Sunday, February 21, 2016

Was Bowe Bergdahl Going Galt?

The latest edition of Serial highlights the influence of Atlas Shrugged in Bowe Bergdahl's decision to quit his post. This older article adds further detail.

17 comments:

Jzero said...

It is, of course, too easy to mock the ultimate effectiveness of Bergdahl's actions. I'm sure his captors were immensely impressed with his commitment to his ideals and surely recognized and respected his innate right to self-determination. Likewise, once they got him back no doubt the Army has been graciously accommodating of his decision to renege on his previous pledge of service. (I assume Serial is addressing that very question; I haven't heard any of it yet.)

But every time I hear anyone wax romantically about "going Galt" I can't help but wonder if they truly have any notion of what that means and whether it would actually be significant to the world for them to remove themselves from it, as opposed to a story where everything happens just right to make it work because that's what the author desires. Atlas Shrugged depends on nearly everyone of genius to have the same ideological outlook, deep down, even if they haven't yet realized it. In the real world it appears that "going Galt" appeals sometimes not to the geniuses, so much, as it does to the not-so-bright.

Gordon Burkowski said...


What would be the effect if a few thousand people - enough to fill a Colorado valley - all went on strike? The answer: no real effect at all.

In the world of Atlas Shrugged, the CEO disappears - and an entire corporation collapses like a deck of cards. Apparently, nobody in this novel has ever heard about succession plans. The genius departs - and the whole thing goes poof.

Anyone with even a vague sense of the business world knows that this is complete fantasy. Sure, some people are very good at their jobs; within a Company, they can be extremely important. But not so important that their absence would cause the economy of the United States to grind to a halt.

This is obvious of course. I guess it's a tribute to Rand's power as a novelist that she can get a lot of people to buy into this absurd a premise.


Anonymous said...

>>The answer: no real effect at all.

That, of course, was Rand's whole point.

If you want real social change and economic progress, you'll need independent-minded and innovative people as leaders, especially in science, business, and industry.

If you want nothing to change, then it makes no difference if those same people disappear into a Colorado valley. The problem is that "no real change" equals "falling off the cliff of socialism" since that was the direction things were already going in at the start of the novel.

>>In the world of Atlas Shrugged, the CEO disappears - and an entire corporation collapses like a deck of cards.

I guess you've never read the novel.

In the world of Atlas Shrugged, most of the collapsing corporations were intentionally sabotaged by its original creators, much as Howard Roark sabotaged his own building in The Fountainhead. Her point in AS was that collectivism both breeds and rewards mediocrity. I believe that's an accurate description of what happens in the real world.

You should try reading the novel first.

Jzero said...

"That, of course, was Rand's whole point."

If it was her point, she sure spent a lot of pages of Atlas Shrugged not making that point.

Gordon Burkowski said...

"In the world of Atlas Shrugged, most of the collapsing corporations were intentionally sabotaged by its original creators."

Francisco d'Anconia blows up his mines and Ellis Wyatt does the same to his oil fields. Everyone else - Dannager, Rearden, Mulligan, Hammond, Nielsen, even Dagny - just leave.

The premise of Atlas Shrugged is not simply that creative people can improve things - but rather that without them, whole industries will immediately grind to a halt.

John Galt claims in his interminable speech that "the man at the bottom", if left to himself, "would starve in his hopeless ineptitude." That's the symbolic point of the concluding scene involving Eddie Willers.

It is also the nonsensical premise that drives the entire plot of the novel.

Maybe you should try rereading Atlas Shrugged. Start with the title.

Anonymous said...

>If it was her point, she sure spent a lot of pages of Atlas Shrugged not making that point.

Most of us got it.

Maybe you're just a bit slow on the uptake.

Anonymous said...

>The premise of Atlas Shrugged is not simply that creative people can improve things - but rather that without them, whole industries will immediately grind to a halt.

There's nothing in Atlas Shrugged suggesting that industries will ***immediately*** grind to halt without innovative leadership, just that they will ***inevitably*** do so. That Rand had to compress what might take years to occur in real life into 1,100 pages and several months of "story time" was a literary attempt — overall, a successful one — at unity-of-action.

Gordon Burkowski said...

@ The brave commentator who goes by the handle "Anonymous":

"Inevitably"? "Inevitably"?? Everyone recognizes the pompous Objectivist rhetoric - and outside the pages of Atlas Shrugged, there's not much to back it up.

Note the vagueness of a term like "innovative leadership" - which might mean anything from Steve Jobs to a good front-line supervisor. The whole argument turns on those kinds of weasel words and sliding definitions.

