We all feel unappreciated sometimes. It was the particular genius of überlibertarian author Ayn Rand to turn those hurt feelings into a political movement of sorts, at least in the fictional world of her massive novel Atlas Shrugged, in which a group of industrialists inspired by the mysterious John Galt decide to go on strike because neither the government nor their fellow citizens truly appreciate all they do for the world.
If this basic idea seems a bit familiar, that may be because Atlas Shrugged is having a bit of a revival right now. Tonight, the second installment of a projected film trilogy of Atlas Shrugged hits theaters.
The first installment, out last year, didn’t exactly set the world on fire; it was panned by critics (and even some Ayn Rand fans) as tedious and talky and just plain awful all around. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote that the “low-budget, no-talent treatment” of Rand’s novel “sits there flapping on screen like a bludgeoned seal.” Having seen the film myself, I can only say that this description makes it sound a lot more lively than it really is. The film fared no better in the marketplace than it did with critics, earning back only a fraction of its less-than-extravagant budget.
But the producers have reason to hope that Atlas mach two, in which the strike of the capitalists gets under way, will fare a bit better. Not necessarily because Part II will be any better than Part I — weirdly, the entire cast has been replaced, apparently because of budgetary and scheduling constraints, which doesn’t seem to bode well — but because the central ideas of Rand’s book have been seeping back into political discourse this election season.
Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan is a Rand fan, and Mitt Romney’s infamous comments about the allegedly irresponsible 47-percenters seem to reflect a worldview similar to that of the enigmatic Mr. Galt. Romney’s remarks weren’t meant for public consumption, but a broad debate on America’s so-called makers and takers has been percolating on the right for months, and his gaffe helped push this debate into the mainstream.
More than a few of the debaters, at least on the right, seem to subscribe to the central fantasy of Rand’s book: that the success of the economy is due almost entirely to the genius of entrepreneurs and industrialist makers and that too much taxation or regulation could drive them to go on strike, thereby bringing the economy to its knees.
The idea of a capitalist strike is mostly just talk. Just as few liberals ever make good on their promises to move to Canada if so-and-so is ever elected President, vanishingly few makers ever make good on their promises to pack it up and go home.
But this week, one rich fellow informed his employees that he might “go Galt” if Obama is re-elected President. Real estate developer and time-share mogul David Siegel was previously best known as the subject of a documentary called The Queen of Versailles, which chronicled his attempts to build the biggest mansion in the U.S.
Then, on Tuesday, the website Gawker posted a letter Siegel sent to his employees the day before, warning them of terrible consequences that might ensue if Romney doesn’t win the presidency. Channeling Ayn Rand — and cribbing from a similar letter circulated by Randian rich people in 2008 — Siegel promised:
If any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, as our current President plans, I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company. Rather than grow this company I will be forced to cut back. This means fewer jobs, less benefits and certainly less opportunity for everyone …
While the media wants to tell you to believe the “1 percenters” are bad, I’m telling you they are not. They create most of the jobs. If you lose your job, it won’t be at the hands of the “1%”; it will be at the hands of a political hurricane that swept through this country.
You see, I can no longer support a system that penalizes the productive and gives to the unproductive. My motivation to work and to provide jobs will be destroyed, and with it, so will your opportunities. If that happens, you can find me in the Caribbean sitting on the beach, under a palm tree, retired, and with no employees to worry about.
While Siegel dreams of an “I told you so” moment on the beach, others hope to emulate Rand’s capitalist strikers by building their own equivalent of the book’s Galt’s Gulch – a little libertarian utopia of their own, free from onerous taxes and pesky government regulations.
These days, as Quartz reports, libertarian utopians are setting their sights on Honduras. Inspired by the ideas of American economist Paul Romer, who for years has urged developing countries to give small chunks of their territories over to autonomous “charter cities,” the Honduran government last year agreed to set up Romer-esque Special Development Regions. In September, the government signed an agreement with a consortium headed by an American libertarian named Michael Strong, who hopes to carve out a space in an undeveloped area of the country to build what he hopes will be an “anarcho-capitalist paradise.” Human-rights organizations, meanwhile, worry that Strong’s paradise could turn into a haven for exploitation, and Romer himself has turned his back on the project. As always, one person’s utopia can be another’s nightmare.
Meanwhile, a Silicon Valley start-up called Blueseed is promoting a less utopian but similarly fantastical plan to escape the long arm of the law: immigration laws that keep foreign entrepreneurs out of the U.S. Blueseed’s workaround? Offer these entrepreneurs a place to live and work on a ship docked in international waters off the coast of San Francisco, allowing them relatively easy access to Silicon Valley talent (and venture capital) without the need for a visa.
Whatever happens with these projects, it’s likely to be a lot more interesting than Atlas Shrugged, Parts II and III.