Atlas Shrugged Book Club, Entry 7: The Impotent Irrationality of John Galt

In the final, climactic part of Ayn Rand's novel, the mysterious John Galt gives his big speech. But is it revelatory or ridiculous?

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The Atlas Shrugged Book Club will conclude early next week with entries by Conor Friedersdorf and Garance Franke-Ruta. Meanwhile, email your final thoughts on Part III of the book, or the novel as a whole, to conor dot friedersdorf at gmail for possible inclusion in the last round.

From: Jerome Copulsky
To: Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta, Michael Brendan Dougherty
Subject: Part II

The crux of the Atlas Shrugged, the core of Rand's project, is John Galt's famous 60-page speech (roughly double the length of The Communist Manifesto), which can be regarded as a philosophy lecture or Objectivist sermon or Randian rant, depending on your point of view. In it, Galt presents his rationale for the strike -- a removal of sanction from the inverted morality of the "mystics" -- and his call to those to withdraw their support from the system, to join the strike themselves. 

He thus ushers in the novel's Götterdämmerung.

It is right to focus on the speech, for, as I have previously mentioned, the novel is merely the vehicle for the message. (And, as we read in the "About the Author" statement, Rand means it!) Throughout the address, Galt depicts a world-historical contest of moralities, a battle between good and evil, life and death. (No shades of gray here.) On the side of darkness there are the mystics of spirit and the mystics of muscle, who would force individuals to serve a god or their neighbor; they are really two sides of the same coin; they are those who "preach the creed of sacrifice" and are "haters of man."

And then there is the side of goodness and light.  Opposed to the parties of mystics are those like Galt himself, who regard man as a rational being, and whose morality is to serve oneself only. Reason, Rand asserts, leads to purpose and self-interest, which is the essence of virtue, and true human happiness. "Happiness," he explains, "is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values" and is one's "highest moral purpose." Such a state of being is "possible only to a rational man." And the highest of such man is the productive genius, such as Galt himself. In this world, all human relations become transactional, commercial, as seen in the Randian utopia of Galt's Gulch, where even borrowing your buddy's car for an afternoon will cost you. "There are no conflicts of interest among rational men," Galt confidently remarks at one point. "When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter." Galt's embrace of this true morality leads him to his political stance, an endorsement of a minimal state:

The only proper purpose of a government is to protect a man's rights which means: to protect him from physical violence. A proper government is only a policeman, acting as an agent of man's self-defense, and, as such, may resort to force only against those who start the use of force. The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contract from breach or fraud, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law.

The myriad problems raised by such a conception of a state should be obvious to anyone who thinks seriously about politics and property and power. In the rough and tumble of the real world, things are rarely as simple as Galt imagines them to be. There is, first of all, the question of what is meant here by "force," and what it means to commence with it. But one can then ask about the how the power of defense is to be organized; how big the military should be; who constructs the roads and bridges that it will use; how to regard the externalities of human activity such as, say, pollution; what should be the method of paying for such protection. 

The problems go on and on.

I want to note, however, that Galt regards this as a description of America's original political system, which he hopes to reestablish. I was rather struck by the notion that Rand's project was essentially restorative, that she saw a perfect coincidence between her ideas and the Founders. I trust that many readers find this claim preposterous. For starters, Galt states that America's system was founded on the premise "that man's life, his freedom, his happiness are his by inalienable right." This language is undoubtedly a paraphrase of the Declaration of Independence, but with a significant omission. For Jefferson, of course, people are endowed by their Creator with "certain unalienable Rights." (It's also worth mentioning that Jefferson saw the pursuit of happiness as one of these Rights, whereas Rand seems to have made happiness a right unto itself.)

There is, however, no room for a Creator God in Rand's materialist universe. Rand never indicates how human beings come to be, but it is clearly not from some beneficent Judeo-Christian deity. Rand also rejects the idea that rights are established by human convention, granted by states or by law. So from where, then, do such rights originate? Perhaps sensing this problem, Galt/Rand states that "Rights are conditions of existence required by man's nature for his proper survival." There is a lot packed into that sentence -- what is meant by "conditions of existence"? What is human nature? What is his "proper survival"? -- but although Galt drones on for hours (the text says for three, but I suspect that his speech would have gone on for much longer), he does not, to my mind, clear up these matters to any satisfaction. The claim about the origin of rights is simply asserted, not demonstrated. (In fact, this is my overall feeling about Galt's speech: "Reason" is used more as a rhetorical device -- to force the reader to submit to its positions -- than as a mode of argumentation.) I suppose someone with more patience for this book than I have could wade through Galt's muddled metaphysics and establish just how "the law of identity" leads to property rights, but remember that, in the plot of the novel, Galt's speech was a revolutionary act meant to inspire his listeners, undermine the regime of the looters, and usher in the reign of the Galtians; it was not a text to be brought to the seminar room and pored over by graduate students, but a call to arms. Or rather, a call to drop out.

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Atlas Shrugged Book Club

Conor Friedersdorf, Garance Franke-Ruta, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Jerome Copulsky

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