Galbraith’s discussion of Conventional Wisdom in Chapter Two introduces a figuration of paradigm shift that is reflected in the plot of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Insofar as this class is concerned however, the former seems to have been received with a larger degree of either acceptance, or at least the appropriate degree of deference required by academic skepticism. In high contrast was the almost universal rejection and derision that we saw Rand’s novel, ideas, and general authorship subjected to in our discussions as well as on the blog. I will not speculate here on why this stark difference has arisen in response to what is essentially the same macro-social operation being propounded in both texts; ideally that will be the special province of many an angry response blog. Instead, I wish merely to strip off the rhetorical clothing and ideological accessories adorning the texts, exposing what I believe to be a core similarity in the naked ideas comprising the both of them.
Galbraith introduces the notion of Conventional Wisdom in Chapter Two to shed some light on why people hold the particular opinions that they do in the social and economic arenas, despite the fact that they may well be erroneous. Essentially, Galbraith traces this problem back to a discrepancy in “the relation between events and the ideas which interpret them” (6). Events occur in the world, and then people – being sentient creatures – ruminate upon them. Of these two ontological levels, the latter could be thought of as more subjective; its failure to be aligned with the more objective former is cast by Galbraith as an important source of socioeconomic malaise. Instead of doing the intellectual work necessary to wrangle events into intelligibility, people end up adopting a conventional wisdom to explain them, gobbling up certain ideas because they are “acceptable” rather than taking the bitter medicine proffered by reality.
The only way this pattern is broken is when the two levels clash so violently that the particular ideas comprising the conventional wisdom can no longer be reasonably understood to contain the events of the world. Nature, abhorring a vacuum as it does, soon replaces the former conventional wisdom with new ideas, ideally more aligned with the “march of events” than those previously expressed by the conventional wisdom. Galbraith states this as follows:
“The fatal blow to the conventional wisdom comes when the conventional ideas fail signally to deal with some contingency to which obsolescence has made them palpably inapplicable” (11). No longer able to skirt responsibility, intransigent children have their medicine crammed down their ungrateful gullets and –in spite of themselves – find themselves cured of the aforementioned socioeconomic malaise. Huzzah!
The plot of Atlas Shrugged plays out in a remarkably similar way. Rand paints a dystopian portrait of an anemic world made ill by overconsumption of conventional wisdom. If the people would only leave their fearful parlors and go outside, they might see that the world was different than the one they had imagined it to be. But no, like Galbraith, Rand realizes that ideas alone lack the dynamism to dislocate other ideas. Dagny Taggart and Hank Reardon are considered eccentric and outlandish for their proactive, aggressively individualistic attitudes. Like Galbraith, Rand sees the fear that freezes the James Taggarts and Wesley Mouches into paralytic complacency. And like Galbraith, Rand requires a massive event – in this case a strike – to expose the conventional wisdom for the deformed effigy that it is. For Galbraith, “At this stage, the irrelevance will often be dramatized by some individual…In fact, he will only have crystallized in words what the events have made clear” (11). This individual, in Atlas Shrugged, takes the form of John Galt, using his monologue to crystallize what Dagny and Reardon have inchoately felt for a long time. Namely, the stagnation brought about by conventional wisdom: “There are also grave drawbacks and even dangers in a system of thought which by its very nature and design avoids accommodation to circumstances until change is dramatically forced upon it” (16). It’s the weakness that comes from the unnecessary use of a crutch; it’s gangrenous bedsores on the sedentary carcass of a bedridden hypochondriac; it’s atrophy in the limbs of livestock crammed into industrial slaughterhouses. It’s ugly, and grotesque, and not what you want to see when you look into a mirror. But for some reason, it’s palatable in Galbraith and not in Rand.