Who is John Galt?

Who is John Galt? 

I have a pretty good idea at this point, but I am only about halfway through Ayn Rand’s 1000-page classic, Atlas Shrugged.  It is a spectacularly written doomsday story of what would happen if the most intelligent and profit-driven individuals decided to walk away from a society which holds them in contempt but greatly depends on their production. 

Galt, the hero of the story’s several heroes, was the first to abandon society and is directing the mass exodus behind-the-scenes, but he shows up at critical times to convince the holdouts, behind closed doors, that their efforts to fight the corrupt system are actually feeding the corruption.  He is the most interesting of the story’s heroes because of the mystery attached to his presence: he is referred to constantly, yet he has not appeared once in the first 500 pages.

Rand’s remaining heroes begin dropping like flies, walking away from the industries that keep the country moving.  The holdouts at this point are only two: the revolutionary metal creator, and the railroad tycoon.  With all of the new regulations telling them how much they should and should not produce and how fast and long the trains can be, the two remaining heroes need each other to remain not only profitable but operational.  As these two slowly move toward their own dates with Galt, the country is quickly collapsing under the weight of the balance of power and production swinging toward the “looters” and “moochers,” who are decidedly in the majority.

It is a riveting story that makes me want to keep reading to fully answer the question I posed at the top, but I have to constantly remind myself that the purpose of the book was not to tell a good story as much as it was to display, in ideal and practical form, the philosophy of Ayn Rand.  The phenomenal writing is a hallmark of Rand’s competence, a characteristic that she glorifies.  The philosophy as shown through her fiction writing, however, leaves me to – as her enlightened heroes encourage the unenlightened ones to do – question her premises.

Rand made certain assumptions that the course of her story depended upon.  Perhaps her most egregious assumption was that there are very few people who are intelligent, self-sufficient, and productive; and those who are subsidize the rest of the unintelligent, dependent moochers and looters.  Without a doubt, it takes a very arrogant writer to base a philosophy on this premise, because it would make no sense unless she thought of herself as one of the few producers.  Her mistake here was both psychological and practical.  Humans often think of themselves as more important or intelligent than they really are.  If we have to say it or assume it, it probably isn’t true.  Additionally, it is possible that very few independent doers and thinkers exist in comparison to followers and moochers, but an economy does not become as rich as ours has become without a wide diversity of economic movers. Rand may have had some reason for concern in the 1950s when the book was published, but those concerns were not realized.

The second poor assumption Rand makes is that people cannot change who they are or how they view the world.  This ignores thousands of years of human and economic advancement.  If no one ever adapts to new environments, changes their minds in the face of new information, or sees the contradictions in accepted knowledge and changes it; human culture and economies would never have advanced.  Entrepreneurship and innovation are impossible without the human ability to change. Rand intuitively knew this, but she made an assumption that only a few of us – the producers – have the capacity to do this.  Again, if this were true, economies could only advance as far as the production limits of the productive few.  We know this is not true.  While Rand’s view of herself was supreme, her view of most others was of the utmost contempt.

Rand’s third assumption is the one most popularly held: that government regulation of any form is the enemy of business.  I have already addressed this fallacy in a previous post, but it is worth clarifying.  Government certainly can become the enemy of commerce if regulations begin telling the market how to operate or what specifically to produce, as it does in Rand’s story.  However, business can also become the enemy of the people when it takes control of government through its spending power.  The point here is that neither business nor government is more inherently virtuous than the other.  They both have appropriate roles, and they are meant to balance and complement each other.  To repeat an example I have given before, appropriate government regulations actually serve to push commerce into much-needed innovations that can counteract stagnation.  The government in Rand’s story did not act appropriately in any sense of the word, but judging from her views about force and mooching, one gets the distinct impression that she regarded the very idea of government as inappropriate.

Rand makes many other questionable assumptions, but the one that I understand the least is her glorification of selfishness as the only moral imperative.  In Rand’s view, one must earn or fairly trade for every physical and spiritual possession, including wealth and love.  For Rand’s heroes, loving or helping or giving charity to others is not moral at all because it inevitably “punishes” the person giving the unearned gift.  Instead, the moral alternative would be to love others for what they can give in return and despise those who can’t give anything.  Unearned help and pity are worthless to this kind of moral code.  Thinking of how one’s actions impact others is evil in Rand’s world.  Why should one cheat on his wife with a more attractive and independent woman?  Because the woman’s attractiveness, independence, and desire for him makes him feel good about himself.  Because it could not be wrong if it feels so right.  Because self-centeredness is the epitome of morality.

Rand made a good case for commerce as a moral activity in the face of critics who see its inherent individuality and profit-making motivation as the root of our many collective problems.  On the other hand, she failed to make a strong case that individualism and profitability are the only moral ways of life.  Her philosophy did not take into consideration that there are some things worth having in life that become corrupted when there is a profit-motivated, self-centered transaction involved.  What could your child possibly give you in return for the love and support you must show him to survive and thrive?  When your child misbehaves, would it be moral to stop loving her because she no longer gives you pleasure? Rand’s moral code, if taken seriously, would affirm that as moral.

Who is John Galt? 

I think John Galt is who Ayn Rand wishes she could have been, but she ran into the same trap which her fictional enemies set for her heroes: her moral code was designed to be inevitably broken.  She existed in a society that subsidizes streets, gasoline, automobiles, utilities, and the paper on which her eloquent but hypocritical words were printed.  Many of us are producers, and many of us are not; but to live and eat and breathe and, indeed, trade in this American society from the 20th Century onward is to take advantage of what a shared and redistributed prosperity can buy.  Whether she liked it or not, she could not help but be a moocher like the rest of us.