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Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Bailout

From science fiction to fact in less than thirty years.

By 1.13.09

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In a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Stephen Moore highlighted the parallels between today's economic events and those depicted in Ayn Rand's classic Atlas Shrugged.

"Many of us who know Rand's work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that 'Atlas Shrugged' parodied in 1957," Moore wrote. Point taken: Rand was eerily prescient in predicting the encroachment of big government during this crisis.  

Then again, it doesn't take Nostradamus to predict that eventually government will go awry. In fact the ultimate riff on government came out roughly 1,957 years (give or take about 33 years) before Atlas Shrugged, when someone, probably a clever proto-Objectivist, quipped, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's," as if to warn us that eventually the government is going to do what it wants to do, and the rest of us are better off worrying about more important things.

No, if you are looking for the most complete forecast of today's economic and political turmoil in 20th century literature you will have to look beyond Rand's one-dimensional economic vignettes to a work of scope and sophistication: Douglas Adams's all-encompassing masterpiece, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  

Adams prognosticated the current scenario in such detail that it is hard to know where to begin accounting for his accuracy. But perhaps a good place would be the election of Barack Obama, who in Adams's framework is a giant lizard.

As the alien Ford Prefect explains to the human protagonist Arthur Dent, an ancient democracy is bound, eventually, to elect only lizards for its leaders. Why?

Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in. Got any gin?"

"What?"

"I said," said Ford, with an increasing air of urgency creeping into his voice, "have you got any gin?"

"I'll look. Tell me about the lizards."

Ford shrugged again.

"Some people say that the lizards are the best thing that ever happened to them," he said. "They're completely wrong of course, completely and utterly wrong, but someone's got to say it.

Precisely right -- in the last election we elected one younger, slightly more government-loving lizard over another older, slight less government-loving lizard, and some of us think that the lizard we ended up with is the best thing ever. They're completely and utterly wrong, of course.

Don't hope for anything better in the next election cycle, though. Adams distills the underlying flaw of democracy in one paragraph:

To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.

Needless to say, Adam's explanation of the economic situation is much more thorough and accessible than Rand's. Academics, the media, and especially the recently unemployed have spent countless man-hours trying to understand the failures of the wizards of Wall Street to identify properly the enormous risks of the subprime market in their heretofore impeccable mathematical models. Adams sums it up in a single sentence: "The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair."

If only the government had known that encouraging over-leveraged banks to increase subprime lending could not possibly go wrong.

Where Ayn Rand predicts the burgeoning of government in general, Adams delves into frightening specifics. With the nursing of the financial economy entrusted to "Helicopter" Ben Bernanke, who has credibly promised to be reckless with the money supply, one of the few stories in HHGTTG actually set on earth seems particularly relevant.

Arthur Dent discovers, during his time travels, that when the human race first alights on the planet earth, the first finance minister solves the pressing question of what to do to get money by establishing tree leaves as currency  (just the kind of expansionary policy that Bernanke would beam majestically on).

But, we have also run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability. Which means that I gather the current going rate has something like three major deciduous forests buying one ship's peanut. So, um, in order to obviate this problem and effectively revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on an extensive defoliation campaign, and um, burn down all the forests. I think that's a sensible move don't you?

"Yes, we do," one can imagine the Federal Reserve Board of Governors crying in response  about a year from now when inflation spikes so quickly they decide that they have no choice but to burn down the metaphorical forests.

Lastly, Adams captured the defeat of individuality at the hands of the government with far more poignancy than Rand. The reason the main character Arthur Dent is forced to hitchhike the galaxy is that economic planners of the galaxy decide that the Earth must be removed for the stimulus of an interstellar bypass route. And we are shocked at the sticker price when our leaders decide that the market must be sacrificed for a trillion dollars' worth of bypasses, bridges and tunnels.

Adams's illustration is much darker than Rand's because it depicts today's hideousness more faithfully. Adams did, however, leave us with a saving maxim to see these times through, one printed directly on the cover of the eponymous Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Don't Panic.

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About the Author

Joseph Lawler, former managing editor of The American Spectator, is editor of Real Clear Policy. Follow him on twitter: @josephlawler.