An Objectivist LARP

Spoiler Alert: You do not need a reader’s guide to Atlas Shrugged—at least not for your first reading. Ayn Rand’s novel is clear, compelling, eminently readable, and perfectly comprehensible on its own terms. Yet Atlas is also a rich and complex novel, with an intricate plot in which dozens of moving parts mesh together and many minor themes are woven in amongst the novel’s big philosophical issues. It rewards further study, and my goal in this series is to share what I’ve learned about the novel over decades of reading it and thinking about it.

This series assumes that you have already read Atlas Shrugged. That means there will be plenty of “spoilers”: discussion of important plot points that will ruin the novel’s suspense for someone who does not already know how it all turns out. I don’t want any reader to find himself slapping his forehead in the middle of one of these articles and thinking: if only I hadn’t missed out on this experience that has now been wrecked for me.

So take this spoiler warning seriously. I mean it.

If you haven’t read the novel and need some inducement, read the overview I wrote on the 50th anniversary of its publication—then go read Atlas Shrugged, then come back to this.—RWT

A few years ago I was struck by a curious turn of phrase: an “Objectivist LARP.” LARP, for those not in the know, is an acronym for live action role-playing games in which participants act out a fictional scenario, usually set in some kind of mythical universe—basically Dungeons & Dragons with costumes. The idea was to apply this to people acting as if they are in a real-life version of an Ayn Rand novel—in this case, in a good way.

That’s not how the phrase was originally intended. The particular occasion was the operation of Uber’s surge pricing during a 2014 terrorist hostage crisis in Sydney, Australia. It was supposed to be horribly inhumane that prices for Uber rides out of the city spiked during the crisis. Yet the surge pricing was doing exactly what it was supposed to do. The higher prices attracted drivers who might otherwise hunker down during a potentially dangerous situation, while making sure that only those with the greatest need to get out of town (or those most willing to pay for their panic) would clog up the roads.

More broadly, the success of Uber at breaking the taxi monopolies is certainly an example of the benefits of capitalism. It has made it possible for city dwellers to find rides more easily at lower prices, as well as knocking down barriers to entry for those looking to offer their services as drivers. That’s why the phrase struck me, because when you start looking at it this way, we are surrounded by “Objectivist LARPs.”

When we ask whether Atlas Shrugged is reflected in real life, we tend to focus on the negative examples, the ways in which we are being threatened with the kind of strangling government controls portrayed in the novel. But it also applies in positive way: to real-life examples of the ingenuity and rationality of Ayn Rand’s heroes and the crusading spirit they bring to commerce and industry—to real-life equivalents of Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, Ellis Wyatt, and the rest.

These examples are everywhere precisely because this is not the role-playing of a fictional fantasy but simply how things get done in the real world.

Uber’s surge pricing, by itself, is less an Objectivist LARP than a free-market economics LARP, a real-world illustration of the role of prices in automatically coordinating the economic forces that determine the supply and demand for a product. But the overall story of Uber has more distinctly Objectivist overtones.

The big mistake people tend to make about the new ride-sharing services like Uber is to think of them as technology companies, because the technological interface is what you see and use. But Uber is really in the business of busting the taxi monopoly, creating a system that operates according to the laws of a free market rather than the dictates of government bureaucrats.

Uber is really a platform for mass civil disobedience against irrational and unjust laws. To be more exact, Uber exploits grey areas in the law. Regulations on commercial activity are written in the context of a particular era and a particular technology. Taxi laws, for example, were written to restrict cabs that roam the streets waiting for riders to physically hail them—by waving our arms, like we used to in the olden days—and also to restrict companies that dispatch cabs to riders by radio from a fixed, central base. What they didn’t anticipate was a smartphone app that could dispatch cars to riders without a central base, which is the specific loophole Uber cited when moving into New York City.

Legal technicalities aside, Uber’s strategy has been to flood city streets with its drivers and keep regulators tied up in court long enough for urban riders to get used to having many more cars available at lower prices. The point is to offer a service people find so valuable that they question the very legitimacy of the laws that restrict it. That’s what happened when Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to shut down Uber in New York City.

