Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter VIII
The looters have captured John Galt. Given their incompetence at everything, including villainy, you might think they’d construct a prison that he could just walk out of, Idiocracy-style, or even one that he could stage a daring escape from. However, because the narrative now demands it, this turns out to be the one thing they’re good at:
Three floors of the Wayne-Falkland Hotel had been evacuated and transformed into an armed camp. Guards with machine guns stood at every turn of the long, velvet-carpeted corridors. Sentinels with bayonets stood on the landings of the fire-stairways. The elevator doors of the fifty-ninth, sixtieth and sixty-first floors were padlocked; a single door and one elevator were left as sole means of access, guarded by soldiers in full battle regalia…. Groups of guards with Tommy guns were posted at every entrance and exit of the hotel, as well as at strategic windows of the adjoining streets.
John Galt is in a suite on the sixtieth floor. Mr. No-First-Name-Given Thompson, head of the looter cabal, comes to see him:
Mr. Thompson thudded down on a chair, the brusqueness of the movement suggesting a cheerily businesslike attitude. “Now don’t go imagining that you’re under arrest or some such nonsense… This is no jail, as you can see. You can see that we’ll treat you right. You’re a big person, a very big person — and we know it. Just make yourself at home. Ask for anything you please.”
Oh, come on! That ought to be the chance he’s waiting for. You’d think the supergenius John Galt could ask for some seemingly harmless objects that he could kludge together into a MacGyver-esque escape plan. But again, since the plot dictates that he carry the Distress Ball for now, his brilliance mysteriously deserts him.
Mr. Thompson tells Galt that the only reason they’ve brought him here that they wanted to talk to him, and he left them no other choice. He praises Galt’s speech, saying that “People seem to want something you’ve got.” When this gets no response, he lays his cards on the table:
“The country is in a terrible state. People are starving and giving up, the economy is falling to pieces, nobody is producing any longer. We don’t know what to do about it. You do. You know how to make things work. Okay, we’re ready to give in. We want you to tell us what to do.”
“I told you what to do.”
“Get out of the way.”
“That’s impossible! That’s fantastic! That’s out of the question!”
“You see? I told you we had nothing to discuss.”
Mr. Thompson urges him not to be so hasty. He says that they’re willing to put him in charge of the entire country with the power to enforce any decision he makes: “You’ll run it any way you wish, you’ll give the orders, you’ll issue the directives… you’ll be the Economic Dictator of the nation!”
Galt bursts out laughing. When Mr. Thompson asks what’s so funny, he says that it took him three hours on the radio to explain why that wouldn’t work. Mr. Thompson pleads TL;DR (can you blame him?) and asks for a shorter summary:
“Okay, I’ll tell you. You want me to be the Economic Dictator?”
“And you’d obey any order I give?”
“Then start by abolishing all income taxes.”
“Oh, no!” screamed Mr. Thompson, leaping to his feet. “We couldn’t do that! That’s… that’s not the field of production. That’s the field of distribution. How would we pay government employees?”
“Fire your government employees.”
“Oh, no! That’s politics! That’s not economics! You can’t interfere with politics! You can’t have everything!”
John Galt says that he doesn’t want to be an economic dictator, not even to order people to be free, because that’s an offer “any rational human being would throw back in my face, because he’d know that his rights are not to be held, given or received by your permission or mine”.
Mr. Thompson persists – “Whatever it is you’re after, I’m offering you a deal” – and asks Galt to name his price:
“You said that you’re out for your own selfish interest — and that, I can understand. But what can you possibly want in the future that you couldn’t get right now, from us, handed down to you on a platter? …If it’s money that you want — you couldn’t make in three lifetimes what I can hand over to you in a minute, this minute, cash on the barrel. Want a billion dollars — a cool, neat billion dollars?”
“Which I’ll have to produce, for you to give me?”
“No, I mean straight out of the public treasury, in fresh, new bills… or… or even in gold, if you prefer.”
“What will it buy me?”
“Oh, look, when the country gets back on its feet—”
“When I put it back on its feet?”
This is a solid, cogent point for John Galt to make. In a collapsing economy where there’s nothing to buy, money is worthless, whether it’s paper bills or gold coins. It’s too bad that this completely contradicts an argument made earlier in the novel.
Remember, Rand insisted (hundreds of pages ago, so don’t feel bad if you forgot about it, because it seems she did too) that gold is an “objective value“, unlike that worthless looter fiat money. If that were true – if gold were objectively valuable, meaning valuable in its own right regardless of what you could do with it – then the promise of a billion dollars in gold should be tempting. It’s the one thing the looters can offer Galt that, by his own standard, he’s supposed to value. But because he has to be immune to all their blandishments, he switches to a different economic philosophy for just this one scene.
“What have you got to offer me that I couldn’t get without you?”
