Who is John Galt?

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That is the question, one I observed on a bumper sticker on the way to work.  After a Google search, I begin on a reading journey of over 1,000 pages, namely Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  My regret is that it diverted me from the Top 100 Sci Fi & Fantasy books list…

“Who is John Galt?” is introduced rhetorically, but answers later emerge within Rand’s dialogue:  ‘'He means,” said the fireman, “don’t ask questions no one can answer.”  Later, “Why ask useless questions?  How deep is the ocean?  How high is the sky?  Who is John Galt?”   Before the book eventually arrives at a fuller revelation, there are abundant “philosophical”  nuggets, which are often part of unwieldy “conversations” that would never occur in the history of human verbal discourse.  These are set amid a narrative primarily involving Dagny Taggart, a railroad Vice President, and Hank Reardon, a steel entrepeneur, who struggle against both a redistribution of wealth by the government and a diminishing supply of industrialists (inventors, leaders, people of ability to get things done) to 1) create that wealth and 2) provide  quality goods and services reliably.

The deevolution of society takes time, beginning with the dumbing down of society so that they may be led by the powers that be more efficiently. The first quote stands as humor, but in context it’s is an argument to remove the availability of competing ideas to the current social narrative:

“There should be a law limiting the sale of any book to ten thousand copies.  This would throw the literary market open to new talent, fresh ideas and non-commercial writing.  If people were forbidden to buy a million copies of the same piece of trash, they would be forced to buy better books.”

“It remained for our century to redefine the purpose of philosophy.  The purpose of philosophy is not to help men find the meaning of life, but to prove to them that there isn’t any.”

Those ideas, carried forward, set the stage to reduce citizen dependency on their basic needs.  Combined with the unfairness of those with abilities and wealth (we’ll say “the 1%” in today’s vernacular), she sets class warfare about long before it was politically popular to do so (the book was written beginning in 1946 and released in 1957).  While clearly developing an overwhelming population dependent on others (in Rand’s terminology, “Moochers”), she comments often on those persons, companies, institutions and governmental leaders who would take from those who produce to be given to those who are in need:

“'Public welfare' is the welfare of those who do not earn it; those who do, are entitled to no welfare.”

“They proclaim that every man born is entitled to exist without labor and […] is entitled to to receive his ‘minimum sustenance’ – his food, his clothes, his shelter – with no effort on his part, as his due and his birthright.  To receive it from whom? Every man, they announce, owns an equal share of the technological benefits created in the world.”

“Let me give you a clue to men’s characters: the man who damns money has obtained it dishonorably; the man who respects it has earned it.”

“I do not see why industrialists should be considered at all.  When the masses are destitute and yet there are goods available, it’s idiotic to expect people to be stopped by some scrap of paper called a property deed.  Property rights are a superstition.  One holds property only by the courtesy of those who do not seize it.  The people can seize it at any moment.  If they can, why shouldn’t they?”  […] “They should… they need it.  Need is the only consideration.  If people are in need, we’ve got to seize things first and talk about it afterwards.” (words of a Moocher)

In tension with the populist culture of unfairness is Rand’s promotion of her philosophy of rational self-interest (see Objectivism):

“There’s nothing of any importance in life – except how well you do your work.  Nothing. Only that.  Whatever else you are, will come from that.  It’s the only measure of human value.  All the codes of ethics they’ll try to ram down your throat are just so much paper money put out by swindlers to fleece people of their virtues.  The code of competence is the only system of morality that’s on a gold standard.”

“I would say that man’s only moral commandment is: Thou shall think.  But a ‘moral commandment’ is a contradiction in terms.  The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed.  The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments.”

“...man's mind is the root of all the goods produced and of all the wealth that has ever existed on earth.”

“...man exists for the achievement of his desires...”

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as 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.” ~postscript by Ayn Rand

 

Galt is later revealed to be an inventor of a motor that may as well be the equivalent of aAtlasShrugged perpetual motion machine, one that he abandons in the face of a compulsory “to each as they have needs” socialist workplace structure.  He not only withdraws, but persuades other key industrialists and managers that the only reason Moochers can mooch is because people of ability allow it.  The solution is to withdraw from the system in a very literal sense. Gradually, each abandons his business and they relocate to a secretive area where they establish their own microeconomy.  The tenet is that taxation may be legal, but it remains “theft” in that it takes the wealth of one person (the tangible result of their time, work and energy – a finite resource) and gives it to others for their own free and unearned use.  Following are some quotes that speak to that fulcrum of decision between rational self interest vs. permissively being mooched.

“In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.”

“…the price is to start from scratch, to stand naked in the face of reality and, reversing a costly historical error, to declare: I am, therefore I’ll think.”

“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.”

The latter is the price of admission to Galt’s society and the lynchpin motto of followers of Rand’s philosphy.  As a worthy add-on, following is a quote that appeals because it occurred to me long ago when considering the growing National Debt.

“The only proper purpose of a government is to protect mans’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence… The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to… settle disputes by rational rules according to objective law.”

While I find much with which to agree, I do have some issues with the book and her philosophy overall.  For one, that a man would cede his romantic interest to another man because he recognizes that the other is a superior match ignores the reality of emotion.  She makes Vulcans out of men and seems to equate wives as defacto Moochers.  Secondly, or maybe firstly, 1,000+ pages could be whittled to 350 for an efficient and effective platform to, oh, maintain reader interest and more concisely score her points.  I’ll say I read it all, but… once you get the gist, you loosely skim the 20 page dissertations.  Also, Rand forces her contempt for religious thought into the narrative, essentially casting it as a vehicle for the dim-witted to distract themselves from pursuing their own happiness in the real world.  Whether you agree or not is besides the point – the case was never made effectively, despite the voluminous opportunity.   Another is that she never regards charity as a plausible action for a person of reason, though it would be if they find happiness in that pursuit.  It’s that Vulcan thing again.

The treatment of those in need is particularly dangerous.  While the factors leading to dependency are fair targets, she turns her back on those in need.  As the “doers” of capitalism withdraw, the systems of the world fall apart for lack of leadership and direction – and then financing.  She leaves the remainder of humanity to their own pitifil end.  She touches on organized looting as an expected outcome, but, at the end, there is nothing left to loot.  She’s willing to let the moochers literally starve while those who are capable resettle to begin society anew.  Conceptually, interesting or revolting, depending on your viewpoint.  To me, it’s only a shade different from the philosophy of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger who sought to eradicate inherited traits likely to cause mooching by segregating and effectively sterilizing that population:

“The first step would thus be to control the intake and output on morons, mental defectives, epileptics.  The second step would be to take an inventory of the secondary group such as illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, dope-fiends; classify them in special departments under government medical protection and segregate on farms and open spaces as long as necessary for the strengthening and development of moral conduct.

Still, earning one’s keep stands as the overarching theme, coupled with recognition of the personal harms of governmental/societal claims on a person.  Both are timely messages that have relevance today, given that up to half of U.S. citizens receive some form of government assistance and the promoted view, particularly by our President, that citizenship is not a right but an obligation which demands “spreading the wealth” and volunteerism as a societal oughtness.  That last may be a valid expression for those who seek to find happiness in that form of their time and energy, but as a societal expectation, it’s dangerous as it can quickly lead to mandatory requirements given the current latitude given to the well spoken and the well meaning who have no reservations in deepening the well of debt.

Overall, reading this book was a worthwhile pursuit despite its length.  The main characters were interesting and in may respects sympathetic when weighed against the enormity of the societal structures set against them.  And, as Rand would likely applaud, it offered many ideas worthy of thoughtful exploration, or,  “I am, therefore I’ll think.” 

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