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Money and Morality

Re-reading Atlas Shrugged for the umptieth time (but the first time in 10 years) has inspired that dangerous activity: thinking.

One part of the book that still holds up for me is Francisco’s money speech. That’s despite it being a speech. In the middle of a novel. It’s short, it’s brilliant, and it serves a plot-related purpose. I especially like this part:

“Then you will see the rise of the men of the double standard–the men who live by force, yet count on those who live by trade to create the value of their looted money–the men who are the hitchhikers of virtue. In a moral society, these are the criminals, and the statutes are written to protect you against them. But when a society establishes criminals-by-right and looters-by-law–men who use force to seize the wealth of disarmed victims–then money becomes its creators’ avenger. Such looters believe it safe to rob defenseless men, once they’ve passed a law to disarm them. But their loot becomes the magnet for other looters, who get it from them as they got it. Then the race goes, not to the ablest at production, but to those most ruthless at brutality. When force is the standard, the murderer wins over the pickpocket. And then that society vanishes, in a spread of ruins and slaughter.

“Do you wish to know whether that day is coming? Watch money. Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue. When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion–when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing–when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors–when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you–when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice–you may know that your society is doomed. Money is so noble a medium that is does not compete with guns and it does not make terms with brutality. It will not permit a country to survive as half-property, half-loot.

“Whenever destroyers appear among men, they start by destroying money, for money is men’s protection and the base of a moral existence. Destroyers seize gold and leave to its owners a counterfeit pile of paper. This kills all objective standards and delivers men into the arbitrary power of an arbitrary setter of values. Gold was an objective value, an equivalent of wealth produced. Paper is a mortgage on wealth that does not exist, backed by a gun aimed at those who are expected to produce it. Paper is a check drawn by legal looters upon an account which is not theirs: upon the virtue of the victims. Watch for the day when it bounces, marked, ‘Account overdrawn.’”

You know that I don’t like spending lots of time on theory. But clearly, we’re already living in the days of “account overdrawn.” It’s not theory that corruption of a country’s money supply goes hand-in-hand with cynicism, political corruption, and a “live for today because tomorrow will never come” mentality.

Most people who think about it at all (other than Paul Krugman and Ben Bernanke) probably understand there’s a connection between debased money and debased values. From what I’ve seen, though, people who think only casually about it make the assumption that the debasement of money is just another symptom of corruption — that corruption comes first and crooked money is just one way that corruption is expressed.

The reality is more complex. Sure, corruption feeds on corruption and a lot of chicken-and-egg goes on. But it’s clear that corruption of a society’s money supply comes before general social corruption. Corrupting money triggers other forms of corruption. Once people realize, even on an unconscious level, that they’re being played for suckers by those who control the money (and the various groups the controllers favor and the various dangerous adventures the controllers want to get into), it only makes sense to either participate in the debasement (“to get my share”) or do whatever it takes (including committing “crimes”) to protect oneself.

Thus corruption of the money supply sets off a cascade of corruption and cynicism.

Francisco doesn’t explain this in his speech, which is a pity. Austrians try, but their messages (often couched in obscure academic language) don’t reach many people. I certainly don’t have the right words or a big enough audience.

But it’s something more people need to understand. Because without that understanding, virtually every attempt at “reform” is merely flailing away at the leaves and twigs of corruption, and doesn’t even get at the branches, let alone strike the root.


  1. Jake MacGregor
    Jake MacGregor March 20, 2013 11:45 am

    It is the second handers, the corrupt few that wish to control that begets the corruption of money.

    The dark hearts of the men gathered at Jekyl island 100 years ago held that desire to control others.

    They set in motion the process and means to debase our monetary system, to enrich themselves and ultimately debase the process of creating money.

    For it is the individual that creates money with her or his work, his intellect, his act of virtuous productivity.

    We are in the final act of debasement where sloth and contempt are held high as virtue and productivity is held base.

    When your money – the ultimate representation of one’s contribution and creation – when your money is confiscated (Cyprus) by these Kleptocrats — when your every effort to create value is stymied through regulation, bureaucracy and outright theft (MF Global.)

    Then we have crossed the Rubicon and exist in that twilight state where we remember a semblance of freedom but are consigned to feudalism.

    Shorthand version: we’re screwed.

  2. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty March 20, 2013 11:48 am

    To expand on a sentence I use often:

    When some people are given power (authority) over other people and their property, against their will, tyranny and corruption is the inevitable result.

    By what legitimate authority?

    And it’s the most important question we can ask ourselves. Do we own our lives, or have we given our sovereign and natural authority over ourselves to the rulers and politicians?

  3. Pat
    Pat March 20, 2013 2:00 pm

    If ever there was a world-wide “conspiracy theory” (which I doubt), it was in the grabbing of “money” – i.e, gold/silver – for those in power have always felt that ownership of metals (and jewels) were the true sign of power; that without it, their “authority” would be questioned.

    Likewise, their scorn for the working man was fed on the belief that he had no worth, for he had to work to “make” money. Thus their rejection of the virtue of productivity, for it’s the working man who produces. And thus, too, their fear of barter and the “underground” economy, for it’s barter (of talent, knowledge and creative ability) that can give the lie to the need for money – removing their authority over free association.

