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The Morality of John Galt, pt.5

The Morality of John Galt, pt.5

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Frances Coppola’s piece The Death of John Galt took issue with key moral claims of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. She and Charles Crawford look at these issues in an e-discussion. Here is the fifth instalment – the first four were here, here, here and here.

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CC We are getting round to the moral basis for government itself.

In Atlas Shrugged government is presented as malign clumsy force that exists only for itself and is manipulated by all sorts of powerful interests who aim to exploit the ingenuity of others. As the book develops, the creative power of the private sector declines as more and more people ‘go Galt’ and withdraw from the market. Things deteriorate. The policies and style of the state representatives become steadily more fascistic/communist: having no real sense of purpose - or sense of their own limitations - the corrupt state elite resort to extremist means (and ultimately torture) to try to keep themselves staggering on in power.

Back in real life, across the Western world we see the state adopting more and more characteristics of that awful Atlas Shrugged approach to government. Profusions of impenetrable bossy regulations, ever-more intrusive controls on what we do and say, the militarisation of the police.

To pay for all this accumulating lumpen process, the state orders us to pay numerous taxes and uses force against us if we refuse to do so. The current cliché about taxation is that it is the sensible price we all pay for ‘civilisation’. We are (it is said) morally obliged to pay tax: we live in a democracy, and so have a direct fair say in what rules are set by the state. If you don’t like it, you’re free to go elsewhere.

Most of us see at least some logic in that position. But if we are under a moral obligation to support the state (or vote with our feet and go), what are the state’s moral obligations to us? Is there a tipping-point for the scale of state powers beyond which a more or less reasonable pooling of resources via taxation for the common good necessarily mutates into something oppressive? If it exists, how would we know if we had reached it? And would it already be too late to stop a decline into outright tyranny?

FC When reading the works of people like Rand, Orwell, Huxley and Zamyatin, it is sensible to remember their historical context. The background to all of them is the Cold War and the (at that time) seemingly relentless march of various forms of “communism” across the globe.

Rand frequently refers to “the people’s republic of….” in relation to countries in Europe, clearly anticipating that all countries in Europe would succumb to Marxist/Leninist political movements. But that hasn’t happened. We don’t have any “people’s republics” in Europe. Communism is largely discredited as a political movement, at least in the West.

The “big state” socialism of the 1950s and 60s is also in abeyance at the moment, and we do not currently have anything like the levels of taxation of the 1970s. Big Brother is indeed alive and well, in the form of increasingly intrusive surveillance and regulation, but that was Orwell’s creation, not Rand’s. Rand never imagined such pervasive control. Could Galt’s Gulch even exist in Orwell’s world?

We could of course have a resurgence of “big state” socialism and high taxes, but that doesn’t seem to be where we are headed at present.  Indeed the welfare state is being progressively dismantled in some European countries at the expense of its most vulnerable citizens. Rand does not concern herself with the fate of those who are unable to produce. They do not feature in her world. But they exist in ours. What is our responsibility towards them?

Rand was no supporter of democracy, and the government she describes is in no way democratic. But then neither is her proposed replacement for it. Tyranny simply replaces tyranny. It is of course possible for a democracy to behave in a tyrannical way towards minorities, and Rand clearly sees her “heroes” as a persecuted minority. But the persecuted all too easily become persecutors themselves. It seems to me that a broad-based democracy, with all its flaws, is the best protection against tyranny. That, and the right of those who consider they are victims of the “tyranny of the majority” to leave.

CC You’re quite right to mention the historical context in which these books were written, namely scores of millions of people being brutalised by Hitler’s National Socialism and Stalin’s Soviet Socialism. That’s why Ayn Rand’s analysis of collectivism is so vivid: she was not tackling theoretical problems, but ideologies that were trashing much of the planet whose evil influence is still with us (see Lenin in Red Square, a grotesque secular shrine to someone who killed countless fellow Russian citizens) .

The problem now is that ‘big state socialism’ has mutated into new pernicious forms. Governments dimly grasp that there are limits on how far they sensibly can tax people now living, but they want to keep on giving voters things they have not earned. So they take vast piles of money from people not yet born, in the form of sprawling public sector debt. Much of the so-called ‘welfare state’ in its modern European form needs to be dismantled. It creates all sorts of skewed if not immoral incentives and is unaffordable over the long term given demographic trends: “the future belongs to those who show up for it”.

Right from the start of modern representative democracy we have seen prescient warnings that we could end up in a situation where the poorer or less successful masses outvote the richer or more successful minority and compel them to pay for things that have not been earned.

One of the huge messages of Atlas Shrugged is that getting-something-for-nothing is a supreme form of personal corruption. We now see people who have slumped into a life on state benefits whining about what they ‘deserve’. I am working hard to support myself and my family, taking all sorts of risks as a private entrepreneur. The state takes money from me to pay for people who claim that they can not work or find work. What is the moral basis for that transaction? Why should I not have the right to expect that unemployed people pick up litter or fill in potholes or do some other unpaid public (or indeed private) service in return for getting some of my hard-earned money?

Of course people feeling oppressed by this situation have the right to leave the country. But are we all reduced to accepting a form of slavery as the price of being citizens? And, of course, those who leave are doing exactly what John Galt did: withdrawing his work and his mind from propping up a stupid immoral system, thereby compelling those who denied logic and morality to face the inevitable consequences of their own actions.

FC You didn’t answer my question about our responsibility towards those who are not able to produce. But our definition of “not able to produce” is what defines the welfare state.

You want to dismantle the welfare state so you can keep what you consider you have earned through your own hard work. But you ignore the considerable role that good fortune plays in your prosperity. Others work just as hard as you, but are less fortunate and therefore less prosperous. The idea that hard work is always rewarded is fiction.

In Ayn Rand’s world there is no such thing as “unable to produce”. The elderly, sick and disabled don’t exist: children either work, or are cared for and educated by a stay-at-home parent who is supported by a producer (and pays her way with sex and housework). You produce, or you die.

This is fiction too.  There will always be people who don’t produce and do have to be cared for. The question is how many of those there should be - who “deserves” support and who does not. 

We have argued about the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor for hundreds of years. Like you, many people believe that the welfare state is mushrooming because of a “dependency culture” among working-age adults. But there’s little evidence for that. Unemployment is due to lack of jobs, not lack of willingness to work.

The idea that people must be “compelled” to do some kind of public service to “earn” their benefits is seductive. But we have tried this before. After all, workhouses existed to compel people to work. To paraphrase Whittaker Chambers, this attitude to the unemployed amounts to “To a workhouse – go!”

The fact is that the growth of the welfare state has little to do with “dependency culture” among working-age adults. By far the biggest beneficiaries of the welfare state – including healthcare - are the elderly. And the second largest beneficiaries are working families with children. The cost of supporting the elderly is rising because people are living for longer. And the cost of supporting families is rising because wages are inadequate.

I am not blind to the problems caused by an ageing population and inequality. But to me it is the mark of a civilised society that it cares for those who are not able to provide for themselves, and supports those who have fallen on hard times until they are back on their feet again. There is nothing “moral” about dismantling the welfare state so those lucky enough to have riches can keep their wealth, if that means others face starvation. People – ALL people - deserve better than that.


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