Monday, April 18, 2011

Atlas Shrugged Part 1

I liked it. The producers and writers did a good job of extracting the key elements of the first third of the book and fitting them to the two-hour format of a movie in a way that is watchable and sufficiently evocative to encourage attendance and to get people to attend the next two episodes. The critical role of Dagny Taggart is well played by Taylor Schilling . If the episodes succeed commercially, it will be mainly due to the way audiences relate to the way she plays Dagny, and that performance works for me.

I plan to see it again at least once.

I do have some minor quibbles:

  • The number of cars in the maiden run of the train changes from one scene to the next, and that is not quite what 250 mph looks like, nor could that high speed be maintained on standard gauge track or with such curves in them. It would take something like maglev and fairly straight courses.
  • About the only kind of metal that would fit the specifications of “Rearden metal” would be titanium, whose properties are well-known and would not be subject to the kinds of doubts raised in the book or the movie. It is plausible that Rearden might have found a cheaper way to produce titanium rails, and there are recent developments on that.
  • If oil becomes so expensive airlines can’t afford to operate, that would also affect railroads, metal fabrication plants, and every other kind of industrial process. But if oil rose that much we would make liquid fuel out of coal or gas. The problem would come if there were a rapid price increase. The market can adapt given a few years, even if a lot of companies do not, but the transition can be rough for everyone.

Further on the technology of rails. Accidents almost never happen because rails break. They happen because the mounts break, allowing the rails to shift, or because the train jumps the rails, or because of switching errors or obstacles. The weight of rails doesn’t matter much. For the purpose depicted in the movie, better mounts would be more important than using a different material for the rails, which could be made of any of several kinds of metals or ceramics.

Now for bridges, titanium would definitely be better. Even more for the load-bearing parts of maglev monorails which are somewhat like bridges for the entire length. The titanium would not be magnetic, of course, unless alloyed with magnetic materials.

Another couple of quibbles:

  • The span bridged by the bridge to be replaced is not the same as the span bridged by the new bridge. Different landscape.
  • High speed only matters for passenger service and perhaps the delivery of critical things like medical supplies or highly perishable goods. For things like oil slow is okay.
But if one suspends one’s annoyance at such technical details, it is enjoyable and I recommend it. As it happens, I didn’t enjoy the book much. I was already well beyond it philosophically at the time.

The philosophic problem with objectivism is that it applies better to gene lines than to adult individuals. As the sociobiologists have revealed, an adult is a gene's way of making another gene, and it is the gene that is selfish. It is a genetic advantage for adults to sacrifice themselves for their progeny and kin, which is what social species are genetically programmed to do. It is not just humans that are altruistic, and it is not force or indoctrination that makes us so.

Rand does show that competitors don't win because they are morally superior, but because they are stronger. But part of strength is the ability to attract the aid of others, and others tend to aid those they see as "good" over those they see as callous brutes. So goodness and altruism are not weaknesses in a social context, and both business and government are social contexts.

So when your parents taught you to be benevolent, they weren't teaching you to be weak. They were teaching you how to survive and compete in a world in which benevolence has a place.

That is not to say that we as a society has a duty to take care of the elderly and infirm regardless of the cost. There is a limit to how much it is rational for a society to sacrifice for its weakest members, and if it comes to that, as it does, the priority has to be the young, not the old or infirm. At present we are trying to spend so much on entitlements that it threatens to trigger the fall of Western Civilization, in a crash from which humanity may never arise again.

The main lesson to take from Rand's works is that rent-seeking is bad. That is the great evil, not altruism.

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