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Who Is Wesley Mouch?

Why Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged matters today

John Stossel
January 7, 2010

Tonight, my Fox Business Network show about Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged will finally air. That should stop the emails like this one from Karen Cooper:

"Oh for the love of god! 'Atlas Shrugged' explains about 99 percent of what's wrong in all of the arenas of topics: health care, education, climate change, unions, the economy, etc. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE cover 'Atlas.'"

Cooper makes a good point. Even though Rand published Atlas in 1957, her descriptions of intrusive and bloated government read like today's news. The "Preservation of Livelihood Law" and "Equalization of Opportunity Law" could be Nancy Pelosi's or Harry Reid's work.

The novel's chief villain is Wesley Mouch, a bureaucrat who cripples the economy with endless regulations. This sounds familiar. Reason magazine reports that "as he looks around Washington these days," Rep. Paul Ryan "can't help but think he's seeing a lot of Wesley Mouch."

Me, too. I also saw a lot of him under George W. Bush.

So I'm conducting this unscientific poll: Who is our Wesley Mouch? Hank Paulson? Tim Geithner? Barney Frank? You can vote here: http://stossel.blogs.foxbusiness.com/2009/12/31/atlas-shrugged-poll/

Personally, I think Chris Dodd's ridiculous financial proposals ought to win him the honor. But he isn't among the choices on Fox's list. As I write this, Geithner, President Obama, and Barney Frank lead the voting.

My first guest on the show (FBN, 8 p.m. Eastern Thursday, repeating at 10 p.m. Friday) is BB&T Chairman and Atlas fan John Allison. Allison's bank, the ninth largest in America, is doing very well, but he's angry the government forced him to take TARP money.

Allison once told The New York Times, "To say man is bad because he is selfish is to say it's bad because he's alive."

I'll pack the audience with some Atlas haters. That shouldn't be hard. My daughter's boyfriend offers up his Yale classmates. Many "liberals" agree with the "South Park" episode in which one character said that "because of this piece of s--t, I am never reading again." Rand brings out ferocious hatred in some people.

Also, I'll get a fish pedicure. Really.

This is a dubious Turkish idea that's become popular in Asia and is now trying for a foothold (pun intended) here. Instead of scraping dead skin off their feet, people have little garra rufa fish gently chew on them.

Fourteen states have banned fish pedicures, claiming they are unsafe, and other local governments have proposed bans. OK, compared to the assault on entrepreneurship described in Atlas Shrugged, this is sort of a dumb example, but look—I work in television—dumb examples can make good points.

The bureaucrats say the fish can't be sterilized without killing them. They say customers will get infections. People could die! It's not safe! And it's cruel to the fish!

Has anyone died? Can you refer me to someone who got an infection? Anyone? The bureaucrats' answer is always no. But it's better to be cautious, they say.

In fact, the free market sorts such things out far more efficiently than bureaucrats. It's just not good business to hurt your customers. My 30 years of consumer reporting taught me that businesses rarely do this, and—here's the market's self-regulation—those that do don't stay in business long. That's not a perfect system, but it's much better than central planning. Had today's bureaucrats been in charge decades ago, they would have banned things like aspirin, cars and airplanes.

Sadly, they are in charge now. That makes the Atlas message important today.

Although Rand idolizes businessman in the abstract, Atlas Shrugged makes clear that she (like Adam Smith) understood that they are not natural friends of free markets. They are often first in line for privileges bestowed by the state. That's called "crony capitalism," and that's what Orren Boyle practices in Atlas. After my Atlas Shrugged show, I plan a show on that subject. Suggestions invited.

I don't want to be controlled by business any more than I want to be regulated by Nancy Pelosi or Wesley Mouch.

I want the freedom to make my own choices.

John Stossel is host of Stossel on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at www.johnstossel.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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