While shopping with my son at a bookstore, my son pointed to an endcap in the aisle. The sign over the books read “Who is John Galt?” The books that filled the endcap were copies of Ayn Rand’s masterpiece Atlas Shrugged. Though written in 1957, the book seems to be experiencing resurgence, probably in response tour changing times.
The novel depicts an American society in which the economy is collapsing as big industry is dying. This is a period when those who strive to earn a profit and expand their business are vilified by society and even their own family and charitable benefactors, while being regulated and taxed out of existence by the government. In this world Big Business is reviled and “the little guy” is exalted. Wealth and profit are meant to be sacrificed for the greater good, if not by will, then by force, or rather by government “directives”.
Unfortunately, as big business falls, so do “the little guys” that relied on the big businesses for orders. So do the jobs that the businesses provided. So do the services the businesses are able to provide, as they struggle to find the resources they need meet their own production. The government responds to the economic crisis with a number of emergency actions which only make matters worse. Between the taxes and the regulations, the only businesses that can hope to survive are the ones well represented in Washington.
Does this theme bear any resemblance to current events? Are we seeing incompetence rewarded at the expense of the profitable businesses, not to mention the taxpayers? What about the financial industry, rewarded with bailouts but supervised by a government pay czar? What about successful car dealerships that are closed as the bankrupt automakers are helped to “restructure”, after asking for over $30 billion in alms from the government only months ago? What about the health care reform proposals that threaten to tax businesses that don’t offer benefits, and remove the tax advantages for those that do? Do we need health care reform that tells doctors and hospitals what they can charge for their services? What about the rise in unions’ power that will inevitably take place should the Employee Free Choice Act become law?
The fictional John Galt fights against his idea of evil – robbing the productive individuals who create wealth, ideas, and inventions to give to the incompetent and less industrious – by recruiting such individuals to withhold their contributions from society. Society must learn that it needs those individuals and businesses that create jobs and wealth, and livelihoods must be earned by ability and industry, not by alms to the needy. Consider the janitor in a factory who owes his job to the inventor who created the product the factory produces, the engineers who designed the factory equipment and machinery, the sales and marketing people who find buyers for the factory’s production, and the financiers who took the risk to invest the factory and its production.
I do not believe that our society or government is evil. I do believe – and fear – that we are moving towards a socialist economy at alarming speed. The problem with socialism is that it puts too much power in too few hands and seeks to redistribute wealth without creating new wealth. Today, it seems every problem is an emergency, every plan must be drawn up at break-neck speed, and every decision must be made in haste, without taking time to consider the long term consequences and costs. The TARP fund was passed in haste, and the financial institutions had a “patriotic duty” to accept the government funds, and the strings that came with them. Bank of America had a responsibility to the public to merge with Merrill Lynch and take on their toxic assets, prompting another “emergency” infusion of government cash. (Did anyone see the PBS special Breaking the Bank?) Now the auto industry is being taken over by the taxpayers after their original alms failed to prevent bankruptcies.
So where is our true hope for liberation from the burden of taxes and unemployment and government imposition into private business? Where is the knowledge that production is the virtue to be rewarded, not mere need? Where is the entrepreneurial spirit that allows new ventures to rise where failed ventures fall, where the competent business leaders don’t have to compete with the businesses backed by government bailouts? How can we expect existing employers to pay through taxes for the failed businesses, and still make a profit themselves? What is the incentive to work for your living, when your labor supports so many who are not working? How long can the successful and profitable prop up the failed and unprofitable at the insistence of the government? If we cannot make our businesses successful, what makes us think we can elect a government fit to decide which businesses should be “saved” by a bailout and which should struggle without aid?
I do not seek an individual, real or imagined, who will know the formula to set our economy back on track. I seek the values that made us great to begin with. Where is the America that wanted to make money the old-fashioned way – by earning it? Where is the America that wanted and demanded a free economy, not a government-directed economy? Where is the America that believed that in a world of free trade, a man “earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved” and “does not ask to be paid for his failures”?
“In the brilliant rocket-explosion of its youth, this country displayed to an incredulous world what greatness was possible to a man, what happiness was possible on earth.”
Where is that America today? Where is John Galt?
 Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. First Dutton Printing (Centennial Edition), New York, 1985.