The morality of John Galt, part III

The third instalment of a titanic e-discussion on the work of Ayn Rand between Charles Crawford and Frances Coppola

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Atlas shrugged. Is he right to?

Frances Coppola’s piece The Death of John Galt took issue with some of the key moral claims of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. She and Charles Crawford have agreed to look at these issues in an e-discussion. Here is the third instalment – the first two were here and here.

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CC Over on Twitter, in response to our second exchange you asked: And what about the individualist tendency to decay into undermining the social? Finding an appropriate balance between individual and social is the challenge.

This is a huge point at the heart of Atlas Shrugged. What makes one supposed ‘balance between individual and social’ more or less ‘appropriate’ than another?

What we are seeing across the Western world is an inexorable tendency for the state to try to micro-manage more and more social interactions, precisely because our political elites hanker after delivering to voters just the right ‘appropriate’ balance between individual and collective. Of course they fail in key respects, leaving us facing the worst of all possible worlds: lumpen petty oppression combined with perverse priggish inefficiency. More and more criminal offences, declining respect for authority.

So I disagree if you are arguing that the threat to society from radical John Galt-like individualism is comparable to the menace posed by accelerating collectivism.

Individuals who do their best and interact with others on the basis of free and fair exchange find their ‘greed’ or selfishness reined in by what others are willing to accept. That is a far better way to work out how we live, precisely because it is indirect, self-regulating and flexible.

As Atlas Shrugged demonstrates in that remarkable train crash passage, the consequences of outsourcing responsibility to remote cynical bureaucrats with no direct interest in immediate outcomes can be catastrophic.

FC  I find it interesting that you are framing this as “the state” against “individualism”. I don’t see it like that. An oppressive “state” destroys the collective by repressing the individual. For collective enterprise to work, people have to be themselves.

Which is better? A choir in which the director tells everyone that they mustn’t sing louder than the weakest singer, because “blend” is important? Or a choir in which everyone sings to the best of their ability while listening to each other to create blend? I know which I prefer – but in the second I didn’t mention the director. So I agree that the current tendency to micro-manage people’s interactions doesn’t make for a vibrant economy.

The train crash is framed as a classical tragedy. It is unavoidable, a consequence of the inevitable decisions of people in those circumstances. In an important sense, their decisions are not freely made.

To suggest they have avoided decision-making is incorrect. Everyone in the chain of bad decisions that results in the death of 300 people is acting alone and – importantly – in their own best interests. It is a fine example of the consequences of rational self-interest in a dysfunctional social setting.

That the people responsible for the train crash are acting no differently from John Galt may not immediately be apparent. Their rational self-interest is not served by refusing to run the train at all. Officially they can’t lose their jobs, but there could be serious consequences – perhaps “disappearing” into a prison camp somewhere, or even death. They don’t know, but they fear the people who run the dysfunctional state, and with reason.

So they won’t refuse to run the train. But they won’t make the decision to run it, either, because to do so would leave them with the deaths of 300 people on their consciences. So they pass the buck. You can say they lack courage. But you can’t say they aren’t acting selfishly. They are.

Let me remind you of Galt’s motto: “I swear that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine”. Every single person in the chain of command that led to the train crash was operating by this principle. They chose their own lives over the lives of others. Indeed they chose their own consciences too.

After all, sending others to certain death isn’t something that most people would do. The boy who made the eventual decision was no less selfish than anyone else. He would not refuse to make the decision – but he had no-one to pass it on to. So he sent 300 people to their deaths, rather than act in a way that could have had severe consequences for him. Do you blame him? John Galt should not.

For me the most horrible part about the train crash is Ayn Rand’s attempt to justify the deaths of those on board because of the nature of their lives. In response to the first instalment of our e-discussion, somebody highlighted in the comments section the lovely description of a mother in Galt’s Gulch talking about bringing up her two children. The parallel with the mother who died in that train crash along with her two children makes me uneasy.

Leaving aside the question of whether that mother “deserved death” because she was married to a government official, in what way did her children deserve death? Indeed, did anyone on that train “deserve death”, as Rand implies? Is it OK to kill people whose lifestyles you don’t like?

CC Excellent reply!

