Is There Any 'Reasoned' Defense of the Atlas Shrugged Guy?

By James Fallows

If you're late joining us -- hey, maybe it's best to keep moving right along! Over the past two weeks readers have weighed in, pro and (mostly) con, about a small businessman somewhere in the Middle South who said before the election that if Obama were reelected, the businessman would express his disgust by "shrugging." He would close his business, lay off his workers, and get ahead of the inevitable collapse of the over-burdened economy. You can see some early installments here and the latest one here.

Now I'm starting to get a lot of messages like this one, complaining that, while the Atlas Shrugged Guy was sending updates, he wasn't defending any of his views:

Your return to Mr. AS was disappointing largely because he is not responding to the level of discourse that his original rants generated. This is something I have noticed about the loyal opposition in its present incarnation. No matter how much you try to engage them on issues of substance, inevitably, no matter how much you listen to them and offer factual rejoinders, you can count on them trying to change the subject, moving into incoherence, engaging in non-sequiturs, speaking in tongues, going all "talk to the hand", etc.

Ultimately, this is all about tribalism.

So, it's time for a couple of "reasoned" defenses. First, someone speaking up for the Guy himself:

Your latest installment of Atlas Shrugged Guy detractors was overwhelmingly a slew of those crying hypocrisy on the part of our Randian in question. After reading through five or six of them espousing essentially the same argument - that this man is profiting from the very institution he denigrates - I thought it high time for me to finally get involved in your Atlas saga. Here goes:

Government as a Premise
On it's face, lamenting the hypocrisy of Atlas Shrugged Guy (ASG) appears to be a rather solid argument: the man is excoriating the very same government he is profiting from. I would argue, though, that this method of reasoning exposes our general complacency toward the growth of government and centralization of power. In short, as government expands to fulfill a new role - education, healthcare, etc. - too many people automatically consider government intervention to be a premise (never a conditional) of operations in that sector. Take education for example. Education existed well before a department of education did, yet as spending on education continues to increase we have seen a pitiful rise in performance that rivals statistical insignificance. Alas, government has implicated itself in this sector, and to have it withdraw must certainly cause chaos. Government is rarely the problem; rather, it just needs to be utilized in a better or more efficient manner.

A Personal Example
My point is that our government continues to expand, and with it comes the increasingly encompassing argument of hypocrisy. Take myself: my career path is in medicine. By the time I get a medical license, Obamacare will have been fully implemented. I personally am against the legislation, and I can very well see myself complaining later on in life how government and its policies are hurting my practice. The army of hypocrisy sniffers, however, will rebut: "How can you complain about Obamacare? It has given millions of people health insurance so that they can afford to visit your office and be your patients. The only reason your practice is so successful is because you're profiting off an enormous pool of insured made possible by Obamacare. That is the height of hypocrisy!" When government is everywhere, people are apt to give it credit for whatever they please.

Addressing the Atlas Shrugged Guy's Predicament
Finally, let's address ASG's specific predicament. It appears that he is enjoying the beneficence of the military-industrial complex (an awful institution I could lambaste at length). Is he wrong to do so? I'd venture to say no. Don't blame the player, blame the game. Government has adjusted the terrain of the playing field so that a government defense contractor position is a very lucrative job. Would anybody blame someone for pursuing the best paying job he found in his field? Let's say for the sake of argument that the military-industrial complex ceased to exist. What would ASG do? Well, he would have to take his skills elsewhere and find a more productive use of them. He could either strike success again in some other sector or completely lose out from the complex's abolition. What irks me about the hypocrisy crowd is that they implicitly presume the latter. The argument is that ASG should just shut up and be thankful because his worth is predicated solely on the government largess allotted to him. Without it, he is nothing.

I apologize for the rather lengthy post, but this has been a sorely underrepresented philosophic take on your series, and I've tried to anticipate whatever criticisms I could think of in advance.

Now, a different but complementary reasoned-defense from the "California guy" I quoted earlier. This is someone I know personally, and who I know is telling the truth when he says that he has had a successful job-creating, company-building, high-tech career, on a large scale. He was the one who objected to California's recent passage of Prop 30, on grounds that the majority was authorizing benefits for which the heaviest tax-payment burden would fall on a rich minority. In response to a wave of rebuttals, he writes once more:

These comments create bipolar feelings--I am delighted and disapproving, admiring and disdainful, and chastened and emboldened. Several ideas permeate what has been said, I'll comment on those then suggest an underlying problem.
First, I am chastened at misattributing the closing quote. [JF: He refers to his passing along a quote falsely attributed, boiled-frog-style, to Alexis de Tocqueville.] I had not read it in years (unaware of its recent resurgence) and my search for its origin and precise content led me astray with an incorrect provenance.  That said, it states perfectly my concern for our shared future. Odd that many replied about the attribution when the rise of legalized robbery in America is the urgent point rather than the as yet unidentified historical writer who foresaw it.
Next, it is nice to have so many mathematically inclined readers, yet it is sad that so many are correspondingly weak at English-language comprehension. The increases were labeled as increases in the marginal tax rate. Check my math and the definition of marginal tax rate, for example at the web page I supplied a link to. It is correct. Also, there is a difference between paying 30% more and paying 30% and that confused a few. However, when I wrote, " 30% more..." I erred by rounding. Even on a billion dollar income, the total tax increase by this Proposition would be just 29.1% and not the 30% I rounded to. Mea culpa.
Minutiae aside, I have solidarity with many writers. The California initiative process is dangerous. Agreed. Every election we dodge falsely labelled, mean-spirited Propositions. Proposition 13 still casts a shadow across the state like that of Mordor. Agreed. Yet, I pay $4,000 per month in property taxes on my home. Is this low? Hardly, but property tax issues did erode the state's finances. Agreed. The tax law also entices people stay in their homes forever so neighborhoods become childless, urban core schools become redundant, and new ones are needed at urban edges. This urban planning problem resulted from Proposition 13.
Alas, not all is agreement. Reading skill seems low among indignant writers. No, I did not stop helping California's needy. I pay 1% of everything I earn to them, at tax gunpoint, while the 99% pay nothing under Proposition 63. What I did stop was giving above this to the majority who voted to take that 1%. As stated, I give what I can to those outside of California. They are just as needy so the Apostle Matthew need not worry.  Another disagreement is about sales tax. That is going up too, by 0.25% from an average of 8%, an increase of 3.125% (no rounding) and applies to all trade, which seems fair so did not earn my complaint. However, drawing a parallel between "we'll all be paying 3.125% more sales tax next year for shoes and toothpaste" and "a tiny minority will be paying 10% to nearly 30% more of their yearly income retroactively" is a false equivalence about a predatory behavior that the Proposition defines and 53.9% voted for.
Finally, I promised something new. Only one response (thank you) suggested that there might possibly be something even slightly wrong with a majority constructing a large tax aimed exclusively at a small group. Most said something like "this is payback" while a few wrote "the rich don't need their money." If you really feel this way--that something in the path to the present justifies a majority taking outright from some minority--then you have lost the empathy for your fellow man, the pride of self-reliance, and the respect for people in other walks of life. These define civil society and make the American system noble. Please reflect carefully. Our nation cannot survive a majority of takers and the willingness to exploit others always starts with seeing them as less worthy than you; less deserving of their lives, property, earnings, respect, or any other fruit of their labor. If voters had aggressively taxed left-handed people, short people, single parents, war veterans, or some other small group would you feel as righteous? What does your answer say about who you see as worthy like you and who is less so?

More in the queue.

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