Those are the opening words of Ayn Rand's prophetic novel, Atlas Shrugged. Published in 1957, Atlas sold more copies last year than in any previous year, and sales in 2009 are dwarfing those of 2008. Atlas and Ayn Rand are regularly mentioned in the media, and signs referencing both are seen at nearly every Tea Party. (Click here to see why you should read Atlas Shrugged.)
This appeal is understandable. Rand foretold today's headlines. She showed the logical consequences of government intervention in the economy and the lives of individuals. She showed where the morality of altruism--the belief that service to others is the standard of morality--must necessarily lead.
Many pundits describe the hero of Atlas as the man who leads the world's industrialists on a strike. While there is truth in this description, it is superficial. Fundamentally, Galt taught men to refuse to sanction their destroyers. While great industrialists were among his "students", he also attracted artists, house wives, and truck drivers. His message, then as now, is not aimed at the rich and powerful, but at those who value their own life, liberty, and the pursuit of their own happiness.
The message of Atlas, and her entire philosophy of Objectivism, is not focused on the negative. While Rand eloquently demonstrated that altruism can only lead to misery, destruction, and death, she did not regard philosophy as a science for avoiding pain and suffering. She regarded philosophy as an indispensable tool for achieving happiness and success in life--this life, on this earth.
The world today is in crisis. But the nature of that crisis is not economic. Our crisis is one of morality.
Rand challenged the morality, not only of our time, but of the entire history of philosophy. She rejected the idea that the individual exists for no purpose but to serve others. She rejected the idea that morality demands the renunciation of one's values. She rejected the idea that life requires sacrifice, whether of oneself to others, or of others to oneself. She put forth a radical new morality--rational selfishness.
Each individual has a moral right to live his life for himself, without interference from others. He has a right to act according to his own judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. His own personal happiness is his highest moral purpose.
Yet altruism demands that the individual place the interests and welfare of others before his own interests and welfare. Altruism demands that the individual sacrifice his values for the "general welfare" or the "public good".
Craig Biddle, writing at CapitalismMagazine, quotes a college textbook describing altruism:
A pure altruist doesn’t consider her own welfare at all but only that of others. If she had a choice between an action that would produce a great benefit for herself (such as enabling her to go to college) and an action that would produce no benefit for herself but a small benefit for someone else (such as enabling him to go to a concert this evening), she should do the second. She should be selfless, considering herself not at all: she should face death rather than subject another person to a minor discomfort. She is committed to serving others only and to pass up any benefits to herself.
This is the meaning of altruism--you are to forgo any personal pleasure or benefit.
It is altruism that is destroying the world, and it is altruism that must be rejected. Its victims must remove their sanction and proudly declare their right to their own life. This applies to Larry Kellner, the CEO of Continental Airlines, who has called for re-regulation of his industry. It applies to Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, who has called for more government oversight of the financial markets. It applies to the Texas Apartment Association, which is supporting legislation that will subject apartment owners to greater government controls. It applies to every individual who values his life and wants to be free to pursue his own happiness.
So, who is John Galt? He is anyone who refuses to sanction a morality that declares his life to be the property of others.