If you haven’t watched the movie Atlas Shrugged, chances are you never will. You are not an acolyte of the novel’s author, and you’d probably find the story silly, or even offensive.
Yet the movie offers some imagery that is strangely compelling. A world of confident, intelligent people leading great organizations doing awesome things? A world of clearly-defined, timeless principles? Where human action, if governed by a simple morality, creates a background to life of beauty and utility, that inspires as well as serves?
If there are compelling reasons for the willing suspension of disbelief that is essential to the dramatic arts, many people have found them here.
Ayn Rand’s fiction is highly political because it sneers at notions like public purpose and public goods, notions that permeate everyday public discussion. It allows that government must maintain courts and the military, although true libertarians (not those of the striped-pants variety that hold down seats in Congress) have been known to question even that concession; but it does not dwell on it.
Yet, no matter how immersed one might be in a purely private life, it seems impossible to escape the ‘public problem’. And the greater the human population, the larger the ‘public problem’ becomes. (See the history of public water systems, sanitary sewers, universal vaccination, or the interstate highway program and its role in creating suburbia and soccer moms.)
Consider the ancient role of a militia in the common defense, an illuminating prototype of the public problem because the notion of a militia posits a universal obligation, legitimately enforced by a central government. (This was in fact the foundation of the Second Amendment, a fact curiously swept out of sight by the modern Supreme Court.)
It was considered legitimate for two reasons. First, common defense will fail if too many do not serve, and the threat of common destruction is enough to set aside the usual respect for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Second, it is intolerable, if not necessarily fatal, for some to shirk and hide while others serve. And again the threat of common destruction, this time because members of the militia lose faith and question whether disintegration is actually inevitable and now the time to seek personal safety, and let the devil take the hindmost.
The fact there is no longer this common obligation only proves that defense has passed into better hands, but back in the day, that supposedly golden age of American liberty, the obligation would have been inescapable. Even libertarians would have been called, and dealt with severely had they responded with a recitation of their rights.
The public problem can be examined in a somewhat different light through the courts, especially civil courts. Individuals are compelled to submit to the decisions of an authority, fallible though that authority might be, because in the alternative of individuals attempting to settle irreconcilable differences privately, we fear the breakdown of society itself, a fear informed by long and dusty histories of murderous feuds, private wars, riots, and other forms of civil disintegration. Courts were established in the distant mists of time, and their decisions forcefully implemented, because public justice preserved public order, and public order was essential.
So we find public action legitimate when we fear widespread damage or loss without it. Yet we also accept it when we believe it will “promote the general welfare” — words taken from the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States which express, as does the preamble to any law or contract, the intent of those who signed it.
Which leads deep into that murky territory of ‘balance’ — my rights balanced against your rights, our rights balanced against the ‘compelling interests of the state’ — language that will be recognized at once by anyone who reads judicial opinions. It is a territory so lacking in signposts and clear boundaries, at least comprehendible by the lay person, as to seem wholly arbitrary, even contrary to the principle of individual rights we are all indoctrinated with from an early age.