The most amusing example of this is Uber’s “Greyball” app designed to keep local officials from hailing rides on Uber.

Uber’s use of Greyball was recorded on video in late 2014, when Erich England, a code enforcement inspector in Portland, Ore., tried to hail an Uber car downtown in a sting operation against the company.

At the time, Uber had just started its ride-hailing service in Portland without seeking permission from the city, which later declared the service illegal. To build a case against the company, officers like Mr. England posed as riders, opening the Uber app to hail a car and watching as miniature vehicles on the screen made their way toward the potential fares.

But unknown to Mr. England and other authorities, some of the digital cars they saw in the app did not represent actual vehicles. And the Uber drivers they were able to hail also quickly canceled. That was because Uber had tagged Mr. England and his colleagues—essentially Greyballing them as city officials—based on data collected from the app and in other ways. The company then served up a fake version of the app, populated with ghost cars, to evade capture.

This is supposed to be serious evidence of terrible wrongdoing. But a lot of us just read that description and burst out laughing, congratulating Uber’s engineers on their cleverness in leaving some blue-nosed petty authoritarian standing at the curb waiting for a car that never comes.

Airbnb, a service that does for spare-room rentals what Uber does for car rides, has been fighting a similar battle, which one regulatory hanger-on calls a “guerrilla war” against local governments.

One reason Airbnb is often a cheap option for travelers: Running a hotel or bed and breakfast is expensive; snapping photos of your home, apartment, or spare room and filling out an online profile is not. Hotels must comply with a litany of health, safety, and zoning rules—as well as register with local agencies and agree to collect certain taxes—before they can book a single guest.

Airbnb maintains that, in most cases, it’s not responsible for collecting occupancy taxes required of hotels and other lodgings or for ensuring the rooms and homes listed on its sites comply with zoning or health regulations. The company says it follows local and state laws but considers itself a “platform,” serving merely to connect hosts and visitors, rather than a lodging provider—more akin to Facebook than Marriott.

The onus is on hosts, Airbnb argues, to collect and pay any relevant taxes and to comply with other regulations. In practice, though, few actually do—at least not without considerable effort by local authorities—according to interviews with more than a dozen local government officials and advisers.

The result is that Airbnb has expanded the range of lodging option, particularly in the highly regulated city centers that are most attractive to tourists, while lowering their cost. And this has been done by circumventing and undermining a web of pettifogging regulations.

Both of these examples remind me of what Dagny Taggart tells a regulator when she’s trying to put the Taggart system back together after the tunnel disaster: “I’m simply going to start breaking your laws right now—and you can arrest me when you feel that you can afford to.” In the case of Uber and Airbnb, these companies hope that the time when the authorities feel they can afford to clamp down will be “never”—or at least if they clamp down in one town, there will be many more cities that decide not to fight a service that is popular precisely because it is not encumbered by the weight of regulations.

All of this should counter some of our despair about how to promote free markets, especially among urban elites who have been programmed by their college educations to embrace the rhetoric of the left and vote for socialist candidates. Yet give them half a chance, and they will flock to capitalist innovations run according to the laws of the market.

The problem is that they don’t want to admit it. That’s where the euphemisms of “ride-sharing” and the “sharing economy” comes in. To cover up the capitalistic nature of the activity, they tell themselves they’re “sharing” something that they are quite obviously paying for—and paying at market rates. Imagine what could be accomplished if they were just willing to drop the euphemisms and openly embrace the free market.

This is why we are usually not going to find exact parallels to Ayn Rand’s heroes. Most real-life examples of productive leaders in the business world are neither as consistent in their philosophical convictions nor as willing to proudly and openly defend their determination to make a profit. Ayn Rand knew this from the real-life examples she drew on for Atlas Shrugged. After all, if she had found such consistent examples, she might not have had to write the book.