There was a different look in Mr. Thompson’s eyes when he drew back, as if cornered, yet looked straight at Galt for the first time and said slowly, “Without me, you couldn’t get out of this room, right now.”
Galt smiled. “True.”
… “Well, don’t you see?” The loudness of homey joviality came back into Mr. Thompson’s voice, as if the hint given and received were now to be safely evaded by means of humor. “What I’ve got to offer you is your life.”
“It’s not yours to offer, Mr. Thompson,” said Galt softly.
“If you order me to move into the office of an Economic Dictator, I’ll move into it. If you order me to sit at a desk, I will sit at it. If you order me to issue a directive, I will issue the directive you order me to issue.”
“Oh, but I don’t know what directives to issue!”
“I don’t, either.”
Um, except you kind of do? You just gave him that suggestion about abolishing income taxes, remember?
Galt says that even if he pretended to play along, with the goal of seizing power for himself or escaping at a later date, it’d be playing on the looters’ terms, and that’s a game even he would lose:
“I wouldn’t save your economy or your system, nothing will save them now — but I’d perish and what you’d win would be what you’ve always won in the past: a postponement, one more stay of execution, for another year — or month — bought at the price of whatever hope and effort might still be squeezed out of the best of the human remnants left around you, including me… But you’ve found your last victim — the one who refuses to play his historical part. The game is up, brother.”
More than perhaps any other novel, Atlas Shrugged embodies the “Now you’ll be sorry!” fantasy. It urges you, the reader, to imagine yourself in the same role as its protagonists: an unappreciated genius who’s always been mocked, dismissed or scorned by the ignorant masses. It encourages you to fantasize that, eventually, all your enemies will realize how important you were all along and beg your forgiveness. And while some works of fiction might treat this as a chance for you to be the bigger person, Atlas’ message is that you can take spiteful pleasure in saying no and leaving the undeserving to their fate.
We saw this with Hank Rearden abandoning his family, and this scene with John Galt is the same thing on a bigger scale. But while Rand meant this as dramatic dialogue where two worldviews clash and the capitalist philosophy triumphs over its opponent at every turn, the fact is that John Galt’s objections are all over the map.
First he says he’d be willing to take the job, except that the looters wouldn’t let him issue the orders that would save civilization. Then he says he’s not willing to take the job, because he doesn’t have the right to order people around, even if the orders are good ones. Then he says it doesn’t matter if he takes the job or not, because no one can save civilization now, not even him.
If I were Mr. Thompson, I’d take this inconsistency as a sign that John Galt might not be the person I wanted after all. But he insists that Galt is a “big person” – or that, as in an earlier scene, he’s “cornered the market on brains” – and they need his help, no matter the price.
There’s more than a little bit of Atlas in the modern-day cult of the CEO. Corporate executives often present themselves as irreplaceable visionaries who can make profit soar or single-handedly revive a struggling company. This belief has fueled the skyrocketing ratio of executive pay to regular employee pay, especially when it comes with perks like “golden parachutes“, where managers get a jackpot payoff if their company is bought out.
But are people from that small pool of executives really worth so much as to justify bidding up their salaries to ludicrous levels in the competition for talent? Books like Atlas Shrugged stoke the fantasy that there’s a tiny number of people on whose ingenuity all of society depends, so they must be worth any price they demand. But the evidence suggests that higher pay makes CEOs perform worse:
…[a] study published this month demonstrates that CEO pay “is negatively related to future stock returns for periods up to three years after sorting on pay.” In other words, the more the CEO of a company is paid, the less likely it is to perform as well as companies with not-so-superstar bosses.
“Firms that pay their CEOs in the top 10 percent of excess pay earn negative abnormal returns over the next three years of approximately negative 8 percent,” the report reads.
It’s not hard to think of reasons why this would be true. CEOs who are paid in stock have an incentive to artificially inflate the price to unsustainable levels so they can get their payoff, even if that causes a crash after they’re gone. Even if they’re paid in ordinary dollars, if that pay is sky-high, there’s no reason they need to hold the job for more than a few years and therefore no incentive to think about the long term. How long would it be before you retired if your salary was tens of millions of dollars?
There could also be a regression-to-the-mean effect in play. Other research finds that CEO pay is largely due to luck. They get raises when profit rises for reasons beyond their control, like fluctuations in oil prices or exchange rates. When a company has had a run of good luck, their managers claim the credit, but luck never lasts forever, and their profits soon decline.
Last but not least, excessive pay can foster disastrous overconfidence. After all, if you’re being paid so much more richly than everyone else, doesn’t that prove that your judgment is much better than everyone else’s? The market wouldn’t give you that reward if you didn’t deserve it (right?), so why not make some big, risky gambles? After all, that’s what the heroes in Ayn Rand’s novels do, and it always works out well for them.
Other posts in this series: