When The Bough Breaks Afterword
It is really depressing easy to make fun of Atlas Shrugged.
The book is a massive doorstopper, over 600’000 words long (roughly five times the size of When the Bough Breaks.) John Galt spends three hours in-universe lecturing the entire country on the looter creed and his own response (more like five-six hours in real life) when very few people could muster the ability to listen to such a long speech and take it all in, even with the best will in the world. (You can download a MUCH shorter version here.) Not that he’s the only offender, of course; several other characters in the book had the same problem with blathering too much. It isn't hard at all to poke at selected points – including Rand’s personal life – and suggest that they invalidate the entire book.
It is, in fact, so easy that it tends to obscure the fact that Rand was basically right.
“Oh,” the critics say. “Really?”
Rand spent her early life in Russia, during the early years of the Bolshevik (Communist) Government. Her father’s business was taken over by the Communists, who then expected him to run it for them. Later, after going to university in Russia, she was briefly purged along with hundreds of others for being ‘bourgeois’ – a term that could hardly be said to apply to her then-destitute family – and was only allowed to return after complaints from foreign students. In 1925, she was allowed to leave to America. She never returned to Russia.
Read Atlas Shrugged and then study how Russia decayed under the Communists. Businesses were nationalised ... production fell sharply and many of the best designers were sent to the Gulag for being unable to perform. Farms were collectivised ... Russia never managed to feed itself and even had to import food from the archenemy, the USA. Schools and universities became more about indoctrination than about teaching students to think ... Russia suffered a monumental brain drain that ensured that the Soviet Union would never be able to match the west. There are eerie parallels between Rand’s vision and the fall of the Soviet Union.
Oh, the details don’t match. Of course they don’t. But the general theme is identical.
[If you don’t like Atlas Shrugged, look up The Cold Equations (Ted Godwin). At some point, the effects of stupidity and ignorance becomes an unstoppable tidal wave heading towards disaster.]
The keyword for this lecture is maintenance. According to the Free Online Dictionary, ‘maintenance’ is:
1. The act of maintaining or the state of being maintained.
2. The work of keeping something in proper condition; upkeep.
3. a. Provision of support or livelihood: took over the maintenance of her family.
b. Means of support or livelihood: was ordered to pay maintenance for both children.
Let us assume, for the purpose of this discussion, that you own a car. You buy it and take it home and try to pick up girls in it. And everyone lives happily ever after, right?
Well, no. Your car needs fuel; every few days, you have to refill the tank or the car will grind to a halt. And then there’s the windscreen wipers; you have to ensure that the tank of water is kept stockpiled or you will run out at the most inconvenient moment. If you let someone else drive your car, you have to readjust the mirrors, seatbelt and seat position every time you take the car back. All of that is just basic, right?
Over the long term, there are other things you have to do to keep your car in full working order. Even without an accident or vandalism, your car is going to start decaying. Everything from the engine and brakes to the rear headlights need to be watched carefully; some problems could get you a ticket from an alert police officer, others could cost you your life. You also have to pay road tax, have your car undergo the MOT test (at least in Britain) and plenty of other things. And if you don’t do them, you can get in real trouble.
Oh, there's always a temptation to skimp on maintenance. Self-delusion is always popular – and plenty of people are happy to think that something will never happen to them. But poor maintenance always catches up with you. For the car example, you might be fined, you might end up in handcuffs and riding to jail in a police car ... or you might be seriously injured or killed.
With me so far?
The difference between maintenance and repair is that you do maintenance before you run into problems. It can be something as simple as refuelling the car or something as complicated as taking a piece of machinery apart, cleaning it out and then putting it back together again. Chances are, repairing something after it breaks down will be harder than maintaining it. It’s useful to bear that in mind.
Now, the important point is that just about everything needs to be maintained. The streets outside your home? The drains? The telephone network? The railways? Some things require near-constant attention, others take much longer to decay to the point where they develop problems. However, you cannot get away with refusing to do maintenance indefinitely.
A good example is the fate of Britain’s railways. Once, Britain had the finest railway services in the world; hell, we invented the damn things. Now ... ask anyone who has to use them regularly and you will almost certainly hear an endless series of complaints. The fares are going upwards and upwards, delays are becoming epidemic, the system cannot cope with bad weather, there have been some nasty crashes ... and no one seems to be taking any responsibility. After the railways were privatised, it actually got worse. Why did this happen?
There were a multitude of problems with the whole system, but the core of it was two-fold; first, the rate of preventive maintenance was cut sharply; second, the bosses became disconnected from the realities of their business. Consider, if you will, the traditional ideal; a young man joins a business and works his way up to the top. By the time he reaches the top, he knows exactly how the business works – and what they can get away with when it comes to maintenance. How many modern-day executives reached the top through immersing themselves in the business?
This is not an uncommon problem. You see it in just about every large organisation, from international corporations to the military. Costs are cut ... and something vitally important is eliminated in the process. Sometime later, it comes back, often after the person responsible has moved on, leaving his successors to grapple with the problem. And the problem is normally extremely difficult to fix.
It should come a no surprise (particularly if you read the No Worse Enemy afterword, also free on my site) that governments also require maintenance. When the government is not maintained, when the population do not hold it to account, it decays. Instead of complaining again, however, I have decided to attempt to list a series of possible fixes.
I do not claim that these are perfect solutions, nor am I going to defend them. Each of them will cause problems as well as fix them (and detractors will immediately asset that the problems make them unworkable). What you can decide, if you like, is if they are worth trying.
All politicians are to serve for short periods only (say, one five-year term) then leave politics forever.
Family Exclusion/No Nepotism
A person who is directly related to a politician (partner, sibling, child) may not run for election, or take up work in politics – i.e. they cannot work as an assistant to other politicians.
No Legal Exceptions
Politician may not write laws that do not apply to them; conversely, they may not write laws that only apply to them.
All politicians are required to live in their constituencies for at least five years prior to running for office.
Anonymous or Public Financing
Political donations are to be collected by a neutral party, then passed on to the political party or politician without any source of origin. Alternatively, all political donations are to be declared openly and the information posted freely online.
Politicians may not run for office before a set age (for example, 30 years old) and must have had a non-political job beforehand.
The local constituents have the right – if they collect enough signatures – to recall their representative and force him to face a general referendum on his conduct. If he loses the vote, he will be sacked and a local election will be held to find a replacement.
The Idea I Forgot
Why not tell me about it?
I’ve used this Heinlein quote before, but it still fits:
“[Why should you be politically active?] Because you are needed. Because the task is not hopeless. Democracy is normally in perpetual crisis. It requires the same constant, alert attention to keep it from going to pot that an automobile does when driven through downtown traffic. If you do not yourself pay attention to the driving, year in and year out, the crooks, or scoundrels, or nincompoops will take over the wheel and drive it in a direction you don't fancy, or wreck it completely.
When you pick yourself up out of the wreckage, you and your wife and your kids, don't talk about what "They" did to you. You did it, compatriot, because you preferred to sit in the back seat and snooze. Because you thought your taxes bought you a bus ticket and a guaranteed safe arrival, when all your taxes bought you was a part ownership in a joint enterprise, on a share-the-cost and share-the-driving plan.”
And consider this – just because you take no interest in politics, as a very ancient statesman observed, doesn't mean that politics will take no interest in you.
Kota Kinabalu, 2013