The Ethics of John Galt


In a full-page ad in the NY Times on Tuesday, Defeatthedebt.com says that if we “confiscated” all the income of the top 2% for one year, it would cover only 58% of the 2011 federal budget. “And if we did? ASK JOHN GALT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.”

John Galt? Galt is the iconic figure in Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged. Galt represents the perfect man, the Promethean hero who struggles against stultifying mediocrity and bureaucracy; Galt is the singular figure who stands between human greatness and socialist egalitarianism. Galt is the perfect person, self-sufficient, strong, talented, uncompromising, an opponent of “brother-love morality” and proponent of Reason—the Nietzschean superman.

“Is it ever proper to help another man?” Galt asks. “No, if he demands it as his right or as a duty that you owe him. Yes, if it’s your own free choice based on your judgment of the value of that person and his struggle. This country wasn’t built by men who sought handouts.”

Galt continues, “To those of you who retain some remnant of dignity and the will to live your lives for yourselves, you have the chance to make the same choice. Examine your values and understand that you must choose one side or the other. Any compromise between good and evil only hurts the good and helps the evil.”

Galt concludes: “The world will change when you are ready to pronounce this oath: I swear by my Life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man,
 nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine.”

This is the inspiration upon which much of the opposition to higher taxes rests, from former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan to many tea party activists and Texas Representative Ron Paul. Opposing income tax isn’t a policy decision but a call to arms. Income tax is evil, not misguided; political compromise only helps evil.

Underlying opposition to income tax is the ethical view that there is no duty to help another. You may choose to help, but help isn’t required. This seems to me to be so contrary to human decency that it astonishing that it appeals to any adult.

Children have a call on parents and parents have a duty to their children. This isn’t discretionary. Parents can’t opt out of helping, even if they find something better to do with their time and money. Families have obligations one to the other. And societies require that the more fortunate help the less fortunate, the taking care of widows and orphans as an ethical duty, not a personal preference.

Galt says that he “will never live for the sake of another man,” and I answer, why not? Is this what life is about, living for one another? An ethical life, a good life, isn’t about power, prestige, money or things. The happy, fulfilled life, contrary to Galt, is one that is lived with others in mutual enhancing relationships.

This grand building up of individuals above the crowd, this peroration of personal freedom, does have its appeal. It opposes conformity and mass movements, which crush the human spirit and are contrary to human dignity. But Randian ethics is too ego centered to be of much help in constructing a just and peaceful society. Followed to its conclusion, it is the triumph of the will, the strong over the weak.

Income tax is a necessary component of a compassionate society. Galt challenges readers to choose. I have, finding inspiration not in Ayn Rand but George Eliot, who said, What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for one another.

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2 thoughts on “The Ethics of John Galt

  1. I agree with what Arthur has said about the need for concern for other human beings and supporting their needs with taxes.

    However, I would like to point out Robert Reich’s pragmatic point of view that a shift in social supports including tax benefits from the rich to the less well off is beneficial to all of society.

    The result is to fuel general prosperity (including the wealthy)which ultimately enriches us all not only with security and pleasureful activities, but with a sense of fairness and justice.

    Reich’s argument is to enlarge the economy by facilitating a larger share of the wealth going to those who will multiply money’s effects by spending, it rather than hoarding it.

  2. Pingback: Obama’s New Gun Control Tactic « Grumpa Joe's Place

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