Is Julia Gillard channeling Ayn Rand?

When John Quiggin accused Julia Gillard of embracing neoliberalism one of his readers suggested the PM was taking advantage of Ayn Rand’s renewed popularity to chase the libertarian vote. Rand seems to be everywhere these days. With the release of movie based on her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, her work is even being discussed in the opinion pages of The Age.

Of course no one seriously thinks the Prime Minister is channeling Ayn Rand. When Gillard talks about work and opportunity she’s reading from the same centrist script as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and David Cameron. It’s a story about how government should look after people who work hard and play by the rules rather than those who don’t. But unlike these professional politicians, Rand wasn’t impressed by hard work and conformity. In her eyes, ordinary working working people who wanted someone else to pay for their age pension, their kids’ education, or their health care were parasites. She didn’t care how early they set their alarm clocks.

Rand argued that wealth is created by scientists who develop new theories, engineers and inventors who put those theories into practice and managers who efficiently coordinate resources. She wrote about a ‘pyramid of ability‘ with intellectual workers at the top and manual workers at the bottom. In Atlas Shrugged, the industrialist Hank Rearden develops a metal alloy that’s lighter and stronger than steel. The intellectual labour embodied in his factory enables workers to be far more productive than they ever could be if left to their own devices. As Rand’s fictional hero John Galt explains:

The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, is the power that expands the potential of your life by raising the productivity of your time. If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist of an iron bar produced by your hands in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for Hank Rearden? Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden.

According to Rand, workers are not owed a minimum wage. They are entitled to whatever people like Hank Rearden are willing to pay them. And they are not entitled to have the government tax more productive workers in order to pay for their retirement, health care or children’s education. If they can’t earn enough to pay for these things themselves, they should do without. As she wrote in the Virtue of Selfishness:

There is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.

When the PM says that "every Australian should pull his or her own weight" she doesn’t mean that neglected children, the elderly and people with severe disabilities should stop asking taxpayers for help. But this is exactly what Ayn Rand meant. As John Galt, the hero of Atlas Shrugged put it:

The doctrine that ‘human rights’ are superior to ‘property rights’ simply means that some human beings have the right to make property out of others; since the competent have nothing to gain from the incompetent, it means the right of the incompetent to own their betters and to use them as productive cattle.

Many of Rand’s followers share her contempt for those who expect to live off the work of others. Writing in Salon, Alyssa Bereznak tells how her Rand-obsessed father tried to persuade her to petition for emancipation while she was in her sophomore year in high school. "What does that mean?" she asked. "You would need to become financially independent," her father said. "You could work for me at my law firm and pay rent to live here."

Bereznak’s parents had divorced several years earlier. And after a long legal battle a judge decided that Bereznak’s father had to pay her mother the child support he owed along with her attorney fees. In the end, he had to sell the house. At least he didn’t blow it up.

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10 years ago

Hmm…perhaps the wets are waking up-

“Solar roof panels on domestic houses deliver relatively little greenhouse gas abatement at a very high cost that is borne disproportionately by the poor.

An economy-wide carbon price delivers a lot of abatement at about one-tenth of the cost and can fund compensation to make sure the heaviest cost falls on the people who can afford to pay.”

And the money quote-

“The result is the risk that a bad policy cruels the chances of a potentially efficient one.”

Or more’s the point, we need to be acutely aware that you sacrifice the level playing field of the market to the rent-seeking graduazzi class at your peril. That’s not to say that the current constitution of that marketplace is anywhere near ideal. Far from it, but the notion that repairing its obvious deficiencies lies in more quantitative controls, is clearly specious. Rent seekers, as distinct from honest traders will carry on their nefarious ways in the name of the economy, humanity, Gaia or the unborn grandkiddies if that suits their selfish purpose. What else would you expect from them? The greatest good for the greatest number? Perish the thought that it mightn’t include them or John Rawls.

10 years ago

I read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead when I was 17, which was more than 30 years ago now.

It had the sort of effect on me that I have since been told reading Marx has had on others. Here was the untrammeled truth. Here was the simple answer to humanity’s ills. If only we ran the world this way, everything would be solved.

Of course it was simplistic rubbish. From memory AS ends with one of the protagonists drafting an amendment to the Constitution that says (wtte) that Congress shall pass no law that infringes on business. The only trouble with that is that without government, without taxes, without laws infringing on business there would not be a Constitution. There would be no property rights and no business. There would only a series of fiefdoms ruled by the local warlord. Also, I suspect that most businessmen are not as saintly as Hank Reardon or Hilary (?) Taggart.

Another quote I’ve since heard about Ayn Rand is that she is Nietzsche for the Chamber of Commerce. I think that’s close to the truth. The interesting thing about Ayn Rand is not her economics, which are just silly, but her belief that one person can make a difference. That’s probably the one lasting thing I have taken from reading her, all those years ago.

10 years ago

Don, that’s silly.

There exists an infinity of brilliant ideas, which we are all equally able to draw from.

Each, when discovered, eclipses all previous.

Or some shit.

10 years ago

Is Julia Gillard channelling Ayn Rand? Well there is the corollary to the Ayn Rand view-
as James Hardie directors would know only too well. Productivity gains and shares in same, due largely to the use of fossil fuels (and occasionally cheap private cost building products)is of course a rather delicate and nuanced partnership that escapes the few.