The Atlas Shrugged train crash passage leaves many critics of Ayn Rand burbling in confusion or open dishonesty. Take Johann Hari, who characterises the episode as “a railway worker deciding to punish the wicked socialist government by making a train crash happen”.

Or Guardian literary critic Nicholas Lezard who courageously admits to not having read Atlas Shrugged but nonetheless characterizes the train crash thusly: “at one point, in what would appear to be the most clunking symbolism, a train crashes because – this is always happening on trains – a powerful politician insists on the crew driving into a dangerous tunnel”.

This line of attack has form, going right back to the infamous attack in National Review by Whittaker Chambers (former communist spy turned noisy conservative) in 1957: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!”

As you rightly say, Rand painstakingly explores how the crash happens not because anyone ‘punishes’ anyone but rather because right from the top to bottom of the command chain people avoid responsibility.

The passage is notorious for the way Rand lists different passengers on the train who hurtle to their doom, and describes their various collectivist, corrupt or ‘progressive’ beliefs.

The woman in Roomette 6, Car No 8, was a lecturer who believed that, as a consumer, she had a ‘right’ to transportation, whether the railroad people wished to provide it or not”. And the humanitarian who thought that the men of ability should be penalised to support the incompetent: “I do not care whether this is just or not”.

I disagree that Rand is saying that these decadent, smug people on the train (or their accompanying children) 'deserved' to die. Giving a view on what they deserve seems to suggest a higher authority pronouncing on who should get what and why – just the opposite of what Rand proposed.

The core issue is that 'ordinary people' too have to think, and to have responsibility for the results of their decisions. Sooner or later if we all in our own spheres, high or low, act in a way which actually risks disaster, disaster inexorably is what we must get. It is the sheer relentless 'objectivism' of this position that is so powerful and striking.

I’m not sure what you’re saying when you argue that all the people who caused the train crash are acting like John Galt, in their rational self-interest. No-one disputes that the greedy wreckers, moochers and looters of Atlas Shrugged are selfish and self-absorbed.

The point of the book is that their self-interest is built on a perverted instrumentalist idea of human nature that rests ultimately on coercion because it does not rely on free trade between people who respect each other – and respect themselves.

So, yes, I do ‘blame’ everyone who passed the buck and so helped cause the crash directly or indirectly, including the cynical and doomed passengers. They would not take responsibility for their actions. Worse, some of them even sought to deny that actions have consequences.

As Rand herself put it in my favourite quote: “We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality”. What are we to make of the hapless denizens of Detroit, whose lives have been destroyed by decades of corrupt government that they have voted for, or the desperate inhabitants of Benefit Street here in the UK?

Are they all free of any responsibility for their own fates? Is it wise, kind or just to subsidise idleness or wrongheadedness?

FC   Hang on. You really can’t argue on the one hand, that everyone should act according to their own rational self-interest, and on the other hand that people should “take responsibility” when it is not in their rational self-interest to do so. Avoiding responsibility is a rational decision.

Everyone in this sorry tale was acting in accordance with their own rational self-interest. But this had terrible effects at the collective level. If you extend this principle to an entire society, you end up with Rand’s dystopian nightmare. 

In calling for people to “take responsibility” even if to do so is against their rational best interest, you are in fact calling for self-sacrifice. In Rand’s book, the only people who will sacrifice their own interests for the welfare of others are her heroes. They are astonishingly altruistic when rescuing John Galt.

What you actually seem to want is people to stand up for their principles against those in authority. Yet at the same time you want respect for authority. How is an ordinary person supposed to decide whether or not authority deserves respect? And what will the consequences be if an individual chooses to defy the orders of authority?

Tennyson’s poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, describes the disastrous decision to send a lightly-armed cavalry brigade against the full force of Russian artillery in the Crimean War. Unsurprisingly, very few survived. Everyone knew it was a mistake:

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldiers knew
  Someone had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
  Rode the six hundred.

In war, we glorify this behaviour - and if anyone argues, we shoot them. Command economies work similarly: your rational interests are best served by doing as you are told. This is why the Light Brigade ran.

And this is why that train ran. Morally, those involved should have stood up to authority. But don’t call it “taking responsibility”. Call it what it is. Altruism.

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