Spoiler Alert: Key plot elements of Atlas Shrugged discussed below.
In Ayn Rand’s influential novel Atlas Shrugged, a tension builds between Dagny Taggart, partial heir and productive heart of her family’s railroad company, and an enigmatic figure known as John Galt. Both uphold the principle of individual rights, believing that men ought to be free to apply their own judgment to achieve their own values in pursuit of their own happiness. Both believe that men ought to deal with each other through reason, persuasion, and consent. Both oppose evermore egregious encroachments by a state which throttles the productivity of individuals and threatens the general welfare of the nation. The tension between Dagny and Galt arises from a difference not in principle, but in methodology.
Dagny reacts to a rising tide of statist interventions by fighting that much harder to stay atop of it. She produces more, comes up with better ideas, and innovates new ways of defying the system while still working within it. Galt, on the other hand, has resolved to defy the system by withdrawing from it. He removes himself and his productive capacity from society and creates a new community in a hidden gulch. Over time, he and his cohort recruit new residents from among the most productive and intellectually honest capitalists in the nation. As that class begins to disappear from public view, the remaining populace wilts under the predictable consequences of collectivist policies. Dagny, only vaguely aware of Galt’s agenda, views him as “the Destroyer,” an antagonist keeping her from saving the country by steadily removing productive individuals from the economy. Dagny eventually finds herself confronted with the choice to join Galt’s strike or continue to work within a crumbling system.
When President Barack Obama was first inaugurated and opened the throttle on statism in America, many observed an eerie similarity between his policies and the sequence of events portrayed in Atlas Shrugged. In 2009, Stephen Moore wrote for the Wall Street Journal:
Many of us who know Rand’s work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that “Atlas Shrugged” parodied in 1957, when this 1,000-page novel was first published and became an instant hit.
For the uninitiated, the moral of the story is simply this: Politicians invariably respond to crises — that in most cases they themselves created — by spawning new government programs, laws and regulations. These, in turn, generate more havoc and poverty, which inspires the politicians to create more programs… and the downward spiral repeats itself until the productive sectors of the economy collapse under the collective weight of taxes and other burdens imposed in the name of fairness, equality and do-goodism.
Given reality’s continuing similarity to Atlas Shrugged, it should come as no surprise that a division has emerged among those who subscribe to the principle of individual rights between those whose methodology resembles Dagny Taggart’s and those whose methodology resembles John Galt’s.
The shutdown drama has resolved precisely how we knew it would, the only way it possibly could have, with a reopened government sporting negligible reforms and a public agitated against Republicans. By any objective analysis, the strategy instigated by Senator Ted Cruz has utterly failed and indeed set back the cause it was intended to champion. Obamacare has become more popular over the course of the shutdown. Even so, many activists on the Right, particularly among the Tea Party, maintain that the defund strategy was worthwhile. They assert without evidence that if Congress had “stood their ground,” policy concessions would have somehow been extorted from Democrats, despite clear and prolific polling indicating public opinion was starkly opposed to the defund strategy.
On more than one occasion while engaging with my fellow Tea Partiers, when I have asked whether Congress should have kept the government shutdown indefinitely, the answer has been an emphatic yes. Congress has the power of the purse, they say, as if that fact wholly negates any electoral consequence of recklessly wielding it.
Then again, electoral consequences apparently do not matter to some. A sample comment from social media:
Walter, it’s funny to me that you seem worried about the elections. If the Republicans can’t make the Democrats back down over a law that, as Ben Carson said, is the worst thing to happen to this country since slavery, their very existence is entirely meaningless. They are nothing but the Democrats’ whipping boys and lackeys, and I for one am not going to pretend that there is any political power to protect me from the full depredations of Democrats.
This is offered as if Republicans have any power to “make the Democrats back down.” Such power comes with election certificates backed by the wind of public opinion. Without the votes, and without the support, Republicans never had the ability to make anyone do anything. More to the point, to withdraw support from Republicans because they were not able to do something they never could have done further enables the Democrats to pursue their depredations.
Adopting the attitude that political power cannot protect individual rights has implications which cannot be overstated. Abandoning any hope of fighting tyranny through the political process leaves us wholly at the mercy of those holding the reins we have relinquished. To “go Galt” in this way enables the statists to run roughshod over our rights. I cannot understand the attitude which would allow that to happen.
Unlike the world of Atlas Shrugged, we have no technology to hide us from the lidless eye of the state. We cannot escape the effects of public policy. Our ability to produce and provide for ourselves will continue to be curtailed by the likes of President Obama until we can defeat his ilk at the polls! The alternative is to watch our world burn.
Activists on the Right, particularly those among the Tea Party, need to decide whether they want to play on Team Dagny or Team Galt. They need to decide whether to pursue a serious strategic fight to reclaim the government for liberty, or merely stage a protest without regard for electoral consequence. As with Dagny and Galt, these alternate approaches to an encroaching state will make enemies among those who would otherwise ally on principle. Already, those like nationally syndicated talk radio host Jason Lewis who have dared to question the wisdom of the defund strategy have been widely defamed as sellouts, RINOs, or closet statists. Rather than forge a coalition around the principle of individual rights, what coalition exists has been divided into warring factions. This is not how victories are won.
When I first became affiliated with it, the mission of Tea Party Patriots was “to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets.” That mission has since been amended to remove public policy as a central objective. I’m left to wonder why anyone should become an activist if not to secure public policy consistent with their values. What’s the point of putting countless hours into organizing meetings and rallies, burning up phone lines and writing letters to the editor, walking neighborhoods and engaging friends and neighbors, if the sought result is not a substantive change in public policy? Since when did we become content with merely making a point, elections be damned?