Who is John Galt?

This is my last missive as Chairman of LRI. From 1st April, Peter Wong will resume the Chairmanship he passed to me three years ago. Apart the practical reason of making way for a younger and more energetic man (!), there are a number of other factors that led to my stepping back. My title for this piece reflects some of these. Let me try to explain.

As many of my readers will know, “Who is John Galt?” is the first sentence of Ayn Rand’s master work “Atlas Shrugged”. In the first part of the book, the phrase is more of a shrug of the shoulders meaning “who knows”, or even “who could ever know?” But the plot of the book moves from “John Galt” being a slogan meaning a lack of comprehension to John Galt the man becoming the personification of genuine understanding. Galt is the protagonist who articulates the sickness of the modern world, and represents the cure. (No more spoilers for those yet to read the book – which I highly recommend.)

It is astonishing that a book written in 1957 that presents the disastrous endgame to which the interventionist state inevitably leads, should now appear to be a horribly precise forecast of today’s world. What is today called “crony capitalism” is a key theme of Rand’s narrative; how the business world sells its soul to the state and is, thereby, not only totally corrupted, but stands always as a scapegoat for any ills that state interventions bring about. Step by step, genuine free markets are painted into a smaller and smaller corner, with not only a loss of personal freedoms but less and less scope for real economic growth. The exasperation that this leads to is usually directed, not at the state, but at the remaining free market sector which becomes the target of the ire of most citizens. (Quote from Atlas Shrugged: “My purpose, said Orren Boyle, is the preservation of a free economy. It’s generally conceded that the free economy is now on trial. Unless it proves its social value and assumes its social responsibilities , the people won’t stand for it. If it doesn’t develop a public spirit , it’s done for, make no mistake about that.” Doesn’t this sound familiar today, as the prevailing attitude toward the private sector?)

Why should any of this lead me to step back at Lion Rock? Two reasons:-

First, the main personal struggle the characters engage in, is whether it is their duty to try to keep the free market “goose” alive and laying at least some of its eggs, even if fewer than before. The alternative view is that this is ultimately pointless. The corner into which the free market is being painted simply gets smaller and smaller. But not only is the effort nugatory but it feeds the state. Interventionist Governments only exist and survive because genuine wealth has been created by entrepreneurs, that can then be seized through taxation and ring fenced by regulation. Elizabeth Warren’s’ asset tax idea would be impossible to conceive of without billionaires having made their fortunes in the first place by providing truly valuable services and products to millions of people. Otherwise there would be nothing to tax. As Mrs Thatcher famously put it, socialism fails when governments run out of other people’s money. This means that to continue working away to generate real wealth feeds the beast of the state. Isn’t it better, asks Rand, to deny the state this fuel? Don’t delay the crisis pointlessly. There is a moral angle to this too. If you believe that statist interventions are genuinely damaging the lives of many, simply remaining in the game makes you complicit in this immorality. (Quote from Atlas Shrugged; “the men of ability? I do not care what, or if, they are made to suffer. They must be penalised in order to support the incompetent”. Does it not sound like Elizabeth Warren?)

Translating this message to my personal choices leads me to conclude that engagement with the state in any form is a waste of time and smacks of immorality. This came home to me when presenting the Lion Rock’s position to the Minimum Wage Commission. (Obviously our view was that the minimum wage should be zero.) It was evident that no one on the Commission had any intention of taking our view seriously, even if they understood it. Our presence there made no difference to policy. But it did, however, enable the Commision to claim they had “consulted” many parties, including LRI. Our presence had helped legitimate this ridiculous and damaging policy.

Now I recognise there is a case for continuing this type of engagement and my LRI colleagues are free to argue that case. But personally I no longer have the stomach for engagement of any sort with Leviathan (see Thomas Hobbes).

The second reason for my decision relates to the idea that if one stays engaged, one can seek to “persuade” from inside the tent. By arguing the free market case with business and academia (if not the Government) maybe desirable change can be promoted. Atlas Shrugged dramatises the flaw in this approach. Rather like attempts to persuade the God-fearing that theism is misconceived, it is never your arguments critical of faith that work. Believers have to discover for themselves the flaws they have not seen. (This comment is not aimed at the faithful as a criticism. It simply reflects my observation that of all the atheists I have met who began as believers, none was persuaded by others. All were changed by self reflection.)

In my experience, the same is true of understanding the crucial value to our lives of free markets and personal choice, without coercion by the state. All my business friends who are prepared to listen to the case for a minimal state tend to respond in a “yes, but” way. However much they believe that freedom sounds good, all accept a role for state interventions and regulations to make sure “bad things” don’t happen and “bad choices” are not made. As Rand’s novel unfolds, her characters are going through the same discovery. Even those mostly closely aligned with the freedom agenda, resist the ultimate need to jettison the state (beyond its role as a protector of personal freedoms, not a force that destroys them). Only personal realisation leads her characters to this conclusion, never an argument even from a friend, however well expressed.

I am persuaded of the accuracy of this insight by Rand. The message for me is therefore to cease the exhausting effort to persuade. Better simply to let the personal experience of others to lead them to realisation, if this proves to be possible.

While I certainly would never claim to have the heroic characteristics of John Galt, I do identify with his mood and no longer wish to expend energy on fruitless efforts to “change the system”. In my own small way, I am “going Galt”. I hope to remain a director of LRI, to write from time to time and continue to engage with students whose prejudices may not yet be fully formed.

Thank you dear reader for you time in reading my musings over the past few years. And now, over to Peter!

Best wishes

Nick Sallnow-Smith

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