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Shrugging: A Thought

America’s second most influential book after the Christian Bible is a favorite of mine, as it is of many or most libertarians. This entry a bit ago got me to wondering: not everyone appreciates it for the same reasons and exploring the differences, amongst those who like it, could be an interesting study.

Offhand, I’m thinking of the central theme or device of the novel; that is, the producers (those to whom capital naturally flows because they know how to turn it) go on strike. Of course, anyone with an introductory high school understanding of economics can predict what happens. Unlike the fraudulent implication underlying strikes by employees (that they are particularly needed or particularly valuable), the world goes to hell in a hand basket. It’s one thing to have a (temporarily) vacant job; quite another to have no jobs to be vacant and no resultant fruits of production to be had at any price.

To me, that’s more or less the entirety (essential) of the message:
the world ought to be on its knees daily thanking the God of Capitalism
for its very existence. In terms of public policy and those who strive
to influence it (government, religion, big business, anti-big-business,
junk-science, fear mongers, et. al.), virtually everything is
parasitic in nature. In nature, capital flows to those who know how to
turn it. In a parasitic environment, capital flows to the most cunning
parasites. Everyone gets it wrong: they thank their favorite parasite
and usually go so far as to view their biggest benefactor as itself a
— necessary evil — parasite.

So, aside from the plot device of having producers actually
illustrate in vivid color what happens if they refuse to produce, I
wonder how many take it as the chief message that it’s somehow or kinda
better not to, or at least with reserved or chortling encouragement.

Let the parasite die: as central message and theme. And since it’s
hard to argue that such a fate is not exactly what it justly deserves,
there’s a certain moral superiority implied in being a shrugger
over a producer who, rather than shrug, decides to just go ahead and
produce even more and more and more. The more they try to take and
control, the more he produces and struggles to produce.

Though I certainly get the classic romantic aspects of the story and
delight in it very much, I must conclude that the latter producer, as a
human being, is onto the winning strategy; and is indeed morally
superior to the shrugger.

Call me crazy.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

19 Comments

  1. Richard Nikoley on May 25, 2007 at 06:25

    John:

    I think — for what should be obvious reasons — that those who produce (non fraudulently or coercively) so much that it makes the world go round (as opposed to producing just enough, or enough for a great individual and family life) are morally superior to everyone else.

    It doesn't mean the rest of us (I include myself) are immoral, just morally inferior.

    Striving endlessly to create something really great, to ultimately produce the means or significant portions of the means of survival for groups, communities, society, or even humanity at large is fundamentally a moral struggle. Those who rise to the top are morally superior.

    Virtually no one sees this, in my view. It's not just that the great producers to whom modern society owes its very existence ought to be free to produce. It's that they ought to hold the place of what we as humans generally regard as God.

  2. John Lopez on May 24, 2007 at 23:59

    "Though I certainly get the classic romantic aspects of the story and delight in it very much, I must conclude that the latter producer, as a human being, is onto the winning strategy; and is indeed morally superior to the shrugger.

    I'm not at all sure how you got that last bit ("morally superior").

    It is pretty clear though that producers tend to lead happier and better lives than shruggers. Shrugging is a public good: if you decide to stop paying taxes, I get all of the benefits of the government not having that revenue stream while you absorb all of the cost. Producing produces significant private goods for the individual.

    I'd have no problems with would-be "shruggers", if by doing so they were making their lives better. But they aren't, they're miserable. Making yourself miserable is a pretty bad vice, but still not a crime.

  3. John Sabotta on May 26, 2007 at 21:47

    I think — for what should be obvious reasons — that those who produce (non fraudulently or coercively) so much that it makes the world go round (as opposed to producing just enough, or enough for a great individual and family life) are morally superior to everyone else.

    Very Christian of you.

  4. John Sabotta on May 26, 2007 at 22:48

    It's not just that the great producers to whom modern society owes its very existence ought to be free to produce. It's that they ought to hold the place of what we as humans generally regard as God.

