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Stephen Herrington Headshot

Who Is John Galt? No, Really.

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You have heard it from Tea Party Patriots and Libertarians for a while now: a reprise of the old rhetorical bumper sticker query, "Who is John Galt?" Don't remember him? He was the protagonist of Ayn Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, written in 1957.

John Galt was Rand's archetypal "philosopher hero" and Atlas Shrugged devotes pages and pages to Galt's (and Rand's) philosophy of "rational self-interest."

Rand, an atheist, conceived of "rational self-interest" as the natural state of man, ordering his relationships and actions more so than religion. (It may even have been that Rand constructed her argument to supplant religion, as the tenet of rational self-interest closely parallels and is consistent with Jesus' "Golden Rule.") Rand implies that no one, no rational person at least, would do unprovoked harm to others because it would not be in one's rational self-interest to do so. Fair enough, even makes sense.

It is when Rand and her hero Galt venture into politics that things get a little flimsy. Rand was born into a Russian Jewish middle class family that fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. Her firsthand experience with the excesses of authoritarian communism (her family's business was seized by the state) colored her worldview. Rand could not separate her childhood experiences from her intellectual work. Things might have turned out differently for us all had she been able to.

Rand correctly observed that authoritarian communism stifles creativity at some level, as it possesses the power to confiscate personal work product. She generalized this observation to all forms of socialism. She speculated that socialism would undermine the development of a perfected intellect and life through subjugation to an inferior common good. What she deemed the seduction of charity is little more than an indictment of the core of socialism. She advocated for laissez-faire capitalism as the only socioeconomic system that would allow the freedoms necessary for the full development of her idealized rational man. As for the common good, she proposes that we trust that it occurs as an unregulated property of mankind following the law of rational self-interest.

Ayn Rand was a drawing room capitalist, a theorist on a subject with which she had no practical experience (other than with its opposite). She could not understand, or ignored, the fact that the stifling of creativity and the seizure of work product is not the exclusive prerogative of communism. It happens every day in capitalism. Corporate monopolies act to break the will of competition. Corporations stifle creativity with things like planned obsolescence and the withholding of known solutions from markets in all fields. Corporations buy legislation, passing the cost on to consumers, and stack the legal deck against the public interest with impunity. Corrupt bureaucracy can be found at Wal Mart as easily as the Politburo.

To conclude that laissez-faire capitalism is any less onerous to the individual than is communism is simply not to have given the question much thought beyond one's own traumatized prejudice. Laissez-faire capitalism breeds mega-corporations that are immune to public influence. Corporations now rival the power of government and are in the process of owning it outright. While the forces of communism and the extremes of capitalism have lit off global warfare for a century, the moderating factor, the victor so far, has been in the province of Progressive thought. Communism suppresses deviation from the will of the state. Capitalism suppresses deviation from the will of the corporation. Progressivism is only an oppressor to those that would oppress. The Constitution was written by Progressives of their era.

No socioeconomic system is inherently evil. Most people are not inherently evil either. But there are enough evil people to chronically endanger the world under any socioeconomic system.

So, where Rand was right (piercing through her own faults of prejudice against socialism and charity) was in identifying an ideal to which the best of us should aspire. She, like Jesus, sought to provide a message to the betterment of man. Of course the difference is that Jesus' teaching was an admonition; it does not presume anyone's ability to consistently behave in accordance with it, just to try. Rand's worldview does the give credence to the weaknesses in the minds of individuals, nor does it recognize that short-sighted greed often invalidates her philosophy. She posits rational self-interest as a constant in humanity instead of what it should have been, an ideal and an admonition. We have spent thirty years proving that it is not a property of man to conduct himself with rational self-interest. Greed is not rational, but the greedy have exploited Rand to justify their greed.

Greed is not rational self-interest. Rational self-interest is not a force of markets or the nature of man. It is a hope and an ideal through which Rand attempted to put her childhood demons to rest. Until we are all able to live by the Golden Rule, it seems unlikely that rational self-interest (much less the self-regulation of businesses) will ever be something on which to bet a nation, as we have done of late.

Tea Party persons and Libertarians need to reconcile with this fact. But it will require far more thought than they have customarily been willing to spare. John Galt is a fiction, even to those of us who have been what he was fictionalized to be.