For example, one of the best recent examples of the business trajectory of an Ayn Rand hero is the career of Apple’s Steve Jobs. In his personal life, Jobs was a bit of a hippie, and it arguably killed him. (He died at age 56 after delaying surgery and treating his cancer with unscientific “alternative medicine.”) Yet in his business life, he displayed two key hallmarks of the business career of an Ayn Rand hero.

First, he created a business that went from nothing to being the largest company in history. Ayn Rand’s heroes often rose out of poverty, like Hank Rearden and Ken Danegger, by starting at menial jobs in heavy industry—a biography she drew from real-life figures like Andrew Carnegie. That was a less likely beginning for Jobs, who started out in a later era, in a wealthier nation where the cutting edge of innovation had moved on to high technology. Yet he still achieved the meteoric rise from a startup with a couple of middle-class college drop-outs assembling computers in his parents’ garage—then built what would eventually become, thirty-five years later, the most valuable company in the world. I suspect Ayn Rand was attracted to the metaphysical implications of this kind of rise: the creation of everything out of nothing. One of her chapter titles in Atlas Shrugged even refers to these creators as “The Immovable Movers,” a tribute to Aristotle’s conception of a deity who causes the creation of the universe.

The second parallel between Steve Jobs and an Ayn Rand hero is that he was not a mere manager or financial manipulator, nor even a tinkerer or inventor. He was a visionary. He began with a new view of human potential and of how our lives could be lived, and he proceeded to make it a reality. Actually, he did it twice: first with the personal computer, then with the iPhone, a supercomputer shrunk to fit in our pockets and—this was Jobs’s most distinctive vision—made simple and intuitive to use with no instruction. Again, notice the metaphysical and epistemological overtones: the visionary businessman who creates something out of nothing does so by starting with an idea that he make into a reality.

Consider how Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart sound when they are discussing his vision of what can be done with Rearden Metal.

“How fast do you run trains the Rio Norte track?”

“Now? We’re lucky if we manage to make twenty miles an hour.”

He pointed at the cars. “When that rail is laid, you’ll be able to run trains at two hundred and fifty, if you wish.”

“I will, in a few years, when we have cars of Rearden Metal, which will be half the weight of steel and twice as safe.”

“You’ll have to look out for the air lines. We’re working on a plane of Rearden Metal. It will weigh practically nothing and lift anything. You’ll see the day of long-haul, heavy-freight air traffic.”

“I’ve been thinking of what that metal will do for motors, any motors, and what sort of thing one can design now.”

“Have you thought of what it will do for chicken wire? Just plain chicken-wire fences, made from Rearden Metal, that will cost a few pennies a mile and last two hundred years. And kitchenware that will be bought at the dime store and passed on from generation to generation. And ocean liners that one won’t be able to dent with a torpedo.”

They spoke of the metal and of the possibilities which they could not exhaust. It was as if they were standing on the mountain top, seeing a limitless plain below and roads open in all directions.

Update this to substitute electronic technology or computer software for industrial technology, and you would recognize this as the style of the standard-issue Silicon Valley visionary—all of whom are following the example set by Steve Jobs.

Jobs even, on occasion, gave the kind of speech you might expect from an Ayn Rand hero, particularly his famous “bicycle of the mind” speech.

I think one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.

And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is, it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak indicates that in the years when they founded Apple, Jobs read Atlas Shrugged and drew on it as a “guide to life,” and he described specifically how he meant that: “It starts with a company, and you build products, and you’ve got to make your profit, and then that allow you to invest the profits and then make better products and make more profit.” Does any of this sound familiar?

This is how we’re going to get our real-life versions of Ayn Rand heroes: a mixture of the premises that motivated her heroes and are laid out in her philosophy, combined with some of the trendy notions of the current day.

Sometimes the mixture will be very mixed, as in the case of Elon Musk, who took a fortune he made as co-founder of PayPal, which built a medium for online financial transactions, then used this to pursue other visionary goals, such as a reusable orbital rocket and a mass-market electric car. Musk’s “visionary” outlook has been a frustrating combination of legitimate achievements and outright flim-flam. (By the time you are reading this, we might finally know for sure in which of those two categories Tesla Motors belongs.)

