And Atlas continues to shrug
For most of my adult life, I've been told about Ayn Rand's famous novel — but had no idea what it was about. It was particularly popular among my Libertarian buddies. So I finally ordered a copy...and when it came, I had to update the prescription for my reading glasses, because it's over a thousand pages in nine-point type.
Early on, I was able to kind of get a handle on what it was about. There are basically two kinds of people: problem-solvers or innovators who are constantly trying to make things work better...and cronies, who have an overwhelming sense of entitlement and who ferociously cling to the status quo.
Not much later, the story began to creep me out. Not because of some quirky aspect of the story...but due to our current pandemic. I was seeing Rand's vision of authoritarian cronyism taking place right before my eyes. In the story, first published in 1957, crony bureaucrats assume control of businesses via some kind of vague government policy...and, guess what!...shortages of just about everything started happening. We now call these "supply chain" problems. The story mentioned black marketeers who snuck around under the radar in order to fill in some of the gaps.
Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum in 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russia. When she was twelve, Lenin got off a train in her city...and zealous cronies took over her world. At the age of 21, she came to America, eventually to become a Hollywood screenwriter. By 1957, she was already an established novelist...and now, it seems, she was also exceptionally prescient. Had I read this book more than two years ago, this may not have occurred to me.
Various concepts are presented in the story. The "Equalization of Opportunity Bill" and "The State Science Institute" are eerily significant. "Who is John Galt?" is at first a non sequitur that is repeated a few times...but then he appears in the flesh as a major character. The main character, Dagny Taggart (who, I assume, represents Rand herself), was heading west on her own railroad when the crew abandoned the train in the middle of nowhere. She trekked to an airport and rented a plane, ultimately to crash land in a remote valley in the Rockies...where she met John Galt.
Later on, Galt seized a radio network and delivered a rant that takes up about 50 pages of the book. In it, he essentially laid out the Objectivist philosophy that Rand is best known for. The primary targets of Galt's ire are mystics...people who rely on feelings and fantasies rather than common sense (objectivity). In our world, public policy is consumed with concern for imaginary problems such as injustices suffered by "people of color", a shortage of "affordable" housing causing drug addicts to live in parks and under freeways and, of course, the "catastrophic" impact reckless humans are forcing on weather and climate. Prescient? You bet.
At first, I was impressed with her immigrant's understanding of America. But now I think her understanding is really of human nature. America is just a setting, providing language and geography. Needless to say, she was a good learner, which is why we still talk about her.
Back to Galt's rant: What is implied is a profound aversion to authority. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek sticks it to "planners," a typical kind of bureaucratic crony. An obvious problem with centralized planning and control is that the consequences of mistakes are far-reaching, whereas an individual's isolated error is tightly contained, and a valuable lesson may also be learned. At one point, someone calls Galt an "egoist," and he doesn't object. The self is paramount. The cronies are constantly preaching about concern for the community, an amorphous stew of external interests.
But what motivates the crony bureaucrats? Why do they go to all that trouble just to make things worse? They live for power, which allows them to control the rest of us. And a surefire way to hold on to that power is to make it really easy for people to be stupid. According to today's prevailing dogma, stupid people need counselors, also known as navigators — helpers who guide the stupid through their days while strictly conforming to crony dogma. And how is being stupid made easier? By giving people lots of unearned money, all at taxpayer expense, of course.
So who, in the real world of today, might be the equivalent of John Galt? C'mon, the answer is obvious: The Donald. Certainly not a crony, and certainly an accomplished problem-solver. Egoist? You bet. The fictional Galt was certainly a lot less flamboyant, but Trump happens to be a real human, not just a character in a famous novel.
What is left out of Rand's story — that is part of our current reality — is the emergency that enables the cronies to herd the masses into de facto slavery. The real cronies have been pounding on predictions of weather/climate disaster for years, with less and less effectiveness. Then along came the dreaded virus, as if it were an answer to a tyrant's prayer. And yet, as with most other repeated attempts at fear-mongering, the targeted masses are growing weary of the cronies' effort.
In Rand's story, the cronies, out of desperation, strenuously try to badger Galt into accepting the dictatorship of the country, as a figurehead behind which they could hide and continue to do their dirty work. He refuses. In our world, there is also a growing sense of desperation among the forces of the left. They could possibly become ever more dangerous as a result — but they are also running out of ammunition and time.