On December 15, 1791, the United States Congress ratified the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution guaranteeing individual rights and limiting government power. For Ayn Rand, who consistently defended the rights of the individual, the significance of the Bill of Rights was obvious: “The Bill of Rights was not directed against private citizens, but against the government–as an explicit declaration that individual rights supersede any public or social power.”
In her novel Atlas Shrugged, Rand created a dystopian America in which individual rights and freedoms are systematically removed and replaced with policies and regulations designed to promote public welfare and social protections. Ayn Rand’s heroes, the private business men and women exploited by the new policies, ultimately go on strike–although not always without a fight–abandoning their homes and businesses and fleeing the tyranny, chaos, and deprivation that the policies create.
In most cases, as Rand imagined it, no one officially revokes rights. For example, the rights to conscience, speech and assembly remain in Atlas Shrugged. It just gets harder and harder to exercise them. When Dagny Taggart tries to conduct business necessary to the survival of her railroad, Taggart Transcontinental, she finds that such irrational and unachievable government directives as The Fair Share Law, the Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule, and Directive No. 10-289 have landed her in a new reality. It is not that she is forbidden to speak or assemble. It is just too confusing to do so. To her horror, Dagny realizes that there is neither protocol nor words with which to make sense of things:
It did not seem real to her. . . .There was no action she could take against the men of undefined thought, of unnamed motives, of unstated purposes, of unspecified morality. There was nothing she could say to them–nothing would be heard or answered. What were the weapons, she thought, in a realm where reason was not a weapon any longer?
Protections against unreasonable search and seizure and the right to bear arms are also diluted and confused. No property is nationalized outright, for example. Rather, Point Three of Directive No. 10-289 mandates that the holders of all privately held patents and copyrights “voluntarily” surrender them to the government. Hank Rearden is forced to sign a “Gift Certificate” and surrender Rearden Metal to the federal government in the name of public welfare. As government “protections” become the norm, the idea of protection from government fades from view. Leaving his mills late one evening after losing everything, a police officer advises Rearden to carry a gun against thieves. The irony is not lost on him:
He [Hank Rearden] carried a gun in his pocket, as advised by the policemen of the radio car that patrolled the roads; they had warned him that no road was safe after dark, these days. He felt, with a touch of mirthless amusement, that the gun had been needed at the mills, not in the peaceful safety of loneliness and night; what could some starving vagrant take from him, compared to what had been taken by men [those enforcing Directive No. 10-289] who claimed to be his protectors?
The deterioration of the rights to due process, to an impartial jury, to know the nature and cause of any accusation made against you, and to protection from excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment is neatly illustrated in the trial of Hank Rearden and the government overreach by Cuffy Meigs.
Rearden is arrested and tried for violating the Fair Share Law. But the Fair Share Law is both impossible to follow and enforced arbitrarily at the discretion of any number of bureaucrats. To the best of his knowledge, Rearden is supposed to match his production of Rearden Metal to that of his competitor, Orren Boyle. But Boyle cannot produce anything, thus Rearden has to match a hypothetical. At the same time, he has to deliver a “fair share” of Rearden Metal to any consumer who demands it. When Rearden sells Ken Danagger more than his “fair share,” he is charged and tried.
Rearden is tried by a panel of three judges appointed by the same government agency that authorized his arrest. When asked how he will plea, Rearden refuses to sanction the proceedings: “No, I am complying with the law–to the letter. Your law holds that my life, my work and my property may be disposed of without my consent. Very well, you may now dispose of me without my participation in the matter. . . . A prisoner brought to trial can defend himself only if there is an objective principle of justice recognized by his judges, a principle upholding his rights, which they may not violate and which he can invoke. The way by which you are trying me, holds that there are no principles, that I have no rights and that you may do with me whatever you please.”
Rearden is found guilty and fined $5000, roughly $50,000 today. (In the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged the fine is $50 million and ten years in prison.) Now $50,000–or $50 million for that matter–may not sound excessive, but any fine levied for a make-believe crime is excessive by default. The fine is dropped, but not on principle. The judges are swayed instead by the crowd, which, for the moment, sides with Rearden. It is cold comfort, and the worst is yet to come.
Similarly, when the Keynes-quoting, ersatz General Cuffy Meigs starts giving orders, he doesn’t let due process and property rights get in his way. Head of the Railroad Unification Plan, Meigs commandeers the country’s private railroads, including Taggart Transcontinental, as part of an emergency measure “to preserve the transportation industry” in the name of “national survival.” While Meigs assures the rightful owners of the railroads that property rights will be preserved, he nevertheless has complete control of operations. Acting with impunity, he changes schedules, ignores or cancels contracts, decides what freight will be shipped and where, and sells off assets, while the original owners bear all the financial responsibility.
In the end, the Unification Board’s Directive No. 10-289 is so vast in scope that individual life, liberty, and property are all alarmingly restricted. As Wesley Mouch, co-author of the Directive declares, “Freedom has been given a chance and has failed.” The Directive denies individuals the right to change jobs, denies management the right to hire and fire, forces business owners to remain in business against their best interests, revokes all patents and copyrights, prohibits all innovation, controls the supply of goods and services produced, institutes mandatory personal spending amounts, freezes prices and all forms of income, and revokes any and all rights not authorized by the Unification Board: “All cases arising from rules not specifically provided for in this directive, shall be settled and determined by the Unification Board, whose decisions will be final.”
Fortunately, Atlas Shrugged is fiction. More importantly, in the United States, the Bill of Rights continues to protect against the kind of catastrophic decline that Ayn Rand imagined. Thanks to Ayn Rand, as you reflect on the significance of the Bill of Rights this December 15, you can keep in mind just how dearly you hold those rights and how awful life could be without them.