But he has also built up a kind of media mythology that has a lot of familiar elements: a lone technological genius with a vision for how new technology can change our lives, which he pursues with an obsessive devotion in the face of doubts by narrow-minded and envious naysayers. Like I said, it remains to be settled how much of this is truth and how much is mythology. But Musk’s legions of fans show how hungry much of the world is for this view of the visionary businessman.

In effect, Elon Musk is a “greenwashed” Ayn Rand hero. “Greenwashing,” a variation on “whitewashing,” describes the attempt to use a superficial gloss of environmentalist ideology to justify something you wanted to do anyway for entirely different reasons—like telling yourself that you’re fighting global warming so you can justify buying a sleek, expensive car. This is how a generation of young people raised on anti-industrial propaganda can idolize a man who has made his name in the heaviest of heavy industries: automobile manufacturing and rockets.

But other recent examples of real-life achievement are not so flashy and are notably out of step with environmental pieties. The most concrete parallel to a hero in Atlas Shrugged is George Mitchell, the “father of fracking,” who pioneered in real life the groundbreaking shale oil technology attributed in fiction to Ellis Wyatt. The success of fracking has even been hailed as an “energy renaissance,” reminiscent of what Wyatt calls a “Second Renaissance—not of oil paintings and cathedrals—but of oil derricks, power plants, and motors.”

Here is how Mitchell’s achievement was described in a brief obituary that appeared in the New York Times after he passed away in 2013 at the age of 94.

Mitchell did not invent hydraulic fracturing, or fracking; it was first tried in the late 1940s and helped along by Department of Energy research in the 1970s. Before Mitchell, however, fracking had not been used commercially to free natural gas from shale. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Mitchell Energy drilled well after well, many of whose sites were determined personally by Mitchell, an expert geologist who dropped by his company’s engineering department daily to check for good news. For 15 years, the company struggled to show that its fracking could produce reliable and economical gas….

In 1997, one of Mitchell’s shale gas wells, aided by the injection of a water, sand, and chemical mixture (rather than more expensive foams and gels), established that fracking could prove financially viable over the long term. Not long after, Mitchell sold his company for $3.5 billion. By then, fracking was on its way to resurrecting America’s oil-and-gas industry. New horizontal drilling techniques made shale gas wells even more productive, and by 2012, shale gas accounted for about 35 percent of the country’s natural-gas production. Daniel Yergin, the oil-industry analyst and historian, says Mitchell’s fracking technique is so far “the most important, and the biggest, energy innovation of this century.” It is also the most environmentally controversial.

Is the measure of an innovator marked by surpassing technological ingenuity, or by unswerving determination? Surely Mitchell had some of the former, but more of the latter. Through 15 years of failure, he ignored the supposed wisdom of the crowd. “In science, you have to be very aware of consensus,” says Steward, the former Mitchell Energy manager. “It’s based on people’s theories and models at the time. And sometimes it’s damn wrong. And in this case it was damn wrong.” In the end, Mitchell proved that there is no innovative force quite so powerful as the problem-solver able to balance the world’s disbelief with a resolute belief in himself.

Notice that one line about Mitchell’s achievement being “environmentally controversial”—a theme expanded on in most of Mitchell’s other obituaries. This was part of the reason why Mitchell wasn’t widely known to the public and was not celebrated with the “visionary” fanfare awarded to a character like Musk. This merely adds to the parallels to Atlas Shrugged, where achievers are often abused and disregarded, regarded with suspicion as “controversial” figures.

Or they are driven underground. Well into Atlas Shrugged, as the regime’s economic dictatorship is advancing, Rearden is reduced to scrounging for materials on the black market. One passage describes him receiving a load of “pirated coal” from an abandoned mine.

