Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Screw John Galt

I know, I know…he invented the most efficient engine or motor (or whatever) in the whole history of motors. Amazing. I guess I should be clamoring to figure out who the hell he is and how I can have his babies.

You know what though? I think I’ve worked for people who idolize John Galt. I think I live in a country that has completely distorted the ideals that John Galt stands for. And you know what he’s come to stand for in today’s workplace? Backs are stabbed in the name of John Galt. Families are ruined. Integrity is sacrificed. Rather than understand that John Galt represents a system that values good work over everything else, people have come to cite his legacy as one that excuses cruelty and promotes politics.

And perhaps I should give credit where credit is due. Ayn Rand wrote a beautiful and exciting story about a man who had so much integrity that he would sacrifice his own life in this world in order to maintain the purity of his perfect invention. This is a person who does not compromise his ideals. He will not play politics. He believes that a job well done stands on its own and does not require any social approval. He believes that any person who requires coddling in order to accept a new idea (assuming it is a brilliant idea such as John Galt’s) is a weaker, lesser being and should not be catered to.

These are attractive ideas on many levels. They simplify economics to the point where the theory is without variables and the equations work without fail to prove her point. Without interference, she argues, the market would run perfectly and we would all prosper. Government intervention is evil. Personal relationships have no place in business interaction and agreement.

We see, in John Galt’s utopia, that when an entire society enters into this social contract, perfect harmony ensues.

The question that naturally arises is, “Why do we not live in this type of society when we know it is available to us?”

I’d like to introduce a second economic principle also generally accepted by economists that contradicts Ayn Rand’s assertion that this utopia is possible. The Prisoner’s Dilemma (aka “Game Theory) shows us that given the chance, a person will maximize his own individual welfare even to the detriment of the greater good. In the case where all parties in a system must cooperate in order for the whole to benefit to the fullest extent, most often one person can betray the others to further his own position. He will gain more than everyone else if they choose to cooperate while he does not. Ayn Rand’s utopia assumes that people will see reason and cooperate. Most reasonable people can agree that trust does not run rampant in today’s marketplace, particularly not after companies like Enron are exposed.

Rand does not stop here. In her Theory of Art, she attempts to author her own definition of art:

“Art, according to Objectivism, serves a human cognitive need: it allows human beings to grasp concepts as though they were percepts.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivism_(Ayn_Rand))

In addition to the infeasibility of her utopia, Rand has essentially stated that art must have some discernable purpose. Without this purpose, art should not be government commissioned or sponsored. As we already know, human beings can be short-sighted. Genius is often misunderstood. In this vein, an artist may be exploring some new idea that is not easily comprehended. In this case, should it not be considered art? In its most basic nature, art is something that cannot readily be defined. And certainly according to this definition, music has no real purpose whatsoever.

Rand’s theories are often misinterpreted to support a profit-driven, ruthless marketplace. Even at their essence, they neglect the things that make life beautiful. I must admit that I see ideas and theories in Rand’s work that I fully endorse, but none of these ideas should be taken as absolutes. Her utopia could only come to be in a world where one’s own emotion is regularly ignored and art is quantified. This is a world where everything that makes one human ceases to exist.

So, screw John Galt.


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