The Defiant and Compliant

August 22, 2021

by Steve Stofka

Most of the people showing up at the nation’s emergency rooms desperate for air are unvaccinated. For various and diverse reasons they decided not to get vaccinated. Some think that the vaccines were developed too fast. Others are waiting for all the facts. Some think the vaccines were not tested enough on people of color. Some don’t trust scientists or government. Others suspect a conspiracy. We have become a nation of two groups: the defiant and the compliant.

In Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged the nation adopts totalitarian socialist policies similar to the Communist regime of the Soviet Union. Ayn Rand was only 20 when she emigrated to the U.S. in 1925, a year after the death of Vladimir Lenin (Anthem, n.d.). Throughout her career, she adopted a libertarian stance in opposition to the totalitarian planned economy of the new Soviet Union. In Atlas Shrugged, several captains of key industries demonstrate their defiance of the new regime by refusing to comply with the state’s demands for individual sacrifice on the altar of the common good. They shrug.

At hospitals around the country, but particularly in southern states, nurses are leaving. In some hospital systems, a third of nursing positions are vacant (Jacobs, 2021). Many nurses are frustrated by the recent surge in unvaccinated patients, those defiant ones who took their chances, then arrive at emergency rooms and expect that hospitals and their staff will devote themselves to round the clock care. The defiant ones rely on the compliance of others.

In Rand’s romantic account, the pursuit of self-interest has no negative externalities. The heroes who defect have extraordinary talent. In the real world of the pandemic, it is ordinary people who no longer want or can handle the stress of caring for people who didn’t care for themselves or those around them. They are tired of coming to work and having dirt and objects thrown at them by the defiant ones. The nurses are shrugging and leaving.

The defiant ones championed individual freedom over collective responsibility but they championed their freedom, a selfish freedom of the few. The self-styled freedom fighters hoped that hospital workers would value compassion and compliance more than their personal freedom. As more hospital workers quit, the defiant ones reach out and say, “You need to stay and be compassionate. My needs are more important than your freedom or your mental health.”

A civil society depends on voluntary compliance by a large majority of the people. We may complain about the rules but we regard the government as a legitimate maker of rules. The defiant ones may respect the force of the state but do not acknowledge the legitimacy of state institutions. In their eyes, the sovereignty of the individual is paramount and the individual has no moral obligation to abide by any rule they do not approve. As the number of defiant ones grows during a pandemic, the norms and resources of a civil society break down. As southern states test those civil boundaries, there might be less dangerous places to visit.

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Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

Anthem – Ayn Rand Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved August 21, 2021, from https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/a/anthem/ayn-rand-biography

Jacobs, A. (2021, August 21). ‘Nursing is in Crisis’: Staff Shortages Put Patients at Risk. Retrieved August 21, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/21/health/covid-nursing-shortage-delta.html

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