June 8th, 2011

Who is (afraid of) John Galt?

I’m writing this due to the recent release of the first part of a planned film version of Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged. One of our friends has asked us a couple of times if I’d be interested in going to see it. I’ve declined, not just because I’m genuinely not interested, but because my view of Rand’s philosophy has changed from being amused at the naiveté of it, to considering it an active blight on the body politic.

Rand has her points. I have sympathy with the “objectivist” portion of her thinking, which resonates with my own agnostic/atheistic ideas. The great harm being done by radical fundamentalists of all religions, and the current strong tendency to favor ignorant faith over informed critical thinking are major problems. Unfortunately, any tendency to incorporate that portion of Rand’s doctrines into current political discourse, if there even is one, has been totally overwhelmed by “social conservatives” who have co-opted the “Tea Party” movement for the same old strongly anti-Libertarian agenda of imposing their belief system on everyone else, as shown by the actions to restrict abortion availability moving through the now-Republican dominated legislatures with Tea Party support.

I have actually heard Tea Party spokesmen admit that their agenda is actually supposed to be purely economic and this isn’t part of it, but there’s very little effort being made to separate the two. However, that’s purely a side issue.

The main problem is the wholesale abuse of Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” idea. Rand speaks of “enlightened self-interest”—but we are seeing way too much self-interest out there and damn little enlightenment. Untrammeled selfishness is just as great an evil as its near-cousin, unlimited greed, if not greater, since someone who’s greedy might actually decide to share what they’ve accumulated, but Rand’s jeremiad against altruism even argues against that.

I say that I was amused by Rand’s “do-it-yourself” ethic: it is a very attractive idea for teenage boys, who believe that they are invulnerable and omnicompetent. That is, they can do anything, and nothing can stop them. Those of us with more experience, however, know that life is not like that. Single people can, and have, built houses, cleared roads, and dammed streams. No lone individual, however, ever built a skyscraper, a railroad, a highway, or a suspension bridge. In The Fountainhead, when Howard Roark blows up the Cortlandt housing project, he is destroying not only his own work, but that of all those who sweated and bled to build it. Rand admits the possibility of voluntary cooperation, but the refusal to admit that most things of more than individual importance not only benefit from, but require group effort to accomplish, is a major blind spot in Rand’s thought and indicative of profound intellectual dishonesty in those who have come after. This may be because, once you accept this, “Libertarianism” evolves into anarcho-syndicalism.

Which brings us to the “taxation is theft” rubric: this whole idea ignores the concept of a social contract. It is, at heart, entirely “unconstitutional”, since it is counter to the ideas of providing for the “common defense”, or “promoting the general welfare.” With no taxation to fund any governance, it is hard to see how justice or domestic tranquility are to be obtained, or the blessings of liberty to be secured. The pure Randite system is nothing more than the Hobbesian “state of nature” in which we have the “war of all against all,” of which Hobbes writes “Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”(Thomas Hobbes, “Leviathan”, Chapter XIII.)

How would the great visions of the “prime movers”, of Roark and Galt, be accomplished in a system with minimal cooperation? The simple answer is, it is folly to think they ever could be. 
The “tax = theft” people ignore everything that has gone before them in the way of legislation, jurisprudence, and social policy. They disregard that their elected representatives, and those of prior generations, have hammered out compromises over many years as to what is desirable for government to do and how to pay for its being done.

There is a great deal of dangerous doublethink associated with Rand’s philosophy. I haven’t been mean enough to ask my friend why, if he is such a Libertarian, doesn’t he send back the Social Security payments he needs to live, or do without the Medicare that’s provided him some alleviation of symptoms that have plagued him for years? I don’t think Rand ever reaches the question of what do Libertarians do when they get old and sick? I guess the answer is, if they haven’t laid up enough money to hire help, then they should reduce the excess population and die. I can appreciate that position as perhaps admirably principled in a Stoic fashion as applied to oneself, but somehow I don’t see it becoming popular.

I did ask my friend, “How can you be both a Randite and a labor unionist? Isn’t that a major cognitive disconnect?” My friend replied that unions are appropriate when confronted with bosses that don’t deal fairly with their workers. A truly Libertarian boss should be honest and up-front with his hired help. So, unions, otherwise demonized in the Libertarian philosophy, aren’t needed if you have a “good boss.” Hmm. Isn’t that what ALL the bosses say? “Trust us, we’ll be good to you—you don’t need to organize--.”

I was also interested to recently learn that Rand’s philosophy does admit of “bad” businessmen, called “crony capitalists”. “Crony capitalists” are those who “cozy up” to the government, take advantage of regulation, and accept government handouts. By this definition, every major business on earth and most small ones, are run by crony capitalists. Who, then, is going to be part of the Libertarian revolution?
Which brings us to the question, “Who is John Galt?” I reply, “There is no John Galt.” Galt was based upon men like Henry Ford, who were already history when Atlas Shrugged was written. Who would the John Galt of our day be? Bill Gates? Larry Page and Sergey Brin? Mark Zuckerberg? With respect for the accomplishments of these gentlemen, they are not the brawny, hard-nosed industrialists of bygone days that Galt is based upon, and it is debatable whether such a creature ever has existed.

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