Saturday, March 7, 2009

On two Johns, Galt and Thain

Michelle Malkin is mad. She's tired of the "redistributionist thieves" taking her money. She's ready to go on strike, to withdraw her wealth-creating power from the rest of us, the collectivist masses.

She's ready to Go Galt.

Apparently this Going Galt notion is gaining some currency in right-wing circles. Witness Rick Santelli's famous rant, made even more famous by Jon Stewart's subsequent smackdown of CNBC.

For conservatives, the appeal of the John Galt myth is obvious. According to Rand, our collective success depends on the efforts of a few elites, motivated by rational self-interest. And if we don't let them reap the full benefits of that success (read: lower their taxes), then they might just retire from society, and leave us to our poverty and collective worthlessness.

I've always thought Galt's approach was a bit idiosyncratic. Rich people seem to keep on wanting to make money, even in places where the taxman check-jacks them for more than he does here. London has become the financial capital of the world, and the UK's higher tax rates and national health care hasn't caused anyone to Go Galt there.

I could go on with other pat criticisms of Rand's view; in the end, it's been well-discredited as simplistic. But it does hold some important insights, albeit not the ones Malkin sees.

John Galt created wealth for himself and others. He invented things. The people who feel under attack right now, the ones who've withdrawn, the John Thains of the world, may of may have not created much actual wealth. They may have done little more than build a now-collapsing house of cards. And I'm not sure we need them.

But we need more John Galts. And this is where Rand and her acolytes fall short: they fail to realize the conditions necessary for such people to emerge, to realize their potential.

For all we know, the next great American inventor is being born right now on the South Side of Chicago. She's her mother's seventh child. She does not have access to adequate health care. Her schools are in shambles. She's not thinking about curing cancer. She doesn't even see going to college as a realistic goal.

Poverty squanders talent. Racism squanders talent. Sexism squanders talent. And you have to think, over the past years, that we've squandered a hell of a lot of it.

Rand fans don't want to fight actual liberals. American liberals don't embrace the kind of Marxist dogma ("from each according to his ability" etc.) Rand attacks. Nothing happening today suggests that we're heading for some collectivist dystopia.

But there are plenty of things happening today to suggest that more of tomorrow's John Galts are going to come from outside the US. And, with our economy sinking, we can no longer afford to eat our young.

Our rational self-interest depends on it.

(Hat-tip to JPT for putting me in mind of these issues)

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