It’s been a long time since I read Atlas Shrugged. I didn’t finish it. In my defense, I was 19, and I think we can all agree that the book doesn’t succeed as a novel, in the way that when you open a novel you expect characters and a plot.
But I’ve been curious, given the increased prominence of the book since 2010, how in this generation Ayn Rand seems to inspire antipathy toward government but not toward large companies that use the government to stifle competition. If I understood the book correctly (and I know you’ll tell me if I didn’t), Washington is only evil because it’s a place where powerful interests are able to use laws and regulations to prevent themselves from having to work too hard in a free and open market.
This part of Rand’s diagnosis seems completely accurate. There is no advocate in government for new companies and business models that don’t exist yet. If something is a source of conflict on Capitol Hill, you can be sure that two different sets of established companies can’t agree on what they want out of Congress. In Washington, an entrepreneur is a kind of noble ideal, a savage no one has ever seen or worried too much about.
Until now, the Tea Party didn’t pick up this fight. For four years, the rhetoric from that side of the right has focused on too much government, too large of a deficit, and, at times, too much illegal immigration. This is what makes Brat so interesting.
You can find his stump speech online in a couple of places; I’ve been watching a short version he gave to the mass meeting of the Henrico County GOP. He said something completely obvious and true, and very difficult for sitting politicians to say: “There’s a difference between being free market and pro-big business.” Established businesses don’t like competitive markets. It’s right there in Atlas Shrugged. “Members of Congress,” he said, “do not understand what a free market is.” Sing it, brother.
(Brat also name-checks Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. He even describes them as Harvard economists. And he doesn’t cite their paper claiming that high government debt puts a drag on growth, either. No, he cites that other paper by Reinhart and Rogoff, the one that says financial crises last longer than normal recessions. A guy who can explain things to undergraduates and is capable of nuance: How is he a candidate? What riches!)
Ultimately, though, Brat pointed out in his stump speech what you might hear from any Republican insurgent. Giving up the leverage of the debt ceiling was a mistake, he said, and he ticked off all the years in which Cantor voted to raise it. Obamacare is a catastrophe, he said, but for an interesting and specific reason: It exempts members of Congress, businesses, and unions. And he’s right that all three of those groups got what they needed out of the Affordable Care Act before it finally passed. Brat is wrong, though, when he says that Cantor could have possibly fought harder to prevent it from becoming law.
This is the decision he’ll have to make if he gets to Washington. Accurate descriptions of the problem don’t automatically get you to the solution. This is as true of Rand’s version of crony capitalism as it was of Karl Marx’s version of capitalism. Brat’s description of the problem—that Congress doesn’t understand what a free market is—seems consistently Randian and firmly rooted in reality. His solution—fight harder, resist more—didn’t work for Eric Cantor.