Internet Shrugged: A Rand Theme for Today

Published May 31, 2016

Tax Day has arrived. Not coincidentally April 15 also marks the cinematic release of Atlas Shrugged—Part 1. The timing could not have been planned more appropriately, as our federal government hovered on the brink of a shutdown just last week, states are unable to balance their budgets, and a malaise not witnessed since the Carter administration seems to have gripped our nation.

The film and the book it’s based on deal with steel industrialists, railroad magnates, and other captains of economic activity, but it’s not hard to see the themes of Atlas Shrugged as applying to current government policy toward the Internet. In fact, the artists who adapted Ayn Rand’s 1957 tome might’ve made the film more relevant to today’s audiences by updating key plot elements to apply them to the Internet.

Like the railroads in the 1950s, the Internet is at the center of contemporary life. Twitter revolutions are the latest Middle East fashion; Google, Snopes, and Facebook are both verbs and nouns; and my octogenarian mother inundates my inbox with inspirational emails featuring pictures of doe-eyed children, puppies, and lots and lots of flowers. Shut down the Internet, as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak did earlier this year, and see how quickly the signifier “former” is applied to your job title.

Government has been trying to insinuate itself into every key component of cyber-communications since not long after Rand shuffled off the mortal coil in 1982. And like the corporate rent-seekers of Atlas Shrugged, Internet companies jockey for political favors from the Beltway to Main Street.

Conversely, politicians vie for a cut of the Internet action by employing regulatory uncertainty and attempts to tax, tax, tax any endeavor that attains even a brief moment of economic success. If the Atlas Shrugged screenplay’s authors had set the story in the world of the Internet instead of railroads and steel, they could’ve borrowed liberally from today’s headlines by depicting the absurdity of municipal wi-fi and broadband boondoggles and the persistence of state legislators in trying to force Internet retailers in other states to collect sales taxes for them.

Rand’s work repudiated 1930s New Deal programs and the comparatively minuscule growth of 1950s government by 2011 standards. She would’ve had a field day with the likes of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and fellow Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Michael Copps. These three have been running roughshod over Internet policy for the past two years in pressing for job-killing, investment-averting, and innovation-stifling network neutrality regulations.

Likewise, Rand would’ve found another meaty villain in Columbia University professor Tim Wu, who generates potboilers disguised as academic research in much the same way Atlas Shrugged protagonist Henry Reardon’s detractors produce “studies” to discredit the quality of his steel. Wu, it may be remembered, argued in his 2010 book The Master Switch that only government antitrust regulations can save the world from evil, monopolistic Internet service providers, the companies who by and large satisfy the 90 percent or more of the American public with Internet access.

Perhaps most of all, Rand would’ve enjoyed carving up large companies who treat ISPs as nothing more than “dumb pipes” for transmission of their content and seek government intervention when the ISPs attempt to manage their networks in a fashion that satisfies their paying customers.

These ISPs build, maintain, and develop innovations for the contemporary equivalent of rails made from Reardon steel, the rails upon which the John Galt Line is built and over which Dagny Taggart’s high-speed train efficiently travels.

Having viewed Atlas Shrugged, I can wholeheartedly endorse its themes and the film’s professional execution. My only advice for those who may blanch at its adherence to its 1957 source material is that you mentally add fiber-optics and microchips to Rand’s trains, engines, and metal alloys. Government regulators already have done exactly that.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.