Until recently, conservatives were the party of business. They defended the business world not as a necessary evil or because of its efficiencies, but because they thought it exemplified an enterprising, individualist morality. It respected rights of contract, served as an arena for creativity, and allowed socially useful competition. Even now, Republicans condemn the Left’s programs as creeping socialism, seemingly forgetful of the last decade in which corporations became the vanguard of the cultural revolution.
Part of American conservatives’ embrace of capitalism comes from its historically central place in American life. Americans had tamed the wilderness and become an industrial powerhouse by the middle of the 20th century. Most of this activity was rooted neither in the pursuit of glory nor religious conviction—as, perhaps, with Spanish colonialism—but by ordinary economic self-interest, the spirit of Yankee ingenuity.
While the 1950s are now considered a conservative time—and in many ways they were—capitalism and free markets were held in considerably lower regard. Drawing the wrong lessons from the Great Depression and the war, the smart set embraced robust forms of redistribution and state meddling in the economy. As American capitalism reached its zenith, its critics championed the goal of economic equality, along with its perceived guardian: the New Deal welfare state.
The American Right’s role as stalwart defenders of capitalism and capitalists had many causes, but part of it arose from the romance of the business titan expressed in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. Her magnum opus has been popular in conservative circles since it was published in 1957. While prolix and heavy-handed, it had an important message, which was revolutionary for the time.
Instead of lauding equality or its handmaiden, the welfare state, Rand portrayed the businessman as a modern-day Prometheus, who triumphed over enemies within the state, while also resisting seduction by uninformed customers, unscrupulous competitors, and envious employees. Rand’s heroes possessed vision, intelligence, and independence in a world of drabness, mediocrity, and conformity.
As fans of the novel are aware, the key event is a kind of strike, not by unionized workers, but by the capitalists themselves, who decided no longer to participate in a system where their life’s work could be dragooned into public service or confiscated outright by government authorities. As the hero states in his (very lengthy) speech defending their collective action, “We are on strike, we, the men of the mind.”
Notably, Rand’s capitalists were heroes of industry, operational managers and entrepreneurs who developed useful and tangible things like railroads and innovative metal alloys. Such men reflected the American economy of the day, when American industry was the world’s source of cars, durable goods, machine tools, televisions, radios, airplanes, and much else.
America was simultaneously the world’s biggest producer and consumer, and American workers enjoyed a high standard of living and faced comparatively low income inequality. American businessmen had some legitimate claim to their prestige and wealth, not least because their visionary management brought useful, affordable goods into every home.
A Revolt of the Masses?
The strike among the “men of the mind” stands in contrast to much of what we are seeing in response to vaccine mandates. As with flu vaccines and other innovations, there were early adopters (chiefly those at highest risk), then a great many who were simply wary of the virus, as well as those for whom “belief in science” had become part of their identity. Later, influenced by the positive experiences of friends and family, others in younger cohorts got the vaccine. By late summer, most of those who wanted a vaccine had gotten one, but a surprisingly high number of holdouts persisted.
Then, the government began to use the stick. Jobs and travel and other conveniences were threatened. Biden and various Democratic cities ordered government workers, soldiers, and employees of larger businesses all to take the vaccine. In response, additional groups gave into the pressure, facing the Hobson’s Choice of losing a job or taking a perceived risk to one’s health.
But then something surprising happened. A significant number of ordinary people refused to budge. Airline pilots, servicemembers, healthcare workers, and teachers, held out. Many wrote and recorded impassioned, reasoned defenses of their decision, often expressing extreme bitterness about the position that they were put in by the mandates.
In New York City, cops, firemen, and other city workers now face a deadline, where many are taking involuntary leave as lawsuits, requests for exemptions, and public-relations efforts continue on their behalf. In the meantime, bills have to be paid, and the crimes and fires and other social ills these folks keep at bay will get worse.
So far, Joe Biden and his fellow travelers appear unmoved by the looming and massive unemployment problem they are creating in the name of public health. None of the powers-that-be seem worried about aftershocks, comparable to the supply chain problems set in motion by the brief, nationwide shutdown over a year ago.
While Rand celebrated the virtues of the visionary industrialists, in the modern economy speculative finance looms large. If the inventors of “credit default swaps” and “high speed trading” all went on strike, it is unlikely anyone would shed a tear or beg them to return. As hedge fund leader Jeremy Grantham has noted, modern finance is a tax on the productive economy.
In other words, the “men of the mind” today mostly benefit themselves, inventing increasingly arcane algorithms to transfer wealth, without the offsetting improvement to the lives of regular people that was true of the industrialists and inventors of generations past.
Remember Who Does the Real Work
One problem with Rand’s vision is that she had little to say to regular people, beyond urging them to get in line and defer to the “Prime Movers.” Exceptional or not, without plumbers, garbagemen, cops, firemen, pilots, nurses, teachers, and many others who are facing unemployment due to vaccine mandates, it is likely regular life will become very grim, very quickly. Far from a world resting on the shoulders of a few genius “Atlases,” it rests on an army of these ordinary people, each doing his small part to give us clean water, clean streets, and safe and orderly communities.
Any single cop, fireman, soldier, or nurse getting fired over a vaccine mandate likely will have little impact. But what happens when thousands of Chicago or New York cops are all let go? What about teachers and garbagemen and janitors and electricians? Even in the face of persecution, there are choices to be made and power in numbers. If nothing else, it would be good to remind the ruling class and the “men of the mind” who do the real work in this country.
As the hero of Atlas Shrugged said for the industrialists, it may equally be said of the working people today resisting extreme pressure on vaccines: “Do not cry that it is our duty to serve you. We do not recognize such duty. Do not cry that you need us. We do not consider ‘need’ a claim. Do not cry that you own us. You don’t. Do not beg us to return. We are on strike. . . .”