Saturday, November 08, 2008

Pop Culture Question

I was reading Michael Berube's latest post today (sorry, don't know how to do that diacritical marks), where he talks about operation "Go John Galt." I know just enough about 20th century lit to know that John Galt is a character in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and that Rand is one of those novelists conservatives like to talk about and recommend.*

But the John Galt jokes got me wondering, so I looked at everyone's favorite quickie source, Wikipedia, to at least get the jist of things. One of the subsections is on Objectivism; according to the Wikipedia entry,
Objectivism embraces objective reality in metaphysics, reason in epistemology, and rational egoism in ethics. In politics she was a proponent of laissez-faire capitalism and individual rights, believing that the sole function of a proper government is protection of individual rights (including property rights).

She believed that individuals should choose their values and actions solely by reason. According to Rand, the individual "must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life."[19] Because she held that faith is antithetical to reason, Rand opposed religion. (Source: Wikipedia: Ayn Rand)

I'm sort of surprised that so many conservatives, especially those who espouse religion as a deeply held belief, should find Rand so appealing. I mean, I could go for embracing objective reality, reason, rational egoism.

I'd take rational egoism in a more progressive direction, because protecting my individual rights doesn't only mean my rights under the US constitution, but also means protecting the environment I have to live in and protecting other people at the same time. I reason that it benefits me to have a well-educated population, for example, so it's well worth my tax money to help educate people. I reason that having a fire department is likely to help me some day, so I'm willing to pay my taxes. And so forth. I reason that capitalism forces companies to try to make a profit at whatever cost, so I reason that it's necessary for a government of and by the people to regulate those costs (labor practices, environmental costs, and so forth).

So what's the appeal of the John Galt character? And can someone explain the joke? Does he stiff waiters regularly or something?

*One of my college roommates had a copy of one of Rand's novels and recommended it highly to me, but I didn't get past about the third page before I stopped, for whatever reason, I don't remember. We both pretty much memorized the whole of her Robin William's album, though, so it wasn't a lost summer altogether.


  1. John Galt withdrew from society because he discovered that the statists were depending on his mind, productivity, and sanction to keep their system running.

    You say you support taxes and regulation because you think they'll benefit you. John Galt thought they were harming him. He did not plot the forcible overthrow of the system, but merely withdrew from it (and encourged other producers to do the same). Deprived of the minds upon which it depended, the society collapsed.

  2. As for conservatives liking Rand, yes, it's bizarre. Those people who list their favorite books as "Atlas Shrugged and the Bible" are reading both selectively. Rand herself had nothing good to say about conservatives. For example:

    If the religionist wing of conservatism is futile, the secular one is, perhaps, worse. The religionists preach the morality of altruism, knowing that the liberals and the extreme left are its much more consistent practitioners, but hoping—since consistency is a requirement of reason, not of faith—that a miracle will wipe out that fact. The secular conservatives solve the contradiction by discarding morality altogether, by surrendering it to the enemy and declaring that social-political-economic problems are amoral.

    More here.

  3. Conservatism has gotten as far as it has through an uneasy coalition between social/religious conservatives (who often end up voting against their economic interests) and rich conservatives who want to hold onto their money (and who don't really care about prayer in school or outlawing abortion). Rove's genius has been in coordinating the movement so well and making it look much more unified than it is.

    I don't think you'd be much of a rational egoist at all, because back of that stance is the assumption of the superiority of the successful --- those who are on top are doing well because they are smarter and stronger than everyone else and thus they deserve to be there.

    There was also a rape scene that totally skeeved me out in either Atlas Shrugged or the Fountainhead that was presented as a great and wonderful thing because the hero was heroically taking what he wanted and needed and therefore, was deserved. I have no Rand could endorse that unless she so completely identified with the male hero that she didn't even think of how the situation could apply to her as a woman.

  4. Yeah, it goes like this: just when you think the religious right is terrifying, they bring out those guys. The vampiric right.

  5. Mark, thanks for explaining.

    Sisyphus, Thanks. That shows I shouldn't try to understand a philosophy from a paragraph on the internet!

    MSILF, Sounds like. Thanks!

  6. Sisyphus, that rape was in The Fountainhead.

    And here I thought reading all of Ayn Rand was a high school rite of passage, one that most people got over by about age 16. Bardiac, if you ever get the urge to read any of them, you only need to read one, because they are the same book. Really.