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Enough good cents makes a Rand

05 July 2012, 15:48

Spoiler Alert: if you are planning on reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (which I recommend) and don’t want to know the details of it, stop reading now.

So – I finally got through all 1070 small-print pages and am now reasonably convinced that free-market capitalism (and its offshoots) is the way to go. My earlier social sympathies (although, admittedly, very limited) were not adequately informed and I did not appreciate just how destructive and backwards socialist thinking (and its offshoots) could be in relation to all aspects of life and morality.

I would like to structure the following thoughts on the assumption that Rand was correct. This article is not intended to debate the in vacuo merits of communism vs. capitalism, but, rather, to invite constructive comment on how an assumed ideal system can be made to work in very non-ideal circumstances. In other words, how can it be made to work and how does one convince people of it within the South African context? I am not an economist and, thus, have written this piece on a brief layman’s reading and limited understanding of the issue. Clarifications, explanations and contradictions are, therefore, welcomed and called-for in the comments section, especially by those ‘in the know’ (attempting, please, to keep things simple).

In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt decides and promises to “stop the motor of the world”, after having witnessed a popular acceptance of “looter” mentality. Slowly, as the story progresses, more and more of the world’s movers-and-shakers start to disappear, leaving behind spoils that couldn’t be successfully managed by those who were unable to produce them in the first place. Why did this happen? Because Galt convinced them (the producers) to no longer be part of a system that requires the consent of its victims in order to (in the short term) survive, but (ultimately) fail. He convinces them to leave before they are consumed and forgotten. He convinces them of their self-worth and makes them swear to never live for the sake of other men. He takes them to a place where each man can live and be judged on the value of his virtues, as opposed to staying in a world that rewards the lazy and punishes the productive.

The quote that (for me) best sums up the assumed backwardness of the left-behind world is the following extract from one of the fictional Francisco d’Aconia’s many great speeches. “Then you will see the rise of the men of the double standard--the men who live by force, yet count on those who live by trade to create the value of their looted money--the men who are the hitchhikers of virtue. In a moral society, these are the criminals, and the statutes are written to protect you against them. But when a society establishes criminals-by-right and looters-by-law--men who use force to seize the wealth of disarmed victims--then money becomes its creators' avenger. Such looters believe it safe to rob defenseless men, once they've passed a law to disarm them. But their loot becomes the magnet for other looters, who get it from them as they got it. Then the race goes, not to the ablest at production, but to those most ruthless at brutality. When force is the standard, the murderer wins over the pickpocket. And then that society vanishes, in a spread of ruins and slaughter.”

And the fictional America did vanish in a spread of ruins and slaughter, except that society’s best had escaped in time and would be able, like the phoenix, to rise from the ashes and build a moral society from the ground up. This is where I would like to start thinking in practical terms and inviting constructive comments. You see, Rand’s ideal citizens actually had a place of sanctuary to which they could escape. Many in South Africa do not, short of organizing frenzied and uncertain immigration applications to Australia and the like. Others, although able to escape, might not buy into the full Galt philosophy and (rightly or wrongly [or naïvely] – like Dagny Taggart) might still want to be part of a solution. These are the producers (including a growing PD middle class) who have not yet given up on South Africa and its people - who are still hoping that the baying masses may yet be made to see the light at the end of the self-made tunnel. Therefore, there are producers here, who, by choice or circumstance, still have a stake in the long-term sustainability of this country and who wish to fight to see us not go down our neighbour’s road, on which Mugabe’s luxury limo travels.

Therefore, I ask, with the winds of nationalization blowing (if not breezing, for now), if there is still time to say and do the correct things and, if so, what are they? These winds blow, like all winds, from an area of high pressure – from the people (think more than 25% unemployed) who have the least to lose and who have given up on waiting for things to sort themselves out. These people have had and still have it bad and are probably not going to be convinced by the notion that a free market will help their great grandchildren, long after they have suffered through this life. A lot of these people will not even be open to hearing a rational message, when blinded by the short-term prospects of getting their hands on something, especially in circumstances where the others’ riches are so plainly in view. It is these people who are capable of voting-in the more radical politicians or of just looting for themselves. Some of our leaders know (and use) this, having given up on dealing with the substance of the debate, preferring to point to the ‘obvious’ bubbling resentment and the need to avoid a violent uprising, saying vague things like “… we cannot keep doing the same things that we have been doing for eighteen years …” and “… inequality is not being dealt with quickly enough …”

Are they correct? In one sense, I would submit, yes – but, in another, no. They are correct, perhaps, that we cannot keep doing the same things (think limited success of GEAR and RDP) and that, if we do, we can probably expect some fuses to reach their ends (how many is the question). After all, millions of our poorest have been unaffected by the figures pointing to economic growth. Their lives have stayed depressingly the same. But, our leaders are wrong to suggest that this justifies blindly following a dodgy and drastic path, just because it is one that is locally unexplored. We have made that mistake in the past with things like O.B.E. and we really ought to start learning from world history, instead of having to burn ourselves to realise that a flame is hot. But, even if we can confidently and rationally dismiss things like nationalization and willing-‘buyer’-unwilling-‘seller’, we still need to find answers that will address the immediate underlying problem – ones that calm the wind. So, what are the tailor-made South African solutions and are they being applied?

We mostly agree (even our leaders – although noncommittally) that a lot can be achieved by streamlining things like basic education (think Asian Tigers), public spending and service delivery and by getting rid of all of those who are not part of, or who are actively frustrating, the solution. That way, we raise an enabled generation of producers who are not held back by debilitating circumstances, of which they are not in control. But, it is not future generations (if we achieve the above) who are the source of our current windy conditions. In any case, little will be achieved long-term (for future generations), if our short-term failings cause a massive backwards slide now. So, ultimately, assuming that we have agreed up to this point, how does one calm the wind enough now, to allow the saplings of today and tomorrow to grow into strong trees? How do we prevent it from all being flattened, to the detriment of everyone?

I do not propose to have the answers, which is why I stated, at the beginning, that I am inviting constructive comments. So, to kick them off, allow me to narrow the above jumble into some straightforward questions:

1)   Is there enough popular resentment (wind) with the current state of affairs that we should worry that it could compromise our long-term goals – or, have I just been convinced by ruling-party fear mongering?

2)   If there is and you assume that we want to solve this within a free-market that respects property rights (i.e. no nationalization or unfair expropriation etc.), do our current set of proposed solutions really do enough (theoretically) to buy us the necessary time for things to freely fall into place?


3)   If they do, what are these solutions and is it just a case of government getting in the (practical) way of their realization? In other words, is the problem all down to high-level corruption, incompetence etc.?  


If they don’t, what additional solutions might you propose (within the stated free-market context) which you think would calm the short-term long enough for the long-term to unfold?

In closing, may I request that we please try to keep this clean, as I have, after all, attempted to propose a set of bona fide questions in pursuance of finding solutions to a complex problem that affects us all. There will likely be the usual trolls, but, if we identify and ignore them, things might be kept on-track.
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