“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”Have you ever wondered what it looks like? Galt's Gulch. That fabled refuge of the wealthy and talented, home to those who have slipped the surly bonds of mediocrity and passed through the magic door into a place where they can associate only with their equals? The land of beautiful people unafraid to sneer at the little folks in between bouts of rough sex.
― John Rogers
I think I know. I've seen it, or at least, gotten a pretty good preview. So have you.
In Ayn Rand's giant-ego fantasy, the wealthy decide to emulate a kid who thinks bringing the ball entitles him to be not just a player, but king of the court. Upset that their inestimable genius has brought them only money, power and fame, they turn their private jets away from the ungrateful wretches and hie off to the new industrialized Eden. We only get a small glimpse of the rainy, rusty world they leave behind, but it's enough to let you know that the comic opera bumblers left outside the magic valley won't be able to cope the first time they're confronted by something as complex as a burned out lightbulb. Meanwhile, back in the Gulch, it's sunshine and lollipops (and rough sex) all the way down.
Why is there still such a focus on a book populated by characters with square jaws but paper thin personalities who spend their time kicking over the most shoddily-assembled straw men ever to flop onto a page? What's so important about Rand's talky tomes that someone would throw away $20 million on a film with worse dialog than Mega-Python vs. Gatoroid (yes, that's a real film) then turn around and do it again?
It's important because these Republicans, the ones who have captured the party of Lincoln and reshaped it into the party of Limbaugh, are the children of Rand. Sure, they may invoke the name of Reagan as the root of their movement, but the followers of Reagan are exactly the kind of Republicans now being chased out of offices both state and federal. The ones too weak to regard every instance of selflessness as a sin, too ignorant to know that any effort toward community is only a few letters away from communism. This isn't Reagan's party. It's not even the party of George Bush. It's the Grand Objectivist Party, and it's proud of it.
So it's not surprising that more than one conservative has talked of "going Galt" in the last four years, and even more have suggested that should President Obama be re-elected, they'll be looking for an exit (ignoring the fact that most of the places they plan on escaping to are far more progressive than the place they're leaving in a funk). Even more oddly, they really seem to believe that this is a threat that should concern us; that the response should be something other than "yes, please and let me hold the door."
They believe this because Rand's work sells the world as a place scraped out by a few hands. In her philosophy, not only is being generous a sin and kindness a crime, but talent and determination are rare traits allocated only to those who are at the top of the heap. Dagny Taggart, having proved her worth by being born the right parents so that she can be made vice president of the family railroad, is infinitely better than Eddie Willers who works his heart out for her but has the misfortune of being born to someone who has only worked on the railroad for generations. So Dagny is better because... she's better, that's why. She's not just a hard-working, dedicated employee completely loyal to his company. She's a job creator.
Randians Republicans don't just take this classist fantasy into the real world, they've built an entire political movement around it. In fact, in many ways they've gone beyond even Rand. Under their system, the only measure of accomplishment is wealth. A corporate raider is given more credit as a job creator than someone who started the business the raider usurped. There's no difference between net worth and simple worth.
They assume that only a few people carry the spark of ambition, that progress is vested in only these few hands, and that if they all slip away to Canada (or a hidden canyon in Colorado) the rest of us will be left as helpless as turtles on our backs. The modern Republican never pauses to think that there are other limits on the system. They don't consider that the difference between heroic take-this-world-and-shove-it Dagny and stay-and-work-his-ass-off Eddie isn't ability, it's opportunity.
That's really what this election comes down to: those who are trying to pry the door of opportunity open wide vs. those who are trying to weld it in place. Those who think there's worth in every person vs. those who think there's worth in every Cayman Islands account. That's been true for a long time, of course. Making sure that women have opportunities, that minorities have opportunities, that people whose personal lives don't match a 50s sitcoms have opportunities–Democrats have been fighting that battle against Republicans for years. The difference now is simply one of degree.
Ayn Rand was wrong. The titans of industry stir the cup for a moment, but ultimately they all do leave, mostly by taking the same unglamorous exit that we all must file through eventually. Their fire goes out of the world—but the world does not go dark.
It doesn't go dark because the bounding factors on the system are not ambition and certainly not the willingness to work hard. We're blessed with those in abundance. The limiting factor has always been opportunity. It still is. Reducing the tax rate on the rich has played a large role in reducing opportunity. Reversing that trend will help bring it back. So will providing working people benefits that keep them from being bound to employers who dictate far more than the numbers on their paycheck.
Want to know what the wonderland of Galt's Gulch would look like? It could look like any interchange along interstate 70. You know the place. Massive big box stores merging cheap clothes and cheaper groceries, a pair of interchangeable hardware giants, two nearly identical office supply stores, two nearly identical steak houses, office supply stories, pet stores, along with a cadre of gas stations and an attendant flock of fast food joints. That's what the "Promethean Spark" of capitalism has brought us in the twenty-first century: endless rows of stores with all the soul of a styrofoam peanut and the warmth of a packing container.
But the truth is, Galt's Gulch really would be a paradise of sorts. All natural. Because in Galt's Gulch, all the people who can build, feed, and clothe the select would be excluded. Nobody to build all those stores, much less stock the shelves. Things there would get very quiet, very fast. Galt's Gulch? More like Galt's Graveyard.