Balloon Juice defines “going Galt” as:
Withdrawing one’s unique brilliance from the economy in protest of tax rates which are actually abnormally low for the post-war era. Discussed and encouraged by bloggers such as Dr. Helen and Meghan McArdle, but never actually preformed, because even they can tell it would be a fucking moronic thing to do (h/t commenter Steve S). Wholly ineffective and counterproductive, outside of poorly-written midcentury fantasy novels.
For those of us who have not read Atlas Shrugged and/or who are unfamiliar with the concept of “going Galt”, it originates from the 2008 work of one Helen Smith, a creepy-looking, fake-smiling “doctor”. From the original post that birthed the term:
Perhaps the partisian politics we are dealing with now is really just a struggle between those of us who believe in productivity, personal responsibility, and keeping government interference to a minimum, and those who believe in the socialistic policies of taking from others, using the government as a watchdog, and rewarding those who overspend, underwork, or are just plain unproductive.
Obama talks about taking from those who are productive and redistributing to those who are not — or who are not as successful. If success and productivity is to be punished, why bother? Perhaps it is time for those of us who make the money and pay the taxes to take it easy, live on less and let the looters of the world find their own way.
Going through the comments over there at Dr. Helen’s and measuring the levels of entitlement, uncompromising self-righteousness, baseless notions of victimhood, and B-team Scrooge McDuckery might be an appropriate exercise for Introduction to Physics students. As if the baby boomers haven’t already been doing this in spirit for years, advocates of going Galt suggest the appropriate response to the democratic government not doing exactly what you-the-one-citizen-among-many like is to sit back and be pampered, as if the baby boomers haven’t already been doing this in spirit for years. Dr. Helen’s opus is a veritable Swiss cheese of conceptual holes, none of which we will discuss here, because just *this much* analysis makes me want to impale my face on my computer’s Logitech USB desktop microphone right there in front of me.
So, anyways, Tod Kelly asked a few blog-years back:
What is the single lesson you have learned in your life that most informs the way you view political races today?
Maybe that lesson can be part of a book you read, be it Animal Farm or Atlas Shrugged, Walden or The Road to Serfdom. Maybe it was an event, either public or private. Maybe it was something your mom used to say to you when you were growing up.
I’d say my life experience so far has lacked anything anchoring my political thought. Perhaps the closest thing for me was reading Les Miserables. Nothing I’d ever read before compared to the effect that book had on me, and nothing has since.
Tod asked me to go into more detail about why this is, and I will use this space to do just that. For those of you who have not read the beautiful, beautiful work that is Les Miserables, I suggest you take a few moments to consider whether you want to continue reading this post and thereby deprive your cold, cerebral self of perhaps one to five percent of the last 1400-page, profound emotional experience that remains for you (because that’s about how much I’m capable of spoiling)…
Done considering then? Good. Let’s start.
Victor Hugo himself lived a very public and very political existence: a Romantic like many of us here; a liberal and a Republican in the un-spun, continental senses of those words; and a vehement opponent of the paleo-neo-Neocon dictatorship of Napoleon III. Like many great and provocative writers throughout the ages, Hugo was punished for his vorpal pen’s snicker-snack: he lived almost twenty years in exile at Jersey and then again at Guernsey during Nap III’s reign. After this, Victor Hugo actively participated in the restoration of the Third Republic as a public intellectual and member of the French National Assembly and Senate. Here and elsewhere he was a vehement opponent of the death penalty, a luke-warm supporter of intellectual property rights, and a rationalist-deist à la Voltaire.
This summary of course is a hastily-crafted gloss: the breadth of worldly experience in the one life of one Victor Hugo is simply breathtaking: accordingly, Hugo’s ultimate mark on the world is his tremendous empathy for the entirety of the human situation, the most polished expression of which is the universal charity, magnanimity, and that greatest of virtues -compassion – espoused intuitively in his magnum opus Les Miserables.
Les Miserables is an epic work, deftly dealing with politics, war, poverty, religion, intentions and realities, youth and age, tragedy and comedy, fate and volition, and more or less any subject that ever enters any serious conversation anywhere. The content of Les Miserables, spanning multiple generations, is framed by and concerns principally the fate of one Jean Valjean, a man repeatedly punished and redeemed ad infinitum. Jean Valjean’s story opens with his getting let out of prison on parole after spending nineteen years there for stealing bread as a young man to feed his sister’s children during a time of great economic depression. As part of his parole, Valjean must comply with existing law and tell everyone he meets that he is a former and dangerous convict. As you can imagine, he has a hard time of it (and the parallels with our modern prison system are uncanny).
On one of his first nights out of jail, Valjean stays at the home of Catholic Bishop Myriel, who – as a man sworn to charity – is the only person among those Valjean solicitates to allow a convict to sleep in his home. In the middle of the night, Myriel hears some noises in the dining room and comes in to see Valjean in the process of stealing the home’s silverware. Valjean knocks the old man out and escapes, only to be brought back to Myriel by the police shortly afterwards. When Bishop Myriel is confronted about Valjean and the silverware, Myriel decides to show Valjean mercy, and Myriel lies to the police officers, saying that he gave the silverware to Valjean as a present and that it’s good he came back because he forgot the candlesticks. After the police have gone, Myriel lets in to the nonplussed Valjean (Remember, this man has experienced nothing but poverty and punishment.):
“‘Do not forget, ever, that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.’ Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of any such promise, stood dumbfounded. The bishop had stressed these words as he spoke them. He continued solemnly,’Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!
To really oversimplify the ensuing 1400 pages (and to gloss over several other major characters’s intertwining stories): Valjean takes Myriel’s silver, uses it to start a business, and begins a new life. For our purposes, the vector of the state is represented by the book’s antagonist, the indefatigable and law-respecting Inspector Javert; Javert is an honest and relentless machine. And so Jean Valjean must spend his entire life on the run from his past and the law personified as Javert. It is always Valjean’s altruism and kindness that calls the attentions of Inspector Javert to him, yet, in spite of the state as it exists in the text being in direct opposition to this altruism and kindness, Valjean continues to do the right thing inconsequentially: he builds a factory that employs an entire city and keeps the people out of poverty, he personally saves countless lives throughout the book, he becomes a mayor and a great philanthropist; he even gets rich.
Granted, Les Miserables is a novel, but it’s one helluva novel, and it stands in stark contrast to Atlas Shrugged by being in a way its foil. In both of these novels, the government really is evil, not at the least incompetent and at the most morally gray like ours is in the real world, and each novel has its protagonist handle this facet differently.
So, to get back to Tod Kelly’s question “What’s your “go-to” lesson in politics?” I’d have to say it’s the idea, conveyed by Les Miserables and Jean Valjean in contrast to Atlas Shrugged and John Galt, that, despite all the forces around us, our lives are ours to live justly and properly. The economy, or government, or society, or the collective, or the herd, or whatever you want to call it is really just you and me and what we want to make it, despite what others may tell us we can and can’t do and despite what the media may often call our attention to or whatever. Feeling like a victim of politics is both natural and easy, but going through life as a victim is a waste of a life. Let’s not go Galt and withdraw in disgust. Let’s go Valjean and engage.