?”Do you ever wonder,” wrote Dr. Helen Smith, “after dealing with all that is going on with the economy and the upcoming election, if it’s getting to be time to ‘go John Galt?’”
It is Oct. 12, 2008, and inspired by Barack Obama’s curbside debate with Joe the Plumber — and the likelihood of his election to the presidency — Smith, a forensic psychologist in Knoxville, Tenn., was tossing the readers of her blog a serious question. It had been years since she had read “Atlas Shrugged.”
“I had to refresh my memory with the Cliffs Notes,” she said Thursday in an interview. But the themes of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel, and the themes of the climactic 40-page speech by self-imposed social outcast “John Galt”, had stuck with her.
Image by: Matt Mahurin
The themes had stuck with her readers, too. Within days, Smith had collected nearly 200 comments and a steady stream of e-mails from readers who were responding to the possibility of a Democratic victory by brainstorming ways to pull out of the economy. Four months later, Smith — a host of “Ask Dr. Helen” on the right-leaning web site PajamasTV — is collecting stories and suggestions from readers scattered across the country, all of them using the “Atlas Shrugged” analogy as a rallying cry against President Barack Obama’s economic policies.
Smith was a little ahead of the curve of what has become an incredibly popular meme. Across the broad conservative movement, from members of Congress to activists to economists, Rand’s final, allegorical novel is being looked at with fresh eyes. According to the Atlas Society, a think tank that promotes and analyzes Rand’s work, sales of “Atlas Shrugged” have tripled since the presidential election. One congressman says that Rand wrote a “rulebook” that can guide conservatives through the age of Obama; another calls Obama’s policies something right out of the mind of Rand. One economist says that Rand’s fantasies have become reality. Smith is one of many activists citing Rand to explain their decisions to sell their stocks, or to explain why the president’s “demonization” of run-amok CEOs is aggravating the economic slowdown. The popular meme is giving critics of the president’s policies a way to explain why, they believe, it’s doomed to fail — because Rand predicted all of this.
“Just this weekend,” said Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) on Wednesday in an interview with TWI, “I had a guy come up to me in my district and tell me that he was losing his interest in the business he’d run for years because the president wanted to punish him for his success. I think people are reading ‘Atlas Shrugged’ again because they’re trying to understand what happens to people of accomplishment, and people of talent and energy, when a government turns against them. That’s what appears to be happening right now.”
The plot of Rand’s novel is simple, despite its length — 1,088 pages in the current paperback edition. The United States is governed by bureaucrats, “looters” and “moochers,” who penalize and demonize creative people. The country is in decline because creative people are disappearing — they have followed the innovative John Galt to a mountain enclave, “Galt’s Gulch,” where they watch society crumble. Creativity has gone on strike (the working title of the novel was “The Strike”), and the engine of capitalism cannot run without it.
For Campbell, this is a powerful and relevant story. The congressman calls “Atlas Shrugged” an “instruction manual,” and inscribes the copies that he gives to interns. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, also gives copies of the novel as gifts and refers to it to make the case against President Obama’s policies. “It’s an audacious scheme,” said Ryan in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference last week. “Set off a series of regulatory blunders and congressional meddling, blame the free market for the financial crisis that follows — then use this excuse to impose a more intrusive state. Sounds like something right out of an Ayn Rand novel.”
Before that CPAC speech, Ryan put in a call to Ed Hudgins, the director of advocacy for the Washington-based Atlas Society. “He called me a day or so before that speech to ask about the ‘Atlas Shrugged’ movie,” remembered Hudgins in a Thursday interview. In 2005, Ryan spoke at an Atlas Society commemoration of the centenary of Rand’s birth. Republican appreciation of Rand’s work is nothing new, but Hudgins sees something else happening under President Obama.
“A lot of Obama’s new tax and regulatory policies target the productive industries,” said Hudgins, “sectors that produce jobs, businesses that expand the economy. These are pretty nutty policies. They’re something out of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ in every way, shape, and form. Look at the mortgage plan, which rewards the eight percent of people who bought bad mortgages with money from the rest of us.”
Hudgins is proud of the mileage Rand is getting these days, pointing to articles like Steve Moore’s January Wall Street Journal editorial “Atlas Shrugged: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years.” Donald Luskin, an economist who endorsed Ron Paul for president and later served as an adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign, concurs with Moore. “The current political process is a lot like the process in ‘Atlas Shrugged,’” he said on Wednesday.
Luskin, who named his daughter Roark after the hero of Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead,” sees basic economic concepts explained through the novelist’s work. “One of the reasons that the Laffer Curve works is because of the John Galt effect of creative people finding ways to cut back on their output if they know they’re going to be taxed, and demonized, for their success,” he said. “We have these sort of villains, like John Thain at Merrill Lynch, who tried to pay himself a large bonus. But then in response to that we have [Sen.] Chris Dodd slipping into the stimulus a new rule that in punishing Thain punishes everybody, even the good guys.”
This view of “Atlas Shrugged” has its detractors. “Ayn Rand romanticized capitalists,” said Jerome Tuccille, author of the libertarian history “It Usually Starts With Ayn Rand,” in a Thursday interview. “She saw them as great heroes. She doesn’t deal with these corporatists like Thain who were pushing paper around and using regulations to feather their nests. Some of these bastards like Thain should be in jail. I mean, I want them carted out of their houses, doing the perp walk at 3 a.m.” Will Wilkinson, a libertarian columnist for The Week magazine, worries about the hazards of Obama’s policy, but doesn’t consider Rand’s book a good handbook for resistance. “The book is a critique of the corporatist economy,” he said on Thursday. “I don’t see why Rand lovers would defend financial executives.”
The activists who have latched onto “Atlas Shrugged” don’t spend as much time thinking about the heroic-capitalist side of the analogy. For Dr. Smith’s readers, like their counterparts writing in to libertarian blogs and protesting Obama at “tea parties, ” the novel is most useful for the concept of “going Galt.” “I do some consulting on the side and the taxation on that income is unbelievable,”wrote one reader to Michelle Malkin. “So, to heck with this. I’m ‘going Galt’ on my consulting.” “I’m considering moving to a small family farm in a foreign country,” wrote a reader to Smith, “and looking into the practical side of the issue right now. It will take a year or two of preparation, but might be feasible and even comfortable.”
Smith, who’s still mulling over ways that she can “go Galt,” sees a possibility for a moral stand. During the Iraq War, she read about a painter who’d painted less, reducing his income, in order to dodge taxes and thereby make sure he didn’t fund the war. “I’d go John Galt just to not pay for programs I don’t believe in,” said Smith. “If we’re opposed to socialistic concepts — if we know they don’t work — why should we pay to support them?”
This, for Wilkinson, is another reason he’s still on the fence — although he’s “sympathetic” to the “going Galt” concept and the Rand comeback. “If we’re being honest,” he said, “it’s a right-wing version of ‘I’m moving to Canada if Bush wins.’”