    That's simply obscene.

    I thought the idea was to have no God at all, not put up a shabby idol of your own devising.

  5. Richard Nikoley on May 27, 2007 at 07:53

    I don't much care what you consider obscene, Sabotta. I think Courtney Love is obscene. So what?

    To the subject of the God concept, humanity is as close as we're going to get, and even with all its faults, when at its worst, is measurably less evil than the God of the Bible or Koran.

    And I'm pretty happy with it. All goodness throughout all time is the direct result of purposely good actions on the part of men.

  6. Richard Nikoley on May 28, 2007 at 14:02

    "Am happier than a pig in shit waiting for
    the coming Dark Age."

    If that happens, and nobody knows for sure that it will (in spite of abounding pessimistic "certainty" always), do you expect the producers or the could-be-producer shruggers will be better off?

  7. jomama on May 28, 2007 at 07:06

    "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of
    the law." Best not to whack anyone that
    doesn't deserve it tho.

    I've shrugged.

    Am happier than a pig in shit waiting for
    the coming Dark Age.

  8. Richard Nikoley on May 28, 2007 at 17:57

    John:

    Note that I'm not making or even implying a negative judgment. What I'm doing is identifying a dynamic element to morality; morality in action, if you will. I'm also identifying a personal aspiration; a desire and drive to improve.

    There's nothing necessarily negative about being "inferior." I'm inferior to certain others in any area of virtue or productivity we'd care to discuss — in terms of skill, talent, intelligence, discipline….and so on.

    To me, this all ads up to the pursuit of one's values and those who pursue values that benefit themselves and others (by choice) and indeed, benefit others to the extent it lifts whole civilizations (Atlases) have a dynamic / heroic character about them that I identify as moral superiority.

    Now, if you think that moral superiority doesn't exist, that's one thing, but if you do then I must ask you upon what you thing it's comprised. Is it the one who has refined his non-initiation of force philosophy down to consistency tolerances measurable in thousandths of millimeters or the one who may not know much about all that, but through productive and profitable use of capital — and then multiplying — feeds clothes and shelters thousands directly and millions indirectly?

  9. John Lopez on May 28, 2007 at 15:51

    It doesn't mean the rest of us (I include myself) are immoral, just morally inferior.

    I think it's fair to describe myself as an inferior producer in comparison with, say, the man or men who invented the ocean shipping container (you think?), but I don't put any moral weight behind that. Nobody has a moral obligation to produce values for me, and I won't fault them if they should decide not to.

  10. Richard Nikoley on May 29, 2007 at 08:23

    Yea, it's probably not for me to judge the fairness of it, but here's another way I thought of to express what I'm getting at.

    The term "do-gooders." Now that has a negative connotation, made up by freedom and libertarian types to denote someone who, in the pursuit of moral superiority is intent upon imposing their values upon others and/or destroying or prohibiting by law and force the values held and pursued by others.

    But do gooders could have a positive meaning as well, which is simply someone who does objective good. What is that? Well, to me, it's more than just pursuing your own values for your own sake. It's one who, as George Reisman put it in a [really good] post I read just last night:

    What guarantees that the positive benefits of production and economic activity incalculably outweigh any negatives associated with their byproducts is the principle of respect for individual rights. Although by no means always observed, this principle requires that one’s production and economic activity not only benefit oneself but also that insofar as any other people are involved in the process, the use of their labor and property must be obtained only by their voluntary consent. And, of course, to secure their voluntary consent, their cooperation must be made worth their while.

    Thus, for example, if I wish to construct a building, not only will I benefit from it, but also all those who work for me in its construction and all those who supply me with materials and equipment for constructing it. So too will the building’s purchaser or tenants—if I construct it for the purpose of sale or rent. In addition, no third party’s property or person may be harmed by my action. For example, I risk serious legal penalty if I construct my building in a way that undermines a neighboring building’s foundation or which makes my building unsafe for passersby.

