A Plot Hole in Atlas Shrugged to Drive a Train Through.

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My first two posts on Goddess of the Market are here and here.

I have to admit that Goddess of the Market gave me one laugh out loud moment. Midway through, the author describes how Rand came up with the core idea for Atlas Shrugged, that all the ‘producers’ went on a strike and the world couldn’t survive without them. I had to put the book down and let the belly laugh run its course. Why had I never seen it before?

So what is the Plot Hole in Atlas Shrugged?

Atlas Shrugged is based on a major plot hole, just like Citizen Kane. You see, a strike is based in numbers. Every union member knows that the biggest danger to a strike comes from ‘scabs’, those unethical or desperate enough to cross the picket line and keep working. In order for a strike to be successful, the number of strikers has to be high enough that they cannot be easily replaced by non-union members. In other words, the success of a strike is dependent on completeness – large numbers of workers acting in unity.

Rand’s premise is that ‘producers’ are so special, so different from the others around them, that without them the world can’t function. That they are, in fact, irreplaceable. And that, readers, is belly laugh worthy. As any member of the military can tell you, when an officer falls in battle, the person promoted to the position either rises to the occasion or doesn’t – but even if the officer’s absence hurts in the short run, in the long run there is no such thing as someone ‘irreplaceable’.

The corollary to the idea that business leaders are irreplaceable is the assumption that those who aren’t already leaders are incompetent. There are certainly plenty of incompetent people in the world, especially if you define that as ‘not having a certain set of skills yet’. But there are many, many highly competent people with leadership ability (perhaps as yet undeveloped) that for one reason or another do not function in a leadership role.

The skills of leadership are everywhere. I’ve seen them in restaurant kitchens and in kindergarten classes. Most people who have completed sufficient education to do a job either possess or can learn the requisite leadership skills to move from being promising underlings to leaders. I’ve seen top notch leadership skills in homeless mentally ill former veterans and in drug dealers.

Ayn Rand (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

The plot of Atlas Shrugged falls apart in the face of reality. It isn’t lack of ability that keeps leaders from rising to the top, it’s lack of opportunity, often stemming from institutional issues that Rand never acknowledged, such as racism or sexism, or from socioeconomic backgrounds. Real world strikes work because large numbers of people work together, not because their skills are irreplaceable.

What would really happen if the ‘producers’ wandered off? Each and every one of their jobs would be filled, quickly, by someone of similar or even greater competence. There might be a wobble in the learning curve, as there is any time a person is promoted, but those on the outside would barely feel it.

Why? Because in addition to those leaders are people within the company, underpaid and under appreciated, whose job it is to keep things running smoothly day in and day out, and don’t need much supervision to do it. Leaders lead organizations full of skilled people, organizations structured such that short term disruptions to leadership hardly make a dent in the day to day operations of the organizations.

In other words, ordinary people and the institutions manned by ordinary people can do just fine without these ‘producers’, as new ones will rise from the ranks. They don’t exist in enough numbers to be able to create a crippling strike situation, and there are dozens of ‘scabs’ eager to pick up their executive bathroom passes when they drop them. The dynamics of leadership are such that an ‘Atlas Shrugged’ type strike would leave the world, well, shrugging. A plot hole in Atlas Shrugged, indeed.

Go Galt, fellows, go Galt. But I have to warn you. Winters in the mountains of Colorado get cold. Rumor has it that Somalia is looking for a few good libertarians, though.

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