It's a truism that things run better if the people running things are competent. But what level of competence is meant? And how many such people are there? If you take Atlas Shrugged seriously, the level of competence required to keep industry afloat is to be found only in a tiny elite. But if you take time out from the echo chamber to look around a bit, you see that innovative leaders may be uncommon, but they're not all that rare. Henry Ford is dead - but not his company.

it's obvious that things are NOT going to "inevitably" fall to pieces because a few hundred Atlases decide to shrug, pull up stakes and hide out in Colorado. And I suspect that most people who threaten to "go Galt" are heroes only by their own reckoning.

None of this is hard to see. But if I may quote you: "Maybe you're just a bit slow on the uptake."

Anonymous said...

>Everyone recognizes the pompous Objectivist rhetoric

A nice example of argument-from-intimidation in which anyone can recognize *your* pompous rhetoric.

>It's a truism that things run better if the people running things are competent.

A dimwitted statement. Phrases like "things run better" and "If the people running things are competent" are managerial goals — not entrepreneurial ones — that are just as relevant to systems like fascism, corporatism, syndicalism, socialism, and outright communism (in which "running things competently" means "hitting arbitrary quotas set by state production czars) as they are to government bureaucracies in semi-capitalist countries. The essence of capitalism is "creating things", not "running things"; "courage", not "competence."

>it's obvious that things are NOT going to "inevitably" fall to pieces because a few hundred Atlases decide to shrug

It's obvious only to someone who doesn't know anything about history or economics. You seem to fit the description.

That things don't fall to pieces immediately when innovation and economic freedom disappear is explained by the fact that others (individuals or nations) are around to prop things up. That was the case, for example, with the former USSR. After Atlas Shrugged, read all three volumes of "Western Technology and Soviet Economic Development" by Antony Sutton. That should keep your lips moving for at least a year.

Without those semi-free "others" to prop things up, collectivism inevitably leads to economic chaos — "Planned Chaos", as Mises called it — and collapse. The imagined scenario in which every nation except the US has become socialist — with the US not far behind the others, however, — is the opening assumption of the world of Atlas Shrugged.

For further reading, murmur your way through some of the essays on capitalism and innovation by Julian Simon and Yale Brozen.

Gordon Burkowski said...


Culling a few titles from a libertarian book list, then adding some stupid abuse.

If that's your idea of debate, it speaks poorly of the ideas which you claim to represent.

Gordon Burkowski said...

“The essence of capitalism is ‘creating things’, not ‘running things’; ‘courage’, not ‘competence.’"

This particular statement was a source of real entertainment for me. The self-proclaimed mask of economic and historical expertise drops for a moment – and what does one find? A starry-eyed romantic, dazzled by the sight of a CEO.

Let’s get down to cases. Look at Walmart, with its 2.5 million employees. The largest corporation in the world. If you think that its CEO must be someone who is “creating things” and is an exemplar of “courage”, I’d like to suggest that you must be smoking too much of the funny stuff. How about McDonald’s? Or Burger King? Heroes all.

Then there’s Martin Shkreli. A real profile in courage. How about Keshub Mahindra? I expect you’ve never heard of him. He was the Chairman of Union Carbide India Limited – at a place called Bhopal. . . The body count is 18,000 and still rising.

People like that are part of the story too. And vaporing on about courage doesn’t make them go away.

Of course there are innovators like Steve Jobs or Edwin Land - whose stories are trotted out again and again and again. But most industries rely on good administrators who may certainly be talented, but aren’t going to turn the world upside down. And innovations are quickly absorbed and become standard operating practice. You may need a genius to come out with a revolutionary idea; contrary to Atlas Shrugged, you don’t need one to operate Subway or Walmart.

A market economy is an immensely powerful vehicle of production. But you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think there’s a downside – or that the downside is always the government’s fault. That may play inside the echo chamber. But nowhere else.

Daniel Barnes said...

First, is anyone here seriously arguing that innovative, independent people are not helpful in creating, um, innovation?
Second, is anyone here seriously arguing that diverse, open social environments are better at fostering innovation than closed monocultures?
I would hope not.
Of course we can argue how accurate Rand's highly romanticised depictions of innovative people are. (I would say not very - hers is a kind of sexed-up Great Man theory of creation).
We can also argue how much social environments contribute to invention, as opposed to individual genius - the idea that much innovation is simply the result of accidental collisions when you mix different cultures and people, like Brian Eno's notion of "scenius". (I would say Rand doesn't really appreciate, at least rhetorically, this critical aspect of the free market).
So I think we can agree at least on those basic premises, if not their extents.
As to whether the Soviet Union was as entirely dependent on US innovation as this Antony Sutton claims, I have no idea. I haven't read his particular tomes. I do know Lenin loved him some Scientific Management and Fordism, and that much of the blueprint for the early Soviet Union, to the extent there ever even was one, was provided by Harvard Business School. Not really that different in principle from, say, General Motors.
But given Sutton also claims that cold fusion has also been invented decades ago and kept secret by malefactors, along with numerous other conspiracy theories, I would doubt if he is an entirely reliable source.