    So I'd say that the moral aspect is the respect of others' person and property while the superior or do-gooder part is the benefit to all others.

    All production that doesn't violate rights and requires division of labor to accomplish necessarily benefits everyone involved, of course. But the more benefit and more derivative benefit to the most is what I'd consider morally superior to other exercises of morality.

    Shrugging is anyone's right so long as they aren't living off the backs of others by intimidation, manipulation, or force, but I just don't think it's worth a hill of beans and is certainly far less worthy of praise that those who produce big in spite of it all.

    I'd add a caveat, which is to point out Reardan's refusal to supply steel to the state. That's amorally superior act.

  11. Billy Beck on May 29, 2007 at 08:57

    "The most subversive political implication of 'Atlas Shrugged', is that individual freedom is possible only to those who are strong enough, psychologically and morally, to withdraw their sanction from any system that coercively thrives off their productive energies."

    (Chris Matthew Sciabarra, "The Russian Radical", 1995, pp. 301-302)

    That line, to me, taps the essence of the book far finer than just about anything else I know of. I've quoted it so often that it might be perfect, but it's not quite. It's that "possible only" construction: I know that there is an enormous and specialized context behind the remark, but I think the fact is that most people could live perfectly happy (as possible, given basic facts of reality) lives without ever once considering the extremities of political thought and action sometimes called for in defense of freedom. That is: if freedom were their actual political condition — the hypothetical also presumes requisite cultural conditions — they could live it very well without ever thinking about the moral and political showdown that Sciabarra highlights as the central premise of the book.

    Here is an undeniable fact: America's political-ethical state is precisely described in the final half-dozen words of Sciabarra's remark.

    Who could indict anyone who gets from one end of their life to the other the very best that they can without hurting anyone else along the way? Outrageous and ridiculous. Because however of the way that this idea of government, put to action, feeds on production, the day will come when that is no longer possible to more and more people, or less and less possible to everyone, in degree. There can be no dispute over the destructive progress of government. It has now overwhelmed the most reasonable attempt at the idea of government ever instituted, and the course it's taking is very predictable in general. What remains to be seen is the American character in action in moments of crisis that have eventually unhinged governments — and cultures — along the way that this is going.

    If we talk about "winning strateg[ies]" then some abrasive or other comes along to ask who's winning what, and how, and who's miserable about it, anyway?

    [shrug]

    Everybody knows their own Threshold of Outrage when they see it, even if they never do. Galt bless 'em.

  12. Richard Nikoley on May 29, 2007 at 09:33

    "Who could indict anyone who gets from one end of their life to the other the very best that they can without hurting anyone else along the way?"

    Nobody. You and I have gone down this road before and you know where I stand and that hasn't changed.

    What's changed is me; my own values. I just can't any longer sit and — to me — pretend that I'm getting the bast I can out of life by shrugging (in my own way). I guess I'm built in such a way that I just have to think that our salvation, if there's one to be had, lies in the hands of those out there plugging and slugging it out bringing their wares to new and wider markets and multiplying that into more and then more still. I fully understand I could be wrong. Then again, the state has had the power to destroy every living thing on Earth for 60 years…

    I guess I think it's all already been thought and said and the only thing left to do against the state is to attempt to render its sting more proximate to that of a mosquito than that of a viper.

    It's not like I think I can ever manage to do anywhere as great as I think so many others have, but I certainly want to do the best I can, and above all, it's something I can actually be and write positively about rather than the morass of gloom and doom in which I often feel myself.

    Mileage may differ, as always.

    By the way, it's an interesting implication, that Sciabarra quote. I think I've seen you quote it before, but perhaps I never stopped to really think about it fully.

    It's perhaps true: that our greatest producers in terms of material, technology, information, etc. are not really or completely free. It's akin to a quote from _V for Vendetta_: "Then you have no fear anymore. You're completely free." Do you see the relation?

