The Psammead predicts the Eurozone's car crash train wreck

Ayn Rand, the Psammead, Ryan Dunn and what this all means for Europe.

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Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged' is shaping modern politics
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Charles Crawford
On 22 June 2011 10:23

Some troglodytic readers of The Commentator may have missed “Jackass the Movie” back in 2003.

The Guardian review gave this creation an ambiguous 4 stars: a “parade of pranks, pratfalls, put-ons, crunches, punch-ups, splatterings and gross-outs, all filmed on wobbly digital handicams … I mean, it isn't that funny watching a bona-fide torture technique like genital electrocution, even if it is self-inflicted”.

The death yesterday in a car crash (perhaps alcohol-induced) of one the stars of this movie, Ryan Dunn, has prompted a flurry of Twitter comments. One of them said this:

Driving drunk or not, Ryan Dunn did not deserve to die

To which, having nothing better to do, I tweeted:

We all “deserve” the likely consequences of our actions…

and

Does a drunk driver 'deserve' to die in a crash? If you say no, you end the link between actions and moral responsibilities for consequences

I then received one response:

Wow, grow a heart and a soul before you speak of the dead. People like you make me sick.

This reminded me of the extraordinary passage in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in which a train full of passengers is driven into a dangerous tunnel and crashes horribly, killing all on board.

The story is set against the background of the rise of fascism and communism. A huge railway corporation is struggling to stay in business, as excessive government demands ruin business loyalties and systemic decay sets in. It all comes to a head around a fateful decision: should the main transcontinental express go through a dangerous tunnel to get to its destination on time, or not?

This chapter is often cited as the towering example of the ghastly heartlessness in Ayn Rand’s philosophy. See for example this bloated analysis by Johann Hari which explains the accident with unswerving inaccuracy:

"[H]er contempt for ordinary people extends so far that when a railway worker in ‘Atlas Shrugged’ decides to punish the wicked socialist government by making a train crash happen, Rand implies the passengers had it coming. She runs through the politics of the train crash victims, implying they were accessories to the socialist government that is being justly punished…"

Did Johann actually bother to read the book? What in fact happens is something quite different. Far from scheming to ‘punish the government’, the corrupt top executives want the train to run to keep up the corporation's reputation and so save their own skins, but shirk the responsibility of saying so lest something go wrong. Thus the decision is passed literally far down the line to a frightened incompetent junior clerk. The doomed train chugs off into the darkness.

Rand describes the scene brilliantly and relentlessly. To bludgeon her point home she indeed fills the train with all sorts of archetypal collectivist passengers, who themselves have wanted the luxury of enjoying the fruits of private creativity while sneering at it and extolling socialist mediocrity. And, yes, they are all obliterated.

The obvious way of reading the passage is that the decadent people on the train “deserved” to die. Yet the very idea of what they “deserved” seems to suggest a higher being or some absolute moral code pronouncing on who “should” get what and why - just the opposite of what Rand proposed.

The core issue is rather that all of us, top leaders to “ordinary people” alike, have to accept responsibility for the results of our own decisions. If we all in our own spheres, high or low, act in a way which in fact risks disaster, disaster inexorably is what we eventually may well get. As Rand herself put it:

“We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality”

It is indeed the sheer relentless “objectivism” of this position, not least for drunk drivers, which is powerful and striking.

Which brings us nicely to the startling crisis of financial and institutional confidence in the Eurozone.

The issue is not, of course, Greek fecklessness, staggering though the scale of that utter absence of feck has proved to be. It is rather the fact that the phoney disciplines built deep in the Eurozone project have failed to keep national spending and borrowing in line with honesty and common sense, thereby threatening many major European banks which have extended loans to this vainglorious project.

The banks of course much prefer German taxpayers as suckers of last resort to carry the bulk of the burden and risk. Hence the feverish manoeuvering at the highest levels of European politics and finance to find the least ruinous option.

Although in various way the UK state and UK banks are exposed to different Eurozone risks, we British are not formally dragged into this drama. That is only because many of our top political leaders did not get their way.

A decade ago as the Daily Mail reminds us, a loud and avowedly progressive all-party leadership group (Tony Blair, Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine, Charles Kennedy and Chris Huhne, not to forget Peter Mandelson, former Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath, the Foreign Office, the CBI, the TUC and leading City economists) were all pressing for the UK to join the Eurozone. More, they were trying to make our flesh creep by intoning the horrors awaiting us if we didn’t follow their lead.

There is now little joy in this fast unfolding fiasco for any political tendency or EU member state. Everyone has got what they wanted. Yet it is not working out so well, just as in the best Five Children and It story:

"We want," said Robert slowly, "to be rich beyond the dreams of something or other."

"Avarice," said Jane.

"So it is," said the Fairy unexpectedly. "But it won't do you much good, that's one comfort," it muttered to itself…

"[T]he sight was too dazzling for their eyes to be able to bear it. It was something like trying to look at the sun at high noon on Midsummer Day. For the whole of the sand-pit was full, right up to the very top, with new shining gold pieces …and on the sides and edges of these countless coins the midday sun shone and sparkled, and glowed and gleamed till the quarry looked like the mouth of a smelting furnace, or one of the fairy halls that you see sometimes in the sky at sunset."

Millions of Greeks have not paid their taxes, yet their benefits and state services have trundled on. Greek demonstrators babble that the cuts and taxes needed for Greece to start to pay its honest way are “unfair”.

The Euro-elite in Brussels have wanted and achieved closer economic and political integration at the expense of national governments. Many EU countries have wanted and been given lots of new infrastructure funded by foreigners. People across Europe wanted and have bought new houses and fancy cars. European bankers lent money for this profligacy and have given themselves vast bonuses, confident (they thought) that they would never be called to account if it all went wrong, as they were “too big to fail”.

Leftists clamour for the state to do more. They have a point. In a crisis maybe the first priority is to set more/better rules? Rightists clamour for the state to do less. They too have a point. Has not too much official regulation insulated the financial world from common sense and professional responsibility?

Europhiliacs clamour for “more Europe”. They have a point. The current rules have failed to keep member states in line.

Eurosceptics have the grim satisfaction of saying “I told you so” and clamour for “less Europe”. They have a point. Systems which are too complex lose legitimacy and are doomed to fail.

* * * * *

As in the Psammead’s sand-pit, so in modern Europe. We sit perched on the reality of mountains of borrowed money. Yet we are now confronted with the consequences of that reality, namely that we are fast getting weaker and poorer. The policy train we designed and built chugs into the black Tunnel of Doom. But it’s no-one’s fault!

 In this vivid situation, who “deserves” what? And why?

Charles Crawford was British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw. He is now a private consultant and writer:www.charlescrawford.biz. He tweets @charlescrawford

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