Most of you are probably unaware of the up coming BioShock Infinite release(March 26th) but I can’t wait. So I am playing BioShock 1 & 2 once again and I just have to say I love the Ayn Rand commentary throughout the games. I was a hard core Ayn Rand follower for years only to slowly realize the flaws in her theories. In BioShock there is clear exposition of both individualistic and collectivistic thought. There is also capitalistic and communistic expositions. But it is crouched in a First-Person-Shooter (FPS). Bioshock 1 focuses primarily upon individualistic and capitalistic ideas and exposition which will be the focus of my first two posts. BioShock 2 has a much greater focus on collectivistic and communistic ideas and will be the focus of my later posts on this topic.
In 1946 an industrialist and electrical engineer Andrew Ryan establishes Rapture, a city under the Atlantic ocean in order to free himself and society from those he labels as parasites.
“To build a city at the bottom of the sea! Insanity. But where else could we be free from the clutching hand of the Parasites? Where else could we build an economy that they would not try to control, a society that they would not try to destroy? It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea. It was impossible to build it anywhere else.” – Andrew Ryan
“A man has choices, I chose the impossible. I built a city where the artists would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small.” -Andrew Ryan
Well Andrew Ryan succeeded in building Rapture and creating a society free from parasites, moochers, looters and those that would use force to take the property of another. This leads to great prosperity and advancement for Rapture, in particular scientific advancement leaps decades forward in a few short years. Unfortunately the society founded by Andrew Ryan was unstable and would collapse less than 15 years after being established.
There are 4 major factors that led to the fall of Rapture, each of which illustrate inadequacies in Ayn Rand’s theories. The first two were problems created at the founding of Rapture. By necessity Rapture was isolated from the outside world so as to prevent the parasites from controlling or destroying it, yet this isolation brought with it the first set of problems. Second Ryan invited the best and brightest from the world above. He recruited the greatest minds, artists, inventors, scientists and businessmen. But his selection for the best led to a top heavy society with great inequality which destabilized Rapture’s sociopolitical structure. The next two problems leading to Rapture’s downfall are related to the nature of man. Andrew Ryan believed that the market would regulate itself and thus no regulation should be imposed by the government. This allowed the proliferation of business practices which would greatly destabilize the city. The final problem faced by Rapture is the corruption of Andrew Ryan himself. As Rapture began to decline Ryan became desperate which led him to violating the central tenets of his own philosophy.
By necessity Rapture required isolation; outside communication and goods were prohibited. This is the same as Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged where the gulch is hidden from the rest of the world and communication with the outside world is prohibited. Isolation is necessary is to prevent the outside from using force to take control of Rapture or to destroy Rapture. Ayn Rand was very concerned with the prospect of looters and parasites using force to control or destroy Galt’s Gulch. The population of Galt’s Gulch (or Rapture) is very small when compared with the other countries of the world. No matter how capable each individual was at defending themselves there would be no way to defend against such odds. That is why Galt’s Gulch is hidden by mountains in an unpopulated area with a defensive field that camouflages the whole valley. Rapture is hidden in the middle of the ocean making it equally difficult to locate.
The next reason for isolation is that building a completely individualistic / capitalistic society requires that the society is not infiltrated by socialists or collectivists. If collectivism were seep into society it could fester and lead to collectivistic actions and policies which according to Ayn Rand are immoral. To deal with this the residents of Galt’s Gulch are screened extremely thoroughly. Each person was watched carefully for extended periods of time. Their words and actions were studied for any sign of collectivism. Even after that they were screened in an interview before it was decided that their moral code was sufficiently pure enough. Through this selection process the world’s population was reduced to a single small town. But since every individual in Galt’s Gulch had rejected collectivism and socialism completely then they only had to worry about collectivism entering the gulch from the outside. Thus isolation helped to maintain purity of morality and inhibit the disease of collectivism from spreading to Galt’s Gulch.
The problem is that Rapture is a vast metropolis not a small town. Since Rapture needed so many more to build it there was no way to screen each individual as carefully as Galt’s Gulch. Far too much manpower was required so Rapture had to be far less selective. Therefore many entered Rapture who may believe in part or whole that collectivism is the correct route for society to follow. Though isolation helps to combat this issue. Since there is no contact with the outside world it is easier to utilize propaganda to sway the people. In fact Andrew Ryan brought many artists, singers and writers with him to help spread his ideals and convince Rapture that his way is the best way.