    Then again, I often wonder if complete freedom is possible or even …desirable (ducking for cover). I think that as social beings we have a natural tendency to obligate ourselves (morally, i.e., contractually) to others in a whole variety of ways and since we're not omniscient we have no way of fully understanding how content we're going to be with such obligations down the road, so we end up feeling like we're not really free. So we break free as soon and as best we can and then proceed to fill our lives all over again with wall-to-wall obligations.

    I dunno. Perhaps it's not true freedom, but being in a position to purchase options for one's self, i.e., alternatives among a limited set imposed by the state, is a — dare I say — "reasonable" accommodation.

  13. John Lopez on May 28, 2007 at 23:36

    Rich,

    Note that I'm not making or even implying a negative judgment. What I'm doing is identifying a dynamic element to morality; morality in action, if you will. I'm also identifying a personal aspiration; a desire and drive to improve.

    Now, if you think that moral superiority doesn't exist, that's one thing, but if you do …

    Ah. I think it was the phrasing that was tripping me up. If it's fair to rephrase your use of "moral superiority" as a "virtue" or an "anti-vice", then I understand and agree.

  14. Richard Nikoley on May 30, 2007 at 06:35

    "So you see…"

    No, not really. I don't. Sorry. Knock yourself out, but there's just no glory in sacrificing your values and ability to produce greater and greater realms of values for the sake of others, especially a pernicious collective you regard as in need of some sort of salvation. I've got no complaint against anyone choosing that path for themselves, if that's what gets 'em up in the morning, but there's nothing heroic about it. Moreover, any shrugger who wishes to claim the title of hero for shrugging must first lay forth all the values he's destroying which, if on the scale of Atlas Shrugging much total in the tens of millions of dollars. It's easy to "shrug" when you haven't got much to shrug off and not much prospect of it.

    Elliott Wave. I use it and other technical analysis all the time in my trading, but merely to identify the set of most likely market movements (all of which can be completely wrong). It's not a theory, but merely an educated guess. A theory predicts results which can then be tested and if the results don't show up the theory is falsified.

    People rely way to much on the [non-existent] predictive powers of such tools, stake their lives on it, and usually end up having sold WAY to early. Human nature being what it is, if you can't be bullish in the long term, i.e., the time of your life, there's simply no point whatsoever in continuing to draw breath.

  15. Richard Nikoley on May 30, 2007 at 08:15

    More on Elliot Wave. That Wikipedia article has the most perfect quote I've ever seen with respect to the EWP in particular (and it applies to virtually all technical (chart pattern) analysis in general).

    The Elliott Wave Principle, as popularly practiced, is not a legitimate theory, but a story, and a compelling one that is eloquently told by Robert Prechter. The account is especially persuasive because EWP has the seemingly remarkable ability to fit any segment of market history down to its most minute fluctuations. I contend this is made possible by the method's loosely defined rules and the ability to postulate a large number of nested waves of varying magnitude. This gives the Elliott analyst the same freedom and flexibility that allowed pre-Copernican astronomers to explain all observed planet movements even though their underlying theory of an Earth-centered universe was wrong."

    This is not to say that I don't use wave patterns, channels, trendlines and other technical tools. I do all the time, but in proper context I never bet on them defining any future market move. In spite of the tons and tons of bullshit over eons of time, there's only one prediction of future market moves that worth a shit: from here, the market can go up, down, or sideways.

    Where technical analysis is useful is to give you signals of when a market is getting out of whack in terms of standard deviations, ebb & flow. I trade based on probabilities and technical analysis can give me early signals that I might want to consider exiting a trade prior to my rules dictating it.

    But even that doesn't always work to my benefit because I sometimes get chased out of a trade unnecessarily.

