Going Galt

If you’ve been following the financial news (and these days, who hasn’t?), you’ve probably come across stories about various wealthy and well-connected folks who are so incensed about Obama’s intention to let Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy expire that they are threatening to “go Galt.”

The reference is to John Galt, the hero of Ayn Rand’s monumental book, Atlas Shrugged. In the book, Galt and other highly productive members of society decide to simply withdraw from participation in an economic system that has—in Rand’s view—become corrupted. The economic environment in Atlas Shrugged is highly politicized, with the result that it takes from those who are productive and honorable, and gives to those who are intellectually dishonest and morally defective. Rand characterizes the latter as “looters” and as “pull-peddlers” (what we would call “influence peddlers”)—people who know how to work the system to gain advantage over those who play by the rules.

What is so ironic, of course, about these publicized threats to “go Galt”—which in this case means to cut back on work in order to keep one’s taxable income under $250,000—is that they are being made by folks who have a lot more in common with Rand’s “looters” than with John Galt. These rants and threats are coming from people who have been prospering by doing all the things Rand (and Galt) hated. They are the people who were born into privilege, the people whose companies benefitted from favorable tax breaks, lax regulation, and the ability to hire lobbyists to skew the system in their favor, rather than through the production of anything of value. To those of us who have actually read the book, they look a lot more like James Taggert, the slimy, politically-connected, perpetually whining brother of the heroine Dagny Taggert.

It isn’t only Atlas Shrugged that the “don’t raise the tax on my marginal income another three percent” folks are mischaracterizing. As the noted economist Amartya Sen pointed out in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, these self-righteous, self-proclaimed “pro-business” types have also been playing fast and loose with Adam Smith and the “Wealth of Nations.”

As Sen points out, Smith viewed markets and capital as doing good work “within their own sphere,” but he also explicitly recognized that markets required “restraint and correction” by other institutions–including well-devised government regulations and state assistance for the poor–in order to prevent “instability, inequity and injustice.” Smith—who was not an economist, but a Professor of Moral Philosophy—also recognized that “commercial exchange could not effectively take place until business morality made contractual behavior sustainable and inexpensive–not requiring constant suing of defaulting contractors, for example.”

It’s bad enough that extremists on the political right have insisted upon highly selective readings of both the bible and the constitution. Now they are selectively reading both Ayn Rand and Adam Smith, as well.

Or maybe they haven’t actually read any of them. That really would explain a lot.