Going Galt

A left-ward shift in American politics is triggering an intense reaction among libertarians and laissez faire capitalists. One sign of the growing foment is a renewed interest in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957). In late February, the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights was reporting record sales. Protestors were holding up signs proclaiming “Atlas Will Shrug.” Business owners and others were threatening to “go Galt” – a reference to the novel’s enigmatic John Galt. Like the Ayn Rand character, people are starting to dial back their production to teach the government a lesson about the value of entrepreneurship and innovation.[1]

While I have yet to see any of our congregation carrying a copy of the Rand tome in one hand, and a Bible in the other, a word of caution is in order. Rand, as an atheist, wanted to turn the Christian worldview on its head. Her primary goal in Atlas Shrugged was to present “a new morality” that was bound to “clash with the Judeo-Christian tradition.”[2]

Rand wanted to replace the cross with the dollar sign, charity with greed, altruism with selfishness, and the Bible with Atlas Shrugged. At the core of Rand’s approach was a radical commitment to universal ethical egoism. On this view, everyone ought to put his or her own interests first.

This brings us to the title of her book. Rand challenges us to think about Atlas, of Greek titan fame, as he bears the burden of the world on his shoulders. What would we tell Atlas to do if we saw “blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength?” For Rand, the answer was obvious: We would tell Atlas to shrug.

Going Galt is all very well as a means of protest, but as Christians, can we embrace Rand’s philosophy? Would we want Christ to have lived by that philosophy? Jesus bore a world of sin on the cross. Blood ran down His bruised body. His human strength began to fail. At this precise moment in time, would we want Him to just shrug? No doubt Rand found a certain kinship with the mocking crowds of Golgotha: “Save Yourself, and come down from the cross” (Mark 15:30).

Rand would agree that Christ sacrificed Himself for the sake of the world, but she would say that He was wrong for doing so. In the voice of John Galt, “The creed of sacrifice is a morality for the immoral.”

This statement tells us a lot about Ayn Rand, and where she went so drastically wrong. Selfishness, she reasoned, was the only antidote to altruism. When you dig a little deeper, however, you realize that sacrifice is not the problem. The villains in her novels are two-faced, manipulative creeps who preach altruism in the interests of feathering their own nests. Our loss is their gain. So Rand is right about the sinners, but not the sin. The bad guys are bad, not because they preach self-sacrifice, but because their motives are entirely self-serving. It is a simple logical mistake to throw out the altruistic baby with the dirty, conniving bath water.

Not only is Rand wrong about the diagnosis, she is wrong about the cure. Her villains are living the egoist dream. Why, if you are an egoist, would you settle for taking care of your own needs, when you could trick everyone else into taking care of your own needs as well? Of course, the deception will soon become apparent. You will be ostracized by society, and you will realize that absolute selfishness is a recipe for abject misery. The cure for self-serving, patronizing politicians (or whoever) is not more selfishness, but more concern and support for others who are caught in the web of hypocrisy.

Ironically, Galt’s protest involves a sacrifice of real earnings and creative fulfillment. And surely telling a titan what he should and should not do would involve some personal risk. A little selflessness, it appears, can go a long way. A lot of selflessness can go even further.

Christians, by choice, are happier living a life of self-sacrifice than a life of me-me-me (Galatians 2:20). They are happy precisely because Christ did not shrug.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, June 2009.]


[1] Helen Smith, “Going John Galt.” http://drhelen.blogspot.com/2008/10/going-john-galt.html

[2] Ayn Rand Institute, “History of Atlas Shrugged.” http://atlasshrugged.com/book/history.html. [Revised link: http://atlasshrugged.com/the-book/genesis-of-the-book/]

© 2009 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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