Browsing the virtual stacks of Billy Beck’s library today, I came across this:
Atlas Shrugged, 1957, Ayn Rand — “The most subversive political implication of ‘Atlas Shrugged’, is that individual freedom is possible only to those who are strong enough, psychologically and morally, to withdraw their sanction from any system that coercively thrives off their productive energies.” (Sciabarra — “The Russian Radical”, pp. 301-302) Say no more.
Anyone who knows Beck a bit knows why he appreciates that quote. There’s no doubt in my mind that Beck is strong enough, psychologically and morally, to withdraw his production from a system that coercively feeds off of it. He’s demonstrated that. But the fact remains that the system thrives without his productive energies.
Does the withholding of his production make him free? It is certainly a demonstration of his metaphysical freedom to choose. But I also know from talking with him that there are many things he’d like to do, things that he is very well prepared to do, which he cannot do without making his production available to those he does not sanction. If he were happy with the result of this choice then I could call it an exercise of freedom. But he’s not happy with the result.
Rand used her literary creation John Galt to systematically lay out her philosophy. I don’t think his program for stopping the motor of the world ought to be entertained as a serious practical proposal. Galt’s program overlooks the Prisoners Dilemma. The world can do without the individual’s production and that is all the the individual has power over. Galt’s program relies on a wishful collectivism, he wishes a lot of other individuals will shrug with him. It works in the novel.
I met Beck a while back and he told me the thought that 250,000 conscientious objectors to taxation could turn the tide in America. I had two objections to this vision: 1) The 250,000 weren’t coming, and 2) Even if they did show up they would be of little consequence. Our America is quite capable of swallowing that many conscientious objectors whole.
I recommend Roark’s more natural individualism over Galt’s wishful collective program. Roark always pursued his goals by doing the business he wanted to do. His progress and his happiness did not depend on the enlightenment of an arbitrary number on men – one individual would suffice.