Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is a
very bad movie very long novel that is beloved by many 18- to 24-year-olds and a few elected officials. It does not contain the most believable dialogue in the world (I actually laughed out loud when I first read the morning-after conversation between Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden). But the book remains extremely popular, and it is worth remembering why. As I wrote this past June:
Railing against the establishment will always work for the same reason that Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” will always resonate with a fraction of the population. Rand has one and only one gift as a writer. She is able to divide the world into two categories of human beings: creators and moochers. And no one in history reads Rand and thinks, “I want to be a moocher!” It is easy for even government officials to self-identify as creators of pyramids of greatness rather than as looters of the system.
The premise of “Atlas Shrugged” is that a slow accretion of government rules, regulations and corrupt bargains forces the country’s true entrepreneurs into internal exile somewhere in Colorado. There they thrive in a blissful, gold-standard-based utopia while the rest of the country suffers under the weight of government and the rent-seeking looters and moochers who need the state to make any money.
As a slow-motion depiction of what it is like for a country to fall apart when corruption pervades every facet of life and societal norms disintegrate, “Atlas Shrugged” is pretty gripping. So here’s my question: What would happen to the United States if the reverse “Atlas Shrugged” scenario occurred?
After all, if you believe Donald Trump and his boosters, his Cabinet of billionaires represents the finest that the free enterprise system has to offer. What if the people who self-identify as the makers take over the state and all the bureaucrats disappear into the ether?
I bring this up because the incoming administration appears to be doing its damnedest to trigger this scenario. First there was the transition team’s inquiry into which Department of Energy staffers were responsible for the Obama administration’s climate change plans (though it later disavowed that attempt). Then there was a similar request for State Department officials involved in gender rights-related issues
And now we get to the president-elect’s ongoing feud with U.S. intelligence agencies:
Regardless of his intentions, Trump’s tweets left the impression that he was once again mocking U.S. intelligence officials. And while it’s not unprecedented, or even wrong, for a U.S. leader to view intelligence assessments with a skeptical eye, what’s shocked many observers is how public Trump has been about his disregard for a group of people who often risk their lives for the country.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal’s Damian Paletta and Julian Barnes report that Trump and his key officials really do harbor a deep suspicion of the intelligence community:
“The view from the Trump team is the intelligence world has become completely politicized,” said the individual, who is close to the Trump transition. “They all need to be slimmed down. The focus will be on restructuring the agencies and how they interact.”….
Gen. Flynn and Mr. Pompeo share Mr. Trump’s view that the intelligence community’s position — that Russia tried to help his campaign — is an attempt to undermine his victory or say he didn’t win, the official close to the transition said….
Current and former intelligence and law enforcement officials have reacted with a mix of bafflement and outrage to Mr. Trump’s continuing series of jabs at U.S. spies.
It is likely that most U.S. civil service, foreign service and intelligence employees will simply hunker down and try to ride out the Trump years. But I have heard stories, as well, about bureaucrats in some policy arenas — think anyone involved in financial regulation — who are planning to decamp to the private sector. Why not make some money if these folks will not be doing what they originally signed up to do?
So what will happen to the country if the reverse “Atlas Shrugged” scenario transpires? One effect is that both the media and state governments in some locales might benefit. The media is about to experience a windfall of whistleblowers who know exactly where all the bodies are buried. The press will play an outsized role. And for bureaucrats who have domestic policy experience, it’s possible that there will be some effort to migrate to states that value, um, the state.
In the end, however, I suppose this depends on what you think of the federal government. If you believe that the state simply exists to reward the looters and moochers of the world, this will be like celebrating every night like it’s New Year’s Eve. If you believe that civil service employees are mostly decent, competent people trying to do a difficult job, then this will be like… celebrating every night like it’s New Year’s Eve, but for introverts.