The Rugged Individualist
"Who is John Galt?"
I don't know, and I couldn't care less, but lots of disgruntled young people waste time on the internet asking this question, as pointless as it is pretentious. John Galt was, of course, the fictional protagonist of Ayn Rand's mammoth novel, Atlas Shrugged, in which he leads a work-stoppage of the competent and innovative against a world of egalitarian consumers who do not appreciate what the geniuses of the world have done for them. He is, in other words, the rugged individualist that is supposedly America's greatest contribution to world civilization. He is also a selfish shirker, who only accords other people the right to pursue their dreams of happiness because it justifies his own self-absorption. Rand's other great hero, Howard Roark, is another spoiled brat who destroys a housing project for the poor because the developers did not carry out his brilliant original design.
Rand's heroes are designed to appeal to Americans, who like to think of themselves as self-sufficient, latter day Daniel Boones and Davy Crocketts who blaze their own trails and go their own way. Although the reality is that Americans are scarcely less dependent on big government and big business than the most servile denizen of "Old Europe," they cling to their illusions.
In one of his lucid moments, Sartre shrewdly observed that societies usually celebrate the qualities they most lack. In the modern world, people prate of liberty precisely because they are incapable of being free. No one can be politically free without some degree of economic independence. A man who owns a debt-free farm or business is in a stronger position than one whose job is owned by a corporation. Country music fans used to sing along with Johnny Paycheck, "You can take this job and shove it," until a recession came along. Then they realized they were serfs on the company plantation.
But no one can enjoy economic freedom without a dose of moral freedom, which means the ability of imposing limits on the human appetite. Neither the gambler nor the alcoholic is free, and neither is the Don Juan or the consumerist. Freedom—moral, economic, and political—is one of the rarest things to meet with in this human world, and it is far rarer these days than it was 50-60 years ago. In other words, the corner-stone of individualism and liberalism is not like air and water, which are widely available in most societies, or even like coal and oil, which require effort. Freedom is more like gold, a scarce commodity for which most people have to work very hard for most of their lives if they wish to acquire a significant amount.
Individualists take their own freedom for granted, but what that means in practice is that they are borrowing some of yours. In asserting their individual freedom, they are reserving the right to mistreat everyone else. The individualist has—to paraphrase Bugs Bunny—places to see and people to be. He cannot be bothered to remember his wife's birthday, much less cut a little slack to an employee with a dying child or a case of depression. Life is a game, and "when that one Great Scorer comes to write against your name," he marks not how you played the game but whether you won or lost. Their prophet is not the sentimental Grantland Rice but the Machiavellian Leo the Lip Durocher, author of such all-American truisms as "Win any way so long as you can get away with it." "Nice guys finish last," and "show me a good loser, and I'll show you an idiot." A crony of the gamblers who destroy the integrity of every sport they touch, Durocher reached his high point when allegedly stole Babe Ruth's watch. Yes, I know, it never happened or it was only a joke. But the old baseball players my father knew always insisted the theft really took place. Ruth disliked Durocher and repeatedly taunted him as a thief.
Perhaps Durocher really was innocent of that theft, but it would in no way have violated his own code of honor. "I believe in rules," he once said. "If there weren't any rules, how could you break them," a sentence that can only be interpreted to mean "Cheaters have an edge over honest people." We are supposed to find this funny, but it is like saying, if there weren't any laws—against stealing, adultery, slander, or murder—then any slob could be as successful as Durocher. Going "beyond good and evil" has been the slogan of certain kind of men long before Nietzsche coined the phrase. Plato's uncle Critias, who argued that religion and morality were invented by the weak in order to enslave the strong, put his theory into practice as leader of the Thirty, a group of aristocratic thugs who arrested and executed rich men in order to gain possession of their property. If ever a man believed in the virtues of selfishness, it was Critias.
The individualist, since he has made up his mind to be independent of others and live for himself, is the epitome of selfishness. Other people are either instruments to his own self-actualization or obstacles to the fulfillment of his desires. Being the hero of his own drama—the only drama there is—he can treat the rest of us as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,
An attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.