  4. Old Printer
    Old Printer March 20, 2013 3:21 pm

    Francisco’s speech is the best one in the novel, and even it is too long.
    I hadn’t reread Atlas since I was in college in the early 60’s until last summer. It’s the original hardbound copy with tattered paper cover that I’ve dragged around for 50 years.
    What strikes me about the book now are the glaring examples of philosophy couched as speeches, especially Galt’s interminable diatribe. This is a major error in any novel as it stops action. And it is the same error that Rand herself criticized Victor Hugo for in his novels. In her introduction to his ’93 she warned about Hugo’s “historical essays” describing them as brilliant but misplaced. Same with Atlas. She needed to briefly summarize perhaps, but then write out the philosophy in a formal treatise, making reference to the novel if needed.

  5. J. Dillinger
    J. Dillinger March 20, 2013 6:45 pm

    This is only tangentially related, but…

    Shouldn’t the FBI be investigating the perpetrators of the bank failures? We have all been robbed, and rather than retail, one-at-a-time bank robberies, we have been had wholesale. The entire system has been compromised to allow the robbers to steal from the taxpayers who guarantee the banks solvency.

    Is anybody ever going to be held to account for this epic fail?

  6. A.G.
    A.G. March 20, 2013 7:14 pm

    @ Printer: No adult I know of reads Rand for the stories.

    @ Claire:
    “Once people realize, even on an unconscious level, that they’re being played for suckers by those who control the money (and the various groups the controllers favor and the various dangerous adventures the controllers want to get into), it only makes sense to either participate in the debasement (“to get my share”) or do whatever it takes (including committing “crimes”) to protect oneself.”

    -Thanks for this. Shared.

  7. Shel
    Shel March 20, 2013 7:15 pm

    Again, for me at least, there’s proof that the Founding Fathers understood absolutely everything (and expressed it far better than I ever could), including the significance of money manipulation. Attributed to Jefferson is the famous opinion:

    “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.”

  8. Laird
    Laird March 20, 2013 9:01 pm

    @ Old Printer, I agree with you that Rand would have benefitted greatly from a strong-willed editor, but please note that she did write more than one formal treatise on her philosophy.

    @ Shel, actually that is one of the areas in which Jefferson was completely wrong. (That is hardly unexpected: he was a lifetime profligate, always living so far beyond his means that at his death an embarassed Congress purchased his library so his estate could pay his debts. It’s not surprising that he had an antipathy toward banks.) Private banks are a free-market phenomenon, and are the solution to our current monetary problems. Saying that the power to issue currency [note that “currency” is not the same thing as “money”] “should be taken from the banks and restored to the people” is merely saying that it should rest with politicians. That is precisely the wrong answer, and indeed is what lead to the creation of the Federal Reserve and its systematic, century-long debasement of our currency. Private banks issuing private currencies could, upon occasion, lead to unfortunate results, but those results would generally be localized and of short duration. Moreover, people would pay close attention to the financial condition of the issuing banks, which would act as a strong check upon financial shenanigans. The government needs to get out of the currency-manipulation business, and that means that the issuance of currency (backed by gold or equivalent hard assets) must be restored to private hands.

    Claire, if you haven’t already read them, I commend to your attention two books: The Creature from Jekyll Island by G. Edward Griffin and Paper Money Collapse by Detlev Schlichter (a Austrian School economist). Very different, but both brilliant.

  9. Old Printer
    Old Printer March 20, 2013 10:22 pm

    @Laird, the first Rand book I read was Virtue of Selfishness, so yes she did write a number of books delineating her philosophy. Most were collections of essays by her and others, with large helpings of quoted speeches from Atlas.
    She never wrote a formal treatise other than Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology that I’m aware of. And that was a pity.
    @A.G. No adult I know of reads Rand for the stories.
    As an adult I read The Fountainhead, We The Living, Anthem, and Atlas Shrugged for the stories as well as the philosophy.
    Rand’s writing style evolved as she developed her philosophy. The style in Atlas is not for everyone, and has been rounding criticized by both her admirers and detractors. She did NOT write evocative, beautiful prose. Other novelists who wrote in English as a second language like Nabokov or Joseph Conrad wrote beautifully. What Rand did in Atlas was write prose without a superfluous word. Everything, and I mean every word, sentence, & paragraph was there for a reason. To my knowledge no one has ever achieved that but Ayn Rand. It was written for a rational mind, not a connoisseur of poetic and literary devices. People who like beauty without meaning will read Madame Bovary or anything by Thomas Wolfe. Those of us who seek a rational world find Rand’s style appealing, if not poetic.

  10. Laird
    Laird March 21, 2013 7:51 am

    @OP: Fair enough. And I agree with rest of your comment.

  11. Mark Call
    Mark Call March 22, 2013 8:03 am

    I think it’s interesting that the beginning of D’Aconia’s speech is about as close as Rand ever gets to quoting Scripture, and that she “kinda” makes the point by twisting the verse “jes a li’l bit…”

    It’s not that “money is the root of all evil”, of course, but that the “love of money” is.

    And the ‘twisting’ ultimately boils down to “love” that becomes “lust” (or ‘covetousness’ for the King James crowd”) while that “money” gets twisted so badly that ultimately it’s no longer gold or silver (particularly silver – note that the Biblical Hebrew word for “money” literally IS ‘qesef’ – or silver).

    We seem to have reached the point where too many people believe that there IS no longer a “Supreme Law of the land” – in ANY form.

  12. jc2k
    jc2k March 27, 2013 1:40 am

    I’ve read Atlas Shrugged four or five times, but have never been able to get all the way through the Galt speech. The page just turns into “blah blah blah blah blah…” and I have to skip it. I prefer to read Thomas Wolfe.

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