Stephen W. Browne | Rants and Raves

Jan/14

18

Going Galt

There is some good news and bad news about employment.

The good news is, that although employers created only an anemic 74,000 jobs in December, nevertheless the unemployment rate fell from 7 percent to 6.7 percent.

The bad news is, the reason unemployment has dropped appears to be because two-thirds of the adult, able-bodied unemployed aren’t looking for work at all.

That’s the lowest labor force participation since 1978.

There’s an expression that’s been gaining currency in the last few years, “Going Galt.”

The phrase comes from the book “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. Also know as “Atlas Shrugged and Shrugged and Shrugged…” by those who don’t fancy three-hour speeches dropped into the middle of the plot.

The theme of the book is that fed-up with an intrusive government destroying the economy the “men of the mind” go on strike. Some run off to a hidden valley in Colorado, while others take jobs that make them just enough to keep body and soul together.

One character goes off and becomes a pirate on the high seas, but we get to see disappointingly little of him.

In the course of the novel the economy grinds to a halt.

The durn thing is long, it’s annoyingly didactic and in some spots just downright weird. It’s also sold about seven million copies in English alone since its publication in 1957. Not counting foreign editions. I’ve met Ayn Rand fans from Russia, India, Bulgaria and Iran.

Part of the appeal is the gripping descriptive writing. From the first page you can see the palpable decay of society in the crumbling infrastructure and endless frustrating difficulties of bureaucracy strangling a civilization.

When I uprooted my life and moved to the former Soviet bloc shortly after the fall of communism I felt like everything I saw in the grim, grey, filthy cities was somehow familiar.

For another, Rand gave disaffected youth permission to be themselves, to seek out a destiny of their own choice. That’s considered more-or-less normal in these days of “follow your bliss” but back then it was heady stuff with a whiff of brimstone about it.

Ironically in her personal life Rand was a powerful and dominating personality who considered her personal tastes the norm of the universe. A circle of acolytes that gathered around her lived in mortal dread of not fitting in. Some people who knew her say it was best to admire her from a distance.

Rand grew up Jewish in Russia, and survived the revolution, the civil war, and the Great Terror just getting out and coming to America in 1925. Here she found intellectuals hailing the horror she’d escaped from as the first steps towards the utopian future.

Among conservative anti-communists National Review read her out of the movement entirely in a review by Whittaker Chambers.

Chambers called it a “remarkably silly book” and said, “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To the gas chambers — go!’”

Still it continues to sell, with sales doubling and tripling in recent years. A few conservatives have actually recommended it in public, causing great glee among Democrats who charge Republicans with being the party of Ayn Rand.

No such thing of course. Among other things, Rand was an outspoken atheist and not what you’d call a family values sort of person.

What she has given contemporary culture is that notion of “Going Galt.”

For me Rand’s central premise, that progress is the result of a few lonely geniuses dragging the world into the future kicking and screaming, just doesn’t work.

Even a cursory study of the history of industry and technology shows that while there are figures of towering genius, progress is driven by the efforts of a lot of people, mostly obscure.

But what happens when taxes and inflation grow to the point that the effort versus profit curve is so steep it just isn’t worth the bother?

What happens when running a business means all your decisions are subject to arbitrary review by bureaucrats who have to justify their salaries by sticking it to somebody every now and again?

What happens when expressing the wrong opinion, or just telling a tasteless joke can mean your job, your career?

What happens when you realize success depends on political connections, or promotion on being the right demographic regardless of merit?

What happens when you realize you could collect benefits equal to twice the entry-level salary in your job?

Could it be that a lot of people are just going to say, “The heck with it, I’m going to chuck it and spend time with my friends/children/books.”

And I hate to say it, but it’s looking better to me all the time.

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1 comment

  • Tim · March 6, 2014 at 9:00 am

    I know it’s been a long time but I think I should point out that Rand’s vision was not that a few industrialists left the working world. Many hard working people did as well. Some of these even became the next generation of entrepreneurs when they began mining coal that the government seized corporations couldn’t seem to do. While the industrialists led the cause, they were joined by many people who felt that their hard earned lower wages were supporting parasites.

    This is hard to argue with today. The super wealthy pay a smaller percentage in tax than the average middle class worker. Lower income really ARE supported by the middle class.

    This is where Rand got it wrong. The system will collapse when the middle class leads the strike. The upper and lower classes are both parasites on an increasingly unhealthy middle class.

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