its roots, a bird that fought to break its wings would not remain for long in the existence they affronted. But the history of man has been a struggle to deny and destroy the mind…Since life requires a specific course of action, any other course will destroy it. A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death. Such a being is a metaphysical monstrosity, struggling to oppose, negate and contradict the fact of his own existence, running blindly amuck on a trail of destruction, capable of nothing but pain.’  

This is pure social Darwinism: self-interest is moral, interference (particularly governmental interference) with self-interest is evil, a fancy version of the Gordon Gekko pabulum that ‘greed is good.’ When you dig deeper into Rand’s philosophy, you keep coming up with more of the same…. 

The real meat of Randian thought (and why all this comes back to Greenspan) comes in their belief in self-interest as an ethical ideal and pure capitalism as the model for society’s political structure. Regarding the latter, Randians believe government has absolutely no role in economic affairs; in particular, government should never use ‘force’ except against such people as criminals and foreign invaders. This means no taxes and no regulation.  

To sum it all up, the Rand belief system looks like this:  

  1. Facts are facts: things can be absolutely right or absolutely wrong, as determined by reason.
  2. According to my reasoning, I am absolutely right.
  3. Charity is immoral.
  4. Pay for your own f*cking schools. 

Rand, like all great con artists, was exceedingly clever in the way she treated the question of how her ideas would be employed. She used a strategic vagueness that allowed her to paper over certain uncomfortable contradictions. For instance, she denounced tax collection as a use of ‘force’ but also quietly admitted the need for armies and law enforcement, which of course had to be paid for somehow. She denounced the very idea of government interference in economic affairs but also here and there conceded that fraud and breach of contract were crimes of ‘force’ that required government intervention…. 

A conspicuous feature of Rand’s politics is that they make absolutely perfect sense to someone whose needs are limited to keeping burglars and foreign communists from trespassing on their Newport manses, but none at all to people who might want different returns for their tax dollar. Obviously it’s true that a Randian self-made millionaire can spend money on private guards to protect his mansion from B-and-E artists. But exactly where do the rest of us look in the Yellow Pages to hire private protection against insider trading? Against price-fixing in the corn and gasoline markets? Is each individual family supposed to hire Pinkertons to keep the local factory from dumping dioxin in the county reservoir?  

Rand’s answer to all of these questions was to ignore them. There were no two-headed thalidomide flipper-babies in Rand’s novels, no Madoff scandals, no oil bubbles. There were, however, a lot of lazy-ass poor people demanding welfare checks and school taxes. It was a belief in this simplistic black-and-white world of pure commerce and blood-sucking parasites that allowed Rand’s adherents to present themselves as absolutists, against all taxes, all regulation, and all government interference in private affairs—despite the fact that all of these ideological absolutes quietly collapsed whenever pragmatic necessity required it. In other words, it was incoherent and entirely subjective. Its rhetoric flattered its followers as Atlases with bottomless integrity, but the fine print allowed them to do whatever they wanted. 

This slippery, self-serving idea ended up being enormously influential in mainstream American politics later on. There would be constant propaganda against taxes and spending and regulation as inherent evils, only these ideas would often end up being quietly ignored when there was a need for increased military spending, bans on foreign drug reimportation, FHA backing for mortgage lenders, Overseas Private Investment Corporation loans, or other forms of government largesse or interference for the right people. American politicians reflexively act as perfectly Randian free-market, antitax purists (no politician beyond the occasional Kucinich will admit to any other belief system) except when, quietly and behind the scenes, they don’t.”


 Reminder: we need taxes to pay for our roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, and on and on.

As Elizabeth Warren reminds us, no one got rich on his own.


* I also highly recommend All the Devils Are Here by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera.

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