The death of John Galt
On Twitter, there is a fiercely libertarian, anti-state character called Old Holborn. At least there was, until he was chased off Twitter with threats of legal action for making offensive remarks. Note the role of the state here, in its legal form – this is important, as will shortly become apparent.
The consequence of the hounding of Old Holborn was unexpected. Far from disappearing, Old Holborn multiplied. Dozens of new Old Holborn accounts were created, all of them subtly different from the original. Eliminating Old Holborn now would be far more difficult than when it was a single Twitter account. Like a virus, Old Holborn is constantly mutating and proliferating. Vaccinating Twitter against Old Holborn is chasing a moving target.
The reason for this is, of course, the anger felt by some people with similar views at the hounding of Old Holborn by what they regard as a corrupt nannying state. But the effect is that Old Holborn is becoming a co-operative – a community of like-minded people. The idea of Old Holborn – an anonymous gadfly who lampoons the state apparatus and enjoys making mischief – has been “democritized”. Anyone can be Old Holborn.
Recently we’ve seen the same sort of phenomenon in the Bitcoin world. Bitcoin was widely perceived as being associated with criminal activity. So when the FBI closed down Silk Road, it was easy to see this as an attack on Bitcoin. More recently there was an outright attack by the Chinese central bank, which banned Chinese financial institutions from trading bitcoin. There were doubts about whether it would survive. But like Old Holborn, Bitcoin – or rather crypto-currencies, of which Bitcoin is the first - is mutating and proliferating. Every day we hear of another new “-coin”, and they are all subtly different. Closing them all down now would be impossible. So the idea of Bitcoin, too, has been “democritized”. Anyone can create a crypto-currency.
And this brings me to John Galt. In Ayn Rand’s book “Atlas Shrugged”, the inventor John Galt calls for a strike by the “men of ideas” whose work brings about economic prosperity. Ayn Rand’s philosophy, as expressed in John Galt’s famous speech, is one of what we might call “intrinsic ownership”; the ideas I have, and the prosperity they bring when I make them reality, are mine alone. Ordinary mortals, or the State legal apparatus, have no right either to remove “my property” from me, or to demand that I give it to them. They had neither the ideas, nor the energy to make them reality: therefore they should not benefit. Their only part in this is in the value of their labour in making my ideas reality, and the value of their labour is determined by me. If I choose to pay them more than that, it is my gift to them, not theirs by right. This is a very brief paraphrase of what is an extraordinarily long and rambling discourse. But I believe it captures the essence of the “John Galt” way of thinking.
As I write this, I am struck by how religious it is – which is odd, considering that Ayn Rand was famously atheist. In calling for an “inventor’s strike” in order to destroy the existing structure of society, John Galt sets up a conflict between the gods (the superhero “men of ideas”) and ordinary mortals. His aim is to establish the rule of the gods on earth. And he is prepared to “die” in order to achieve that: for a man of ideas to refuse to have ideas – to withdraw his essence from society – is death. John Galt’s speech is the longest suicide note in history.
But it’s not death for society. Like Old Holborn and Bitcoin, the death of John Galt enables others to live. Ideas are not solely the province of a few: they are the natural wealth of the human species. Bitcoin and Old Holborn are “seed capital”, not an end in themselves. When “men of ideas” try to hold their ideas to themselves – often, perversely, using the state’s legal powers to do so (patents, copyright and so forth) – they cause their own death: that very restriction encourages others to invent near-substitutes that may overtake and eclipse the original. The gods are doomed to fail in their quest for supremacy, because when they withdraw their favours, ordinary mortals raise their game, becoming gods in their turn. All humans are capable of ideas: all humans can become divine. The death of John Galt results in the creation of thousands of new John Galts. We are all John Galt.
But holding on to ideas – “owning” them by retaining control of them in order to profit from them – renders them worthless. It is when ideas take wings and fly that they acquire value. And ideas that are free to fly are free to grow and develop, too, as others contribute their ideas. This post is a fine example of the democratic development of ideas: the original spark is mine, but it was developed through crowdsourcing on twitter and contributions from friends. Without that shared input, it would never have been born.
The ideas we set free without expectation of reward are our legacy. In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson:
“Bright is the ring of
words when the right man rings them,
Fair the fall of songs when the singer sings them.
Here they are carolled and said, on wings they are carried
After the singer is dead and the maker buried.”
The things we create to share with others live on after we are gone, and in them we find our immortality.
Additional input from Tomas Hirst, John Aziz, Old Holborn and Jest's Farmer Robot.
Image: Star Birth Ring, courtesy of www.wolaver.org.