The virus attacks
What we are now learning to call Covid-19 is taking an ever tighter grip on the world. Italy is in lock-down and the number of cases in England and even here in Wales is increasing steadily. In every country, as cases of the disease are recognised, government intervention increases, and Donald Trump has just announced the suspension of all travel from Europe (but, mysteriously, not from the UK, where the situation is at least as bad as in most European countries). What would Ayn Rand have made of it all?
There are few clues in her books. The god-like ‘rational men’ (and a very few women) who take over the world at the end of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ are not only superlatively intelligent and astoundingly good-looking, but also seem to be blessed with perpetual good health. Only Dagny Taggart ever needed medical treatment, and that was for injuries, not disease, after she had crashed her plane into Galt’s Gulch. Her recovery was as swift as it was inevitable. She did have one visit from a doctor but, fortunately for her, she had unknowingly accumulated enough credit in gold in the Midas Mulligan bank to pay for it. Not for Dagny the social security and Medicare to which Rand herself turned in her last years, although those who persuaded Rand to accept the help that the state provided doubtless argued that to do so was no different from Dagny’s use of funds that the ‘rational men’ had decided should be credited to her. They probably did not remind her that Dagny had refused to use that money, deposited by something almost the equivalent to government intervention, and preferred to work as Galt’s housekeeper to pay off her debts.
Unfortunately for most people, they do not have Dagny’s options. Most people are not simultaneously endowed with her brains, her physical perfection, her remarkable powers of recuperation, the enormous fortune that she inherited from her father, or the education that she received as a consequence of her father’s wealth. Here in the UK hundreds of thousands of people without those advantages are stranded in the gig economy. They get paid only when they work, and so, if they catch COVID-19, they are going to conceal their sickness because they cannot afford to be idle. It is hard to imagine a system better suited to the spread of an infectious disease. Self-isolation, for such people, is not a realistic option.
Galt’s Gulch, of course, was an almost perfect example of a community in self-isolation, although what it was protecting itself from was the virus of social altruism rather than anything that could be inflicted on it by nature. But the inhabitants of the Gulch were shielded by impenetrable (and improbable) technology, which was fortunate. The few clues offered in the book as to what they would have been done had their borders been breached by disease carriers suggest that their responses would have been drastic. At best the unfortunate interlopers would have been forcibly prevented from going further, and left to retreat or starve. At worst, they might simply have been shot. The ‘rational men’ in Atlas Shrugged were quite content to see millions die the United States to facilitate their take-over.
I do not claim that even the most enthusiastic Randian in the real world would endorse such solutions. I would claim that Rand’s failure to offer realistic solutions to real problems is a clear demonstration of the fatal flaws in her philosophy of Objectivism.