    Seriously; there if far, far more utter bullshit written about financial markets than there is good stuff. Gloom and doom and the coming collapse is the worst, designed for the most financially follish amongst libertarians. Buy no matter what is foolish too, but not nearly so much because long term (a working and investing lifetime) simply buying assets known to appreciate and holding them almost always at least hedges adequately against inflation and offers compounded returns. R/E is as close to a sure bet as there is, and with only a little attention to location (i.e., don't buy in Cleveland), it pretty much doesn't matter when you buy so long as you're going to hold it for at least 10 years.

    There's no analysis ever that demonstrates that bearishness, skepticism, pessimism outperforms bullishness. It's always the other way around, but of course people will still _forego_ earning tens and hundreds of thousands in profits (so they won't then lose them) awaiting the coming collapse, never comes.

  16. jomama on May 30, 2007 at 06:16

    If that happens, and nobody knows for sure that it will (in spite of abounding pessimistic "certainty" always), do you expect the producers or the could-be-producer shruggers will be better off?

    At the risk of sounding trite, the only certainty
    is uncertainty.

    I expect the ones who will make the transition
    easier [for everyone]will be the ones who
    will have managed to preserve some wealth
    coming out of The Other Side. I'm quite sure
    there will be pockets of it in at least a
    few parts of the planet. If not, back to
    barter many may go depending on how much
    wealth was preserved with hard money and
    how many private mints there will be.
    [I think of that last as a fine business
    opportunity at that point.]

    I like to plan for the worst. I've usually
    been pleasantly surprised at the outcome.

    So you see, based on my scenario, the
    shruggers are the heroes and the ones
    better off, assuming they know how to
    preserve wealth.

    Entertaining the worst possible scenario,
    you might be interested in an Elliott Wave
    analysis of the 21st Century
    .

    Then again, you might not.

  17. Greg Swann on May 30, 2007 at 12:03

    I love this arc of posts. This — all of it, work, money, fitness, attitude, knowledge — is the way to the truly human life.

    Five thoughts:

    1. They can't enslave us if they can't catch us. Whether or not we are on the cusp of a Kurzweilian Singularity, it remains that we are out-running them and have been as a general trend for the entire recorded history of humanity. The application of production-line efficiency to mass murder was a genuine threat in the last century — but where is it now?

    2. Think of all the disaster predictions you've heard since you started paying attention — from the libertarians, the liberals, the christians, the ecofools, etc. How many have come true? Predicting calamity is an attention-getting strategy for people committed, by their inaction, to achieving calamity in their own lives.

    3. Atlas Shrugged is fiction. It accelerates into 13 years the practical consequences of the collapse of Greek philosophy, a process that would take centuries if it were to occur in real life. Except for affected, self-destructive, self-willed failure, people don't go "on strike." The effect Rand fictionalized happens in real life when people are forbidden from developing their in-born potential. Forbidden-by-force, not elect-not-to.

    4. I think it's useful to reflect on the idea of Cosmic Justice that infests so many angry creeds. You are well practiced at despising christians and their malicious hatred for unbelievers. Think about the idea of being "on strike." Is the objective to improve anyone's character, even the "striker's"? Or is the goal to hurt people for failing to toe the line? Retributive justice has nothing to do with justice, whatever form it takes. It's always about whipping people into line.

    5. Making one's life a fiction by going "on strike" is a particularly amazingly stupidly ineffectual strategy in the present context, when there are hundreds of enslaved geniuses all over the world applying for U.S. visas every day. We're down a few verbally-precocious children who never quite made it through the Maths in high school, but we import truly brilliant minds on every overseas flight into SFO. They can't enslave them if they can't catch them…

    Life is short. Death is forever. If you don't get what you want from your life, you have no one to blame but yourself.

  18. John Lopez on May 30, 2007 at 20:13

    Beck,

    Who could indict anyone who gets from one end of their life to the other the very best that they can without hurting anyone else along the way?

    Nobody here is saying that shrugging is a crime, because it's not. It's a vice, and like all vices, it's worse as the better man practices it.

  19. jomama on May 31, 2007 at 08:08

    Now I'll support one thing here we all have
    in common.

    Y'all do whatever blows your skirt up.

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