ATLAS SHRUGGED - Who is John Galt?
2009 March 30

     The Economist had an article on the connection between world economic recession and sales of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

     I read Atlas Shrugged a long time ago, sometime around 1980 when I was in my early twenties. As an American-born American with American values, I found it a fun book to read with the good guys winning in the end. At the time, several things about the book rubbed me the wrong way, but I still enjoyed the story, the characters, and the message.

2013 February 6:

Reading this four years later, I realize I failed to communicate how fundamental the Atlas Shrugged values are. They resonate with me and they resonate with whatever the United States of America is that is different from the rest of the world (even more than motherhood and apple pie). Whatever criticisms I may have about her presentation, Ms. Rand communicates the morality of liberty clearly and vividly as I have seen it nowhere else.

She also saw and communicated the reality that political statism and religion are two profiles of the same monstrous beast. While she railed against blind faith in many forms, I don't recall religion coming up in Atlas Shrugged, but it was a basic plot element in The Fountainhead.

     The Reader's Digest abridged version of the story: Dagny Taggert is a railroad executive who finds all the smart people disappearing and the entire United States going down the tubes into socialist hell where the government is nationalizing failing industries while punishing success stories. It turns out the smart people have gone "on strike" and formed their own neo-country in an isolated area. Every time something puzzling happens around her, people use the expression "Who is John Galt?" to express the inability to explain. He turns out to be the founder of the new, hidden nation of former-American smart people.

     Ayn Rand (1905-1982) came from Russia to the United States in 1926 and founded a movement called "Objectivism" that embraces the achievements of humanity. "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

     She wrote a series of books with some comment threads about the rise and fall of people who based their existence on power, on control, on their social relationships with other people. They are awful people in her stories with bad posture and awful names like "Ellsworth Toohey" and "Wesley Mouch." Her heroes are lean, strong, heroic figures. While The Fountainhead dwells on the social-power theme, Atlas Shrugged made an almost-desperate pitch for capitalism, free enterprise, and "the sanctity of contract." Her characters are caricatures, single people creating entire industries, or destroying them.

     "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." This is John Galt's motto. It's a value I share mostly, but there is one fundamental flaw, similar to the common era screwing up of the so-called Golden Rule. The original quote from Hillel translates as "Love thy neighbor as thyself." This got permuted into "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

     The reversal is subtle here. I like steak, so should I buy my vegetarian friend filet mignon? Doing unto others what I like only helps people who share my taste. There is a negative mode in Galt's and Christianity's golden rules.

     Similarly, the better motto would have people live for themselves rather than refusing to live for others. The better motto would have people encouraging others to do for themselves rather than refusing to have others live for them. Without a solid background in philosophical logic (I took just an introductory course in epistemology and ontology in college and Thomas Kuhn's course in philosophy of science), I still assert my belief that this comes down to the difference between normative and utilitarian philosophies of freedom.

     Normative people believe in freedom because it's right and that it greatly enhances the quality of people's lives is a nice side effect. While I agree with their values, they're on no firmer ground than the Marx-based communists who also believe in their system on moral high grounds. Utilitarian people like me believe in freedom because it's better and adopt its moral code because that produces better lives.

     The ten commandments and their associated morality and legal codes survived for millennia because they produced societies that survived, endured, and prospered. So do the principles of freedom and free enterprise. That's my view and how it differs from Ayn Rand's.

     What I share with Ayn Rand and her future world as presented in Atlas Shrugged is more important and profound. We are worth what we do and deserve the opportunities to do things at the most fundamental level. It is yours to see your goals and it is not yours to impede mine until they adversely affect you. People who share this view are called "libertarians" and among them were the visionaries who founded the United States of America and wrote its constitution in 1789.

     In 1957 Ayn Rand wrote of industries with smart people impeded by regulation and stupid people with political connections who are bailed out. The bailout people sit in the boardrooms of their newly-acquired companies and dictate policy without any pretense of consensus. Universities have been run by the United States government for decades, but this is a new experience for auto manufacturers and insurance companies who are used to telling the regulators what to do.

     Some interesting differences between book-story and reality. Ayn Rand must have loved cigarettes. All her heroic characters smoke and look dashing with cigarettes. Attitudes have changed, for the better in my opinion, and physical fitness has become the new social drug of choice. Meeting for a smoke has given way to working out together at the gym.

     She didn't see the overwhelming impact of the jet-engine airplane. Passenger rail was the dominant long-haul transportation of her future and today we all travel by airliner. The sad thing to me was on 2001 September 11–14, when our national airspace system was shut down, people were hanging around bemoaning their lack of options to get home. It seems nobody thought of Amtrak whose sales barely budged when people really needed them.

     Ms. Rand also did not see the ecology-power movement. Her group "Friends of Global Progress" was a group to help the poor. When "The Poor" started to lose their grip on American sympathy, the environmental causes stepped in. Today's power mongers speak of global ice age, global ozone holes, global algae blooms, and global warming with the same enthusiasm that people used to have for the New Deal and the Great Society.

     One essential difference between Ms. Rand's story in 1957 and our story 1989–2009 interests me. The smart people left in Atlas Shrugged and were ultimately missed. Our failing world kicked them out. My business is decision support, I earn my employers thousands of times what they pay me, and still they reject my counsel and ultimately reject me. Other people in my profession have similar experience. They become political animals in the government-funded jungle, or they're finding themselves marginalized.

     A world that makes decisions as badly as this one from 1969 to 2009 is unlikely to make the best decision of all, to seek people who make good decisions. Don't laugh! One company founder I worked for made that best decision when he sought somebody who knew how to run his business like a business. Even Ayn Rand wasn't pessimistic enough to see a world that rejected intelligence so universally.




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