Though isolation brings with itself whole new problems. Despite Galt’s Gulch being populated by the best and brightest of the world there is no way it could have developed modern industry and science. There simply were not enough people there. The town was rather small and there was no way that there would be enough people to deal with both maintenance of the society (growing food, maintaining buildings, producing clothing and items necessary for survival) and advancement of science or technology. In order to produce a single hinge for a door the iron would need mined, smelted and forged. But Galt’s Gulch did not have a bunch of extra laborers to mine and work menial jobs. Rather everybody there was somebody of superb skill, intellect and knowledge. It is a huge waste if the greatest electrical engineer in world spends his time wiring light switches and maintaining the power grid because there aren’t enough people to do that for him. That would take away his ability to improve the system and innovate since his time would be taken up with lesser tasks. In fact a society needs to have a certain level of population to support specialization. The greater the specialization the greater the support structures need to be. If a great inventor has to produce each and every item s/he works with then s/he has far less time to invent and improve designs. But if the same inventor has others producing the components then s/he can focus on inventing.
Rapture dealt with this issue by including more people than Galt’s Gulch. Unfortunately isolation still inhibits the productivity of a place like Rapture for the same reason it does in Galt’s Gulch. Yes there are more people to create the materials for great inventors or scientists to work with. But all of those are limited to the materials produced in Rapture since no outside goods were allowed. Now consider that it is rare that a single city can produce all of the goods and products found in modern society. Instead modern cities rely on trade with others to gain raw materials and components in order to produce many of the goods we see today. Without that trade it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to produce everything we have today. Yet Rapture (and Galt’s Gulch) propose that a single city could mine all raw materials, process the raw materials, produce components and parts as well as create final products. All the while having enough time to feed the population, develop new products and advance science. This is simply not possible when you consider the labor force you would need to accomplish all of that. Beyond that there are few if any locations on this planet with access to all raw materials needed for advanced technology. The issue isn’t just with minerals, metals and oil but also with things like rubber and uranium.
Without all of the raw materials and constituent components / parts available the society looses much of the benefit of capitalism. People are no longer able to focus purely in their specialty and advance the field. Rather they are forced to produce or process parts and raw materials in order to get to the point of trying to advance the field. Or they are forced to work without certain items which can completely eliminate the potential for advancement in some field. For example if radioactive material is not available then there is no way to develop medical radiology.
Additionally isolation reduces competition since trade is restricted to a single city’s businesses. Every business depends on a consuming population and the size of the population heavily influences the rate of consumption for various items. Yet isolation restricts the size of that consuming population. If the population is too small it may be unable to sustain multiple businesses of the same type due to lack of demand. How many vineyards do you think a small town can sustain? How many foundries could a town sustain? The limited population due to isolation restricts the amount of competition that can exist in the market. Without competition there is less incentive for efficiency and innovation which are two of the primary benefits of a free market system.
Finally isolation leads to black markets. There will always be people who want products from the outside and there will always be somebody who will get it for them at a price. Consider that despite everything the US has done it still can’t stop illegal immigration or drug smuggling. Ayn Rand is able to deal with this because everybody in Galt’s Gulch voluntarily chose to live there fully knowing the consequences of their decision. So they would not chose to violate their oath and seek outside goods since everybody there has such high moral integrity. But that is an unrealistic model; not every man is a perfect saint. People lie, cheat, steal and hurt each other. To expect every person to hold true to their word is foolish. In Rapture smuggling became a major problem, it got to the point that anybody caught with contraband was executed.
Realistically smuggling is a problem because it creates an underground market. Black markets lead to problems with violence since they are unable to appeal to legal authorities to solve disputes. Rather those involved have to take things into their own hands. Acquisition, transportation and sale of contraband is much easier operating in a group. Thus smuggling can lead to the formation for criminal organizations which is dangerous in itself. Criminal organizations have a tendency to expand and diversify their activities. With smuggling providing money and manpower for the organization they can expand to things like extortion, rigging games and sports, blackmail, counterfeiting or identity theft. The smuggling itself does not necessitate that organized crime will expand to those operations but it does provide an infrastructure to do so. That is it brings together criminals and provides them with the resources to expand should they chose to.
Top Heavy Society
Both Rapture and Galt’s Gulch was built on try to recruit the best and brightest of all humanity. Both focused on obtaining top industrialists, scientists, artists, bankers, inventors, doctors and all other of great skill or intellect. The problem is that this creates a top heavy society to start.
