Roger’s Rules

Ayn Rand and the criminalization of everyday life

A few of my friends are avid fans of Ayn Rand, especially of Atlas Shrugged. As I’ve explained in this space and elsewhere, I am not. I’ve tried the book a few times and just couldn’t get through it.  I did see the first two installments of the recent movie version and rather liked them, though I know I am not supposed to.

At bottom, I think that Whittaker Chambers was right about Rand in the devastating review he wrote of Atlas Shrugged in National Review shortly after the book appeared.

Yet Chambers was right not only about Rand’s shortcomings — that’s what people remember about his review — but also about what she got right.  “[A] great many of us,” he wrote, “dislike much that Miss Rand dislikes, quite as heartily as she does.” That fact disposes “us” — i.e., us conservatives who share Rand’s belief in self-reliance and who dislike big government and the nanny state just as much as she did — to endorse some of what Rand advocates. Hence, for example, widespread popularity of Rand’s character John Galt and sympathy for “going Galt,” i.e., Just Saying No to the many violations of personal liberty perpetrated by an omnivorous, socialistically inclined state.

I’ve found that as I get older I become more and more libertarian, which I suppose means in part that I am more and more sympathetic to John Galt. Why? I’m sure there are several reasons. One is the increasing bureaucratization of life in this country, the progress of what Tocqueville called “Democratic Despotism,” i.e., the insidious proliferation of rules and regulations (and their concomitant rulers and regulators) that we’re told are being put in place for the commonweal but in fact are really put in place to  squelch individual liberty and solidify state control over our lives.

Examples are too numerous to linger over: imagine a country in which legislators tell you can no longer buy incandescent light bulbs but must henceforth purchase ones that contain a toxic substance and give off a sepulchral, Eastern-European-under-Communism sort of grimy light. Imagine a country in which other legislators (or perhaps they’re the same ones) are proposing to fit all new cars with a “black box” that will record where you’ve been, how fast you got there, and perhaps even what you had to drink before you got behind the wheel.

Amazing that we put up with it, no?

And this is the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Behind all of these absurd regulations and laws, behind the petty bureaucrats, is that despotism Tocqueville warned about. Despotism. I.e., control.  What we are talking about is the criminalization of everyday life. Harvey Silverglate dealt in a masterly way with part of the story in his book  Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent , which I was proud to publish a couple of years back at Encounter Books.

Now Glenn Reynolds has weighed in with a thoughtful (not to say scary)  law-review essay called Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything is a Crime. Glenn mentions the essay at Instapundit, where he also cites this marvelous passage from Atlas Shrugged:

 “Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed?” said Dr. Ferris. “We want them broken. You’d better get it straight that it’s not a bunch of boy scouts you’re up against – then you’ll know that this is not the age for beautiful gestures. We’re after power and we mean it. You fellows were pikers, but we know the real trick, and you’d better get wise to it. There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now, that’s the system, Mr. Rearden, that’s the game, and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.”

That is spot on.  Maybe I will try the book again.

“It is seldom,” David Hume once wrote, “that freedom of any kind is lost all at once.”  That sucking sound you hear throughout the land is the sound of freedom being drained away, slowly here and there, with amazing rapidity elsewhere.

After quoting that stunning passage from Rand, Glenn concludes with the melancholy observation that “Things aren’t quite that bad. Yet.” Do we just wait around until “yet” becomes “now”?