Futures and Options

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Going John Galt

A libertarian-minded friend recently brought up the idea of “going John Galt”: packing it all up and withdrawing his productive talents from American society as a protest against the absurd frenzy of government regulation and bailouts sparked by the economic downturn–in effect, going on strike. Turns out he’s not the only one to entertain this notion.
Yet, as much as I agree with their intentions, I wonder if these protesters have misnamed their campaign against big government, and if they should really be looking to John Galt as a model of rebelliousness.

Their defiance is nominally styled on the exploits of the hero of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Galt is the brilliant inventor who vows to “stop the motor of the world” by convincing all the men of great productive ability–the men of the mind–to join his strike. Galt’s goal is the utter destruction of the moral-political edifice of modern America–the elimination of the notion that man is his brother’s keeper. In the novel, it works. Industry and commerce crumble, and the rule of law soon gives way to anarchy.

I once described the novel to my mom, who hadn’t read it. “Sounds like a terrorist,” she said. Her remark gave me pause: she was condemning the hero of one my all-time favorite literary works, yet she sort of had a point. Galt and his comrades are able to stand by, secure in their mountain hideaway, and watch the self-ruination of the world below, exactly as they meant it to happen. Is that not the same sort of moral arrogance–the unflinching belief that one’s vision of the world is correct, and the acceptance of human suffering as a necessary means to achieve that vision in its purest form–that allows men to fly commercial airplanes into crowded skyscrapers? Well, no and yes.

No, because Galt is very careful in choosing his method of rebellion. He doesn’t do anything, which is the entire point. He doesn’t take anyone’s life; he forces everyone to live his life on his own, without mooching off the efforts of others. He lays bare the reality that the bulk of society rests on the productive ability of a determined few. Those that cannot make it on their own, perish (see Zenmervolt’s post on shooting horses).

So yes, the means are different–omission versus commission–yet the end goal of Galt and real-world fanatical jihadists is identical: the destruction of Western civilization. Galt does not flinch at this outcome; he simply sees no alternative. He perceives the moral underpinnings of society to be rotten to the core, and a great and violent cleansing is the only way to wipe the slate clean. This is one of several ways in which I believe Rand’s writing departs from reality (although I don’t think her artistic goal is an accurate portrayal of reality, which is one of the reasons Atlas Shrugged is such an elegantly powerful philosophical statement). Decent men, even if they buy into Galt’s individualist philosophy wholeheartedly, are incapable of watching the suffering of fellow men with heroic detachment. Humans simply aren’t programmed that way. And that’s one of the reasons that “going John Galt” is a poor name for modern-day protests. I doubt that most of the real-world strikers have the goal of destroying Western civilization as they know it. They simply lack the desire to participate in the system any longer.

And even if ruin and anarchy were their goal, achieving it by going on strike from society would be unlikely to achieve it. It’s too easy for humans to survive in this world. Our historic inventiveness has made life incredibly easy, and we are never required to acknowledge the root means of our existence. Thus, I simply cannot foresee the world falling to pieces as it did in the novel, even if a significant percentage of the world’s productive citizens “went John Galt.” People will go on happily, comfortably, unthinkingly for a long while, maintaining the moral-political status quo.

What “going John Galt” amounts to in the real world is an act of political expression. And in that vein, it may have some impact. Personally, I still think the world is a pretty good place, with lots of people worth dealing with, and I am not ready to withdraw myself, even if I had the means and wherewithal to do so. So my own acts of political expression will be writing blog posts, voting, etc. I am still hopeful that we can change the status quo from within. Rand’s novel is a tremendous artistic statement about a powerful philosophy; it is not, and does not strive to be, an accurate portrayal of the real world. Its worth as a guide to real-world action is dubious, but its worth as a guide to philosophy is indisputable, and those who live in the real world would do well to read and understand it.

posted by Strix nebulosa at 15:04  


  1. “So yes, the means are different–omission versus commission–yet the end goal of Galt and real-world fanatical jihadists is identical: the destruction of Western civilization.”

    I cannot agree with this assessment. The goal of terrorists is indeed the destruction of Western civilization, but that is not the goal of John Galt. Galt’s goal is the eventual revitalization of Western civilization. In the same way that physical therapy’s goal is to revitalize the body by forcing weakened muscles to work and, through that work, become strong, Galt’s goal is to “revitalize” Western civilization by forcing the parasitic elements to become productive.

    Comment by Zenmervolt — Wednesday, 08 April, 2009 @ 15:30

  2. I agree with your characterization of Galt’s ultimate goal. The point is that he’s willing to let a whole lot of people suffer and die to achieve that goal. An apter analogy would be lopping off a few gangrenous limbs so that only the healthy parts of the body remain. Or, even more precisely, the healthy heart refusing to pump any blood to those organs that aren’t working properly. No matter the worth of the ultimate goal, the sacrifice is tremendous. Terrorists believe they have worthy goals as well.

    Comment by Strix nebulosa — Thursday, 09 April, 2009 @ 07:15

  3. I still think that my physical therapy comparison holds more strongly than your examples. It’s painful, and certainly involves suffering (there’s a reason that people used to joke about Physical Therapists being “Physical Terrorists”), but the end result is that the muscle becomes healthy again. In your examples, the malfunctioning parts are thrown away or starved of vital fluids, but Galt does neither. His productivity is not an ability exclusive to himself; the ability for self-sufficiency exists in every human (rhetorical purposes here, let us ignore, for a moment, the obligation to help those who are physically unable to work, etc) so Galt is not denying anyone the means to live. The unproductive pieces are not thrown away as “gangrenous limbs”, but are rather rehabilitated into productive members of the societal body as happens during physical therapy and rehabilitation.

    To be sure, Galt’s actions are hyperbolic for narrative reasons, and I agree that people are unwise to “go Galt” in a literal sense, but I cannot agree with any evaluation of Galt that equates him with a terrorist.

    Comment by Zenmervolt — Thursday, 09 April, 2009 @ 10:06

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