In Galt’s Gulch this is mitigated by the fact that everybody there is a great person. They are all inventors, bankers, industrialists, scientists and such. Also they were all wealthy. But when everybody is both wealthy and brilliant then there is little difference between individuals in the population. Since most people in Galt’s Gulch are relatively equal in those regards then there is not much inequity. For that reason Galt’s Gulch doesn’t really even take notice of the fact that it is completely populated by the best of the best.
Yet in Rapture not everybody could be a great person. There is simply too much need for workers of all types. Rapture needs janitors, repairmen, cooks, labors, factory workers, nurses and everything else. The whole city could not operate just with scientists, inventors and doctors. So many people came to Rapture to fill the various needs and try to scrape out a living for themselves and their families. Yet the heavy recruiting of the upper echelons of society to join Rapture led to a disproportionately large upper class. While at the same time huge portions of the population were extremely poor and had not government safety net to fall back on. This creates a bleak contrast between those with wealth and those without. It is precisely this contrast which makes inequity of wealth distribution salient to the public as a whole.
Though salient inequality may create discontent in the population, but if there is a great deal of socioeconomic mobility then people will not take extreme actions. Social mobility provides an individual route to address inequality, that is people can work toward improving their own situation rather and trying to change the whole system. Unfortunately in Rapture social mobility would be limited due to the top heavy society. With so many people already at the top with tons of wealth which weighs the whole game in their favor. Even somebody as intelligent and skilled as Andrew Ryan would find it difficult to climb from the bottom to upper class in Rapture. The wealthy already own or control so much that it is difficult for others to work their way in. As mentioned before, a isolated society has a limited population to market to which limits the number of businesses of a particular type that it can sustain. Thus if a well established business supplies the needs of the market it could be extremely difficult for a new competitor to break into the market. The market would not be big enough that the competitor could slip in and establish itself without challenging the larger better funded business. Instead the market is small so any gains by a new business would be taking away from the larger corporation which gives the corporation good reason to drive the small business out. This has been shown in regards to monopolies and how they drove out competition in order to maintain control of a market. Though there need not be a monopoly, even if there are two or three established competitors in a market they can use their power to drive out any new businesses. They all would have a vested interest in eliminating their competition in order to maintain a higher market share so they all have reason to drive out new businesses.
So now Rapture is in a situation with a disproportionately large wealthy population, a huge wealth inequality and minimal social mobility. This is an unstable situation for any society. This creates malcontentment in the masses as they see inequity in the system yet have no means by which to improve their own situation. This is further compounded by the isolation of Rapture. People are not free to leave Rapture and seek opportunities elsewhere, they are physically trapped. But they are not free to move up in society, they are socially trapped. As dissatisfaction builds the chances of population taking drastic actions increases. Which in the end is what caused the downfall of Rapture. The poor rose up in a revolt against the existing system.
Though in reality free market advocates would say that capitalism allows for social mobility by providing all an equal opportunity. Also they would point out that the real world is not a closed system like Rapture or Galt’s Gulch so new businesses can break into the market. Yes it is true that it is not exactly like Rapture but in laissez faire capitalism like espoused by Ayn Rand there are no public schools or libraries. The only job of the government is to maintain military, police and courts. This leads to a similar situation as Rapture. Those who start with more have greater opportunities than those who start with less even if everybody plays by the same rules. The wealthy can afford better schools and education. The poor can’t afford as good school if they can even afford to educate their children. So wealthy children start with an advantage purely based on their parents. Also parents with wealth can help get their children started when they become adults. They can support them or provide them with a college education or a loan to start a business or even something as simple as a car. It is difficult for an individual to work their way up in the world if you start with debt from college and buying a car and everything else. If you start with debt you spend so much of your time and energy simply paying back that debt while getting nowhere. If you start without debt then all of your energy can move you forward. Furthermore wealthy individuals tend to know more wealthy individuals. So they have connections that can get their children ahead. My mom was a nurse and at one point hooked me up with some people she knew so I could try and get a job as a psychiatric technician. It paid $13/hr and helped me get through college. Somebody with wealth could do the same thing yet their kid could start at $100k not $13/hr.
My point here is that even if the rules of the game are the same for everybody those who start at the top have an easier time staying there. Whereas those that start at the bottom have a difficult time making it to the top. It is not purely a matter of personal attributes that make one successful. Sometimes it is simply being born to the right person and having access to resources not available to most people.
At this point rather than engaging my last two points I think I will post this and finish it later. I already have 3100 words and I have been working on this for a couple days. The issues of market self regulation and human corruptibility will be addressed in the next part to this series.