Ayn Rand and the Nature of Net Neutrality (Among Other Things)


Most politically-minded people, from all corners of the spectrum, are familiar with Ayn Rand, particularly her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, where society’s “producers” drop out and create a new society distinct from the machinations and manipulations of the “looters”. In fact, the Occupy Wall Street group, in some weird parody of Rand’s ideas, tried to do something similar, if almost exactly inverse, to what Rand’s Galt’s Gulch group managed to achieve. They failed in New York, however, because they forgot the most basic rule: you can’t be a looter and achieve success on your own. Looters and moochers must, by definition, take from others. Hence, Occupy Wall Street, a dirty collection of the most useless layabouts seeking an easy way to be subsidized in their effort, was an abject failure.

Mark Cuban, inarguably an entreprenurial producer of high caliber, surely knows this. And so it’s a little surprising he’s a little surprised that the effort to regulate the internet and socialize online interaction looks so remarkably like what he’s read in Rand’s novels. Because, as Robert Tracinski of The Federalist points out, Net Neutrality is just the latest in a long line of regulatory regimes that Rand predicted with almost scary accuracy lo these many years ago.

In the case of Net Neutrality, this is an obvious bit of cronyism that is intended to serve the interests of one faction—the faction that has won the political battle for the moment—at the expense of everyone else. It is meant to serve the interests of companies that are heavily reliant on large amounts of bandwidth, such as the Netflix video-streaming service, by giving them equal access to high download speeds at no extra charge. Like many of Jim Taggart’s machinations on behalf of his company, you can see how this will actually be detrimental to firms like Netflix over the long run. A big Internet service provider like Comcast will have much greater incentive to build extra infrastructure to provide for the needs of a client like Netflix, if they can charge extra for it. If they can’t charge extra—if they are banned from charging extra—then they have less incentive and fewer resources to build infrastructure. In essence, this is a plan to slow down or even halt the construction of new Internet infrastructure.

This is another parallel to Atlas Shrugged. There is a widespread simplistic conception that Ayn Rand was indiscriminately in favor of “big business.” But about half of the novel’s villains are big businessmen who are seeking special favors from government. The whole set-up of the first hundred pages of the novel is a series of backroom deals brokered among politically connected industrialists who arrange to use government power to squash their rivals and promote their own firms. And these machinations all come crashing down when they backfire on the favor-seeking firms—as we can expect to happen with Net Neutrality.

Does any of this sound familiar? Brokering with huge corporate interests at the expense of consumers and smaller businesses that actually create the “engines” of the economy and provide employment? Because it should.

But Tracinski doesn’t stop there, pointing out Rand’s prescience on “a wider pattern that takes many different forms: any big, runaway success that pops up eventually gets shut down.”

No such discussion would be complete, for example, without a mention of the massive bailouts handed out to politically connected business during the financial crisis of 2008, a parallel so strong it set off a boom in the novel’s sales. Superficial readers who just see Ayn Rand as being in favor of big business and people with money were confused by this, but actual fans of the book immediately saw the connection: the bailouts were completely in the spirit of Atlas Shrugged‘s dystopia, with government leaping to provide our money to support its cronies, from Goldman Sachs to the United Auto Workers (by way of Chrysler and GM).

And he goes on from there. The point is, while Rand’s popularity ebbs and flows, largely due (I think) to the fact that brilliance is generally very easy to misinterpret and misconstrue (something Rand explores in her novels), her relevance does not. So Cuban really shouldn’t be all that surprised. And, more to the point, he should use his own popularity to fight what he recognizes as destructive.

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