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Mar 19 2009

In the name of Galt, go!

Yesterday, I wrote about the predictable opposition of the low-tax/no-tax zealots to the implementation of the sunset clause that will at the end of 2010 revert the tax rates to its 2000 values.

The most bizarre feature of this opposition has been those who are threatening to ‘go Galt’. Apparently they are taking their cue from John Galt, the hero of the Ayn Rand 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, who inspired all the allegedly talented people, the leaders of business and arts and inventors and scientists, to show their disgust with the government burdening them with regulations and ‘taking’ their money in taxes for society’s benefit, by abandoning their prosperous careers and going on strike, even withdrawing to a remote enclave in Colorado called Galt’s Gulch. By withholding their talents from society, they caused society to crumble, teaching it the harsh lesson that the very gifted and talented must be left unfettered and tax-free so that their ambition is not shackled and their genius can flourish and thus society as a whole benefits.

(Note: I have not read Atlas Shrugged so am dependent on others as to the plot and what ‘going Galt’ involves. I did read Rand’s The Fountainhead but after a promising start, it rapidly degenerated into a dreary polemic, with two-dimensional stereotypical characters behaving in utterly predictable ways, the whole thing written in melodramatic prose. There is no way that I am going to read 1000 more pages of Rand, though Atlas Shrugged sounds like a real hoot, even if unintentionally so. But Rand has a cult-like following for her philosophy of what she called objectivism, including even people like former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.)

It seems like the current admirers of Rand’s hero John Galt share the quaint delusion that they too are indispensable elements of society and that if they stop (or even reduce) working in protest at the sunset provisions of the tax code going into effect, society will be so devastated that we will beg them to come back, even if it means eliminating their taxes entirely and letting them do whatever they want.

Because rich people are surrounded by people who want or need to please them (relatives who want favors or money, employees who want to advance their careers, politicians and business people seeking to benefit from them, waiters and other staff who fear losing their jobs if they are not appropriately servile, etc.), they are prone to falling into the trap of thinking they possess some special knowledge or intangible quality that others lack and is the source of their success. They do not realize that they got where they are largely due to luck, inheritance, or privilege, and that they are easily replaceable.

During the current uproar over the bonuses paid to AIG executives, one defense of the payments has been that the people receiving the bonuses are the only ones who understand the complex structures that were created, and thus must be placated and retained if we are to ever unravel the mess.

Oh, please. Put in a new team of honest and hard working people with fairly sophisticated mathematics, computing, and accounting knowledge and skills and I would expect them to figure out the whole thing very quickly. Let’s face it, even if truly great minds like Newton, Darwin, and Einstein had never existed, the great discoveries now associated with them would still have been made. What makes these financiers think that they are so necessary, so irreplaceably clever? It is only math-phobic people who think that derivatives, credit default swaps, and the like are deeply mysterious.

I myself think that we would all be a lot better off if all those threatening to ‘go Galt’ actually carried out their threat. Society will do well to have these egomaniacs voluntarily go off into some remote location and remain there, telling each other how essential they are, even as the rest of us soon forget they ever even existed.

So to all those threatening to ‘go Galt’, I can do no better than echo the words of Oliver Cromwell who 350 years ago, when faced with an obstructionist parliament, said:

“It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money; is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? is there one vice you do not possess? ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter’d your conscience for bribes? is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth? ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil’d this sacred place, and turn’d the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves become the greatest grievance.

Your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse this Augean stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings in this House; and which by God’s help, and the strength he has given me, I am now come to do; I command ye therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place; go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.

In the name of God, go!”

Unfortunately, I don’t think the Galtists are likely to carry out their plan as their hero envisaged, which was a full-bore withdrawal from society. While I like to fantasize about all the Wall Street financiers and business and political leaders who caused this mess huddling under blankets in the Rockies, complaining about how badly they’ve suffered as a result of the repeal of the tax cuts, and eating beans cooked over an open fire like olden day cowboys, I suspect that they will not leave the comforts of life and will instead remain and just whine annoyingly about how no one really appreciates them and why they deserve to be paid more and taxed less.

Sadly, these ‘mercenary wretches’ who are ‘odious to the whole nation’ will continue to be a pestilence amongst us.

POST SCRIPT: Sesame Street

I love the music and the muppets and humor on Sesame Street. They all come together well in this segment with Forgetful Jones starring in Oklahoma!