Nobody owned the mine, nobody could afford the cost of working it. But a young man with a brusque voice and dark, angry eyes, who came from a starving settlement, had organized a gang of the unemployed and made a deal with Rearden to deliver the coal. They mined it at night, they stored it in hidden culverts, they were paid in cash, with no questions asked or answered. Guilty of a fierce desire to remain alive, they and Rearden traded like savages, without rights, titles, contracts, or protection, with nothing but mutual understanding and a ruthlessly absolute observance of one’s given word. Rearden did not even know the name of the young leader. Watching him at the job of loading the trucks, Rearden thought that this boy, if born a generation earlier, would have become a great industrialist; now, he would probably end his brief life as a plain criminal in a few more years.

Rearden’s fierce young man is probably doomed because the world he lives in is on a clear course of collapse into tyranny and destruction. In todays’ world, the direction is not so clear. This kind of black-market operator is described in more hopeful terms in an article that appeared a few years ago in Foreign Policy which hailed the global black market as one of the world’s great economic superpowers.

System D is a slang phrase pirated from French-speaking Africa and the Caribbean. The French have a word that they often use to describe particularly effective and motivated people. They call them débrouillards. To say a man is a débrouillard is to tell people how resourceful and ingenious he is. The former French colonies have sculpted this word to their own social and economic reality. They say that inventive, self-starting, entrepreneurial merchants who are doing business on their own, without registering or being regulated by the bureaucracy and, for the most part, without paying taxes, are part of “l’economie de la débrouillardise.” Or, sweetened for street use, “Systeme D.” This essentially translates as the ingenuity economy, the economy of improvisation and self-reliance, the do-it-yourself, or DIY, economy….

It used to be that System D was small—a handful of market women selling a handful of shriveled carrots to earn a handful of pennies. It was the economy of desperation. But as trade has expanded and globalized, System D has scaled up, too. Today, System D is the economy of aspiration. It is where the jobs are. In 2009, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a think tank sponsored by the governments of 30 of the most powerful capitalist countries and dedicated to promoting free-market institutions, concluded that half the workers of the world—close to 1.8 billion people—were working in System D: off the books, in jobs that were neither registered nor regulated, getting paid in cash, and, most often, avoiding income taxes….

Even in the most difficult and degraded situations, System D merchants are seeking to better their lives. For instance, the garbage dump would be the last place you would expect to be a locus of hope and entrepreneurship. But Lagos scavenger Andrew Saboru has pulled himself out of the trash heap and established himself as a dealer in recycled materials. On his own, with no help from the government or any NGOs or any bank (Andrew has a bank account, but his bank will never loan him money—because his enterprise is unlicensed and unregistered and depends on the unpredictable labor of culling recyclable material from the megacity’s massive garbage pile), he has climbed the career ladder. “Lagos is a city for hustling,” he told me. “If you have an idea and you are serious and willing to work, you can make money here. I believe the future is bright.” It took Andrew 16 years to make his move, but he succeeded, and he’s proud of the business he has created.

This is a rough and semi-lawless approximation of capitalism. It is not full-fledged capitalism because, as Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has argued, the lack of legal recognition and protection prevents the underground economy’s assets from being turned into capital—that is, from being easily sold, borrowed against, or divided into ownership shares. Yet the essence of capitalism—commerce, industry, aspiration, ambition, ingenuity, striving—is inextinguishable. Where there is life, there is capitalism. Where it is suppressed, it will burst through, and where it is ignored or derided, it will still be the underlying driving force in a society.

The goal of Atlas Shrugged was to ensure that this life force would not have to be greenwashed or apologized for or driven underground. More than that: her goal was also to give the real-life heroes of capitalism a model to show them how to live more openly, consistently, and unapologetically by the principles that drive their achievements.

The term LARP is sometimes used derisively, to refer to someone who escapes into a fantasy world, finding excitement and adventure only in role-playing. That, also, is the point of Atlas Shrugged—to find recognition for heroic action and a spirit of enterprise in the real world of capitalism.

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