“Who is John Galt?” Ayn Rand famously asked in the opening line of Atlas Shrugged.
Rand – the “one thinker, one person” Janesville Congressman Paul Ryan, among others, has credited with sparking his interest in politics – spilled much of her 1,168-page tome on the answer. And millions of readers have pondered the question ever since she posed it some 60 years ago.
Too few have noted a basic biographical fact.
John Galt was a Wisconsinite.
Rand’s Galt was born in Ohio, but didn’t stay there long. He became a young engineer in an auto factory in Wisconsin before it, predictably, went out of business. He was an individualist and inventor who, stifled by the collectivism embraced by all the Wisconsinites around him, had to flee our state for a greener pasture – or, actually, valley.
Sound kind of familiar?
Atlas Shrugged, more popular than ever, has now sold over 7 million copies. I have to confess that I am not a huge fan of its author. Her fervent atheism, casual disregard of charity, and strident doctrinairism make what many consider a philosophical tract for the ages, too often, a sure-fire, 1,168-page alternative to Ambien.
Part of what kept me awake at points, then again, is that – for a book written in the 1940s and 1950s by a Russian immigrant who spent much of her life living in California and New York – it has a lot to do with Wisconsin, and not just the Wisconsin long past.
Rand’s great “Twentieth Century Motor Company” is set in fictional Starnesville, Wisconsin – which so far as I can figure is a little northwest of Stevens Point. When Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden (operating vice president of Taggart Transcontinental and founder of Rearden Steel, respectively) come upon it, it is nothing but an abandoned, dilapidated, cavernous shell of a factory that contains only one thing of value – the partial remnants of a motor that, they realize, looks capable of transforming static electricity into power.
Much later, Dagny finds why its inventor – and her future lover – abandoned it and the factory both. Galt left after his co-workers voted in favor of a new plan in which all employee earnings belonged to “the family” and compensation was based only on the degree of “need.”
Production and profits immediately fell and, soon enough, workers had been transformed into virtual panhandlers. The whole place ended up going bankrupt.
Among the subplots: Rearden has devised a new type of lighter, stronger metal that makes him a fortune – until the federal government takes it away from him.
I called Jeff Britting, archivist of the Ayn Rand Archives at the Ayn Rand Institute in California, wondering why Rand used Wisconsin as the setting for a key example of the pernicious undermining of capitalism. He said it’s a question that deserves more study. He also theorized that it might have been because of both Wisconsin’s history of embracing Germanic social welfare policies and being a leading manufacturing state.
“It’s a hypothesis,” he said, “an educated starting point for an investigation” someone might want to consider.
Rand died in 1982. So the investigation could no longer include an interview, or questions about her thoughts on recent news of automobile plant closings caused in part by unsustainable union contracts, by the lagging per capita income in this state, by the startling recent news that Wisconsin now has more government jobs than manufacturing positions, by the ongoing “brain drain” of good minds to other places, or by the fascinating advances in nanotechnology around here that could lead to lighter stronger metals, but also by our state’s general deficiency of entrepreneurs.
Rand, you have to guess, would say she made Wisconsin a focal point of her book for a simple reason. It’s not a place where business generally thrives.
Too many of Ayn Rand’s characters are one-dimensional, evil straw men she props up to too deftly and then knocks down. And yet, she does nail some of the details; and she was prescient in ways that are sometimes eerie.
Who was John Galt?
It’s worth remembering that he was – till he was driven away – one of us.
-January 28, 2010