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Uri

    Amen, brother! Great quote from Cromwell – I hadn’t seen that one before.

  2. 2
    Jacqueline Greene

    Fabulous! Thank you, Dr. Singham.

  3. 3
    jpmeyer

    There are so, so many aspects of “going Galt”, both in the way the book presents it and in the warped way that it is being interpreted.

    1) One of the supreme ironies of going Galt that both Rand and these people missed is that while these people claim to be supreme individuals, their plan only works because of collective action.
    2) When the characters vanish in the book, they simply vanish. They don’t make huge fuss about the whole thing. It’s highly unlikely that they would ever truly withdraw from society, but after hemming and hawing about withdrawing from society, they defeat the entire purpose of their statement by giving everyone time to make plans for a smooth transition, whether it’s adjusting taxes or finding a new CEO
    3) The fact that Atlas Shrugged is a work of fiction and that the world we live in exists is proof enough that society would get along just fine without John Galt and friends ever existing
    4) The book basically requires the geniuses that withdrew from society to invent wonder inventions that can do things like pull electricity out of the air so that all these indispensable capitalists don’t have to be reduced to menial labor
    5) And on that note, despite being capitalist titans, they never seem to learn the lesson of the importance of the division of labor.
    6) Objectivists frequently miss the point that the reason Rand was railing against all this government interference and whatnot was because of the enormous amount of regulation passed by the New Deal which didn’t actually help the economy. Unfortunately, both sides conveniently forget that these laws were then repealed or struck down (like the Schechter Sick Chickens case) after seeing that they were not helping.
    7) The supporters often miss the point that Rand’s heroes are people like engineers or architects that actually produce things that benefit society, and that the enormous misallocation of capital over the last 5-10 years (and the mind-boggling losses at places like AIG that dwarf all the profits that were made) implies that society would have been better off if these people never existed.

    My preferred term for this whole nonsense isn’t “going Galt” but rather “going Bioshock”, after the recent video game about what would happen to a society which went Galt.

  4. 4
    Vincenzo

    As the quote goes …

    “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” General Charles De Gaulle

  5. 5
    Josh Friedman

    I see a lot of parallels here to the recent posts you made regarding the Cramer-Stewart feud. Similarly you have these CEOs and executives with overinflated egos given softball interviews by “journalists” who just want to bask in their manufactured light.

    Sure the heart of the problem is with the egos, but is our hypocritical society not also culpable? On one hand we lambaste these people for their ego and greed, but on the other hand our “American Dream” inspires us to become them. Ask Americans, if given the choice, they would trade places with one of those AIG executives. I bet most would say yes and take the multi-million dollar bonus.

  6. 6
    peter lafond

    Although I am a liberal I am often troubled by the animous towards achievement. What is wrong with achieving excellence? I mean you can not cure sickness sitting around smoking reefer. I think that is what conservatives are so upset about. There are pleny of wealthy actors and muscians so what is the problem. Myself personally I have been considered in bad taste for wanting to improve my skills and become educated- most conservatives root for me. So what gives? why is achievement bad, and self improvement considered so bad amoung regular liberals?

  7. 7
    Mano

    Vincenzo,

    Thanks for the de Gaulle quote. I had remembered it and wanted to include it in the post but could not recall the exact wording or who had said it.

  8. 8
    Mano

    Peter,

    I don’t think anyone has any animus towards achievement or excellence. That would be absurd.

    What is objected to is the attitude that these people achieved their success entirely on their own with no help from others or from the society that nurtured them and enabled them to succeed, by their own intrinsic and superior abilities, and that thus they have no obligation whatsoever to others, that they should be able make as much money as they can and keep all of it for themselves, and that any effort to aid others not as fortunate as themselves constitutes some kind of robbery from them.

    That to me seems the height of arrogance, selfishness, and self-serving delusion.

  9. 9
    James Newport

    There sure are a lot of misconceptions here regarding Rand, her novel, and the ideas she came up with and promoted. It’s also a shame that the post’s author commented about Atlas Shrugged when he has not even read it.

    There are actually more valuable men in society who elevate exponentially everyone’s standard of living. They organize businesses, make scientific discoveries, and see and figure out what others don’t. Everyone is not equal. If they left, the living standard would drop. If they withdrew to a society of their own, they may do menial jobs at first but at least they would not be living as slaves.

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