Daniel Barnes said...

Sorry second para should read "aren't"

Jzero said...

"Most of us got it.

Maybe you're just a bit slow on the uptake."

Sure, that's why Objectivism is the dominant philosophy in the land today, because "most" get it. Sure.

There's another point about this idea of geniuses removing themselves that I think ought to be pointed out - once discovered, things that benefit humanity tend to not be un-discovered. Few of us are so clever that we could have invented the automobile, but once its principles were documented, just about anyone with a wish to learn how could work in the auto industry, from mechanic to designer.

The scene with Willers and the train has to rely on several contrivances. It presumes that things have been managed so badly that not only has maintenance not been performed as it should have been, and that not only have the parts needed for maintenance not been available, and that people trained to do the maintenance have filtered away, willing to abandon their jobs and livelihoods to "go Galt" (and go do subsistence farming, one has to presume, if every other industry is facing the same problems). Plus the person who wants to keep the train going is entirely untrained. Well, sure, engineer a hopeless fictional situation, and you can crow about how hopeless the world would be if X happens.

But in the world as it actually exists, there's no reason for any of that to happen, even if everyone on par with Rand's protagonists shucked off for parts unknown. I doubt that people accustomed to the conveniences of modern living would so soon abandon them for the sake of Objectivist principles, for example, and I'm sure of this because that's what actual Objectivists tell me. If they view today's political and economic systems as actually evil, I've said to them, then they should not tolerate this evil, and remove themselves from society, if they are really that committed to those principles. Unsurprisingly, the response I get is that A) they are untrained to live apart from society; B) they still want to have modern conveniences; C) everywhere that isn't an uninhabited wilderness or wasteland is already occupied and managed. And that's perfectly fine, except it shows that the commitment to those ideals and the fight against "evil" isn't so strong as to have to endure even the slightest hardships.

Without that - without the trained-but-not-genius "lesser" folk abandoning ship, there's no reason to think that society would completely fall apart. Things might be difficult, we might have to endure Great Depressions now and again, but even if society lacked its spark of genius to innovate, keeping the lights on would be always within reach.

Atlas Shrugged closes before we ever see what happens to Eddie Willers. Does he die out in the middle of nowhere? Does he eventually abandon the train, defeated? Or does he actually devote himself to study, using the references and texts available to a 20th-century man to understand the workings of the train, eventually rolling into a station months or even years later, having learned enough to do what was needed? We'll never know for sure, but from context we can be reasonably sure that Rand had such disdain for the common man that she did not expect him to succeed.

Gordon Burkowski said...

@Jzero: This is yet another case where Rand's message is either interesting but clearly wrong - or true but trivial.

1) I think she's plainly suggesting in Atlas Shrugged that the number of truly competent people is very small indeed; and that everything - industry, art, science - would immediately cease without them. Not only an end to innovation, but an end to pretty much everything, even survival. As you have observed, this is plainly nonsense.

2) However, you can understand the novel in another way. You can see it as making a symbolic point about the importance of rationality and productivity - and how important both of them are to the prosperity and even survival of humanity. That is the point which the Anonymous Poison Pen Writer seems to be making.

But then - just how many such rational, productive people are being described? One million mini-atlases? Ten million? As the number grows higher, you begin to be left with the not very interesting assertion that things would go badly if nothing was being done by people who know what they're doing. As I noted - true but trivial.

J. Goard said...

@Gordon Burkowski:

"Note the vagueness of a term like "innovative leadership" - which might mean anything from Steve Jobs to a good front-line supervisor. The whole argument turns on those kinds of weasel words and sliding definitions."

Recall that Dagny was only led to identify the "last of the great philosophers of reason" because he was the first person in a long time capable of making her a proper sandwich. "Innovative leadership", indeed.

Adriana I. Pena said...

Anonumous who said

it's obvious that things are NOT going to "inevitably" fall to pieces because a few hundred Atlases decide to shrug

It's obvious only to someone who doesn't know anything about history or economics. You seem to fit the description.

That things don't fall to pieces immediately when innovation and economic freedom disappear is explained by the fact that others (individuals or nations) are around to prop things up. That was the case, for example, with the former USSR. After Atlas Shrugged, read all three volumes of "Western Technology and Soviet Economic Development" by Antony Sutton. That should keep your lips moving for at least a year.

Fails to see that geniuses leave only so long, and that a new crop keeps coming. One thing that geniuses do, is to keep his or her followers from becoming competitors - making them slavish to their every utterance. Check what a fir tree does to the seedlings growing at its foot. Removal of that fir tree lets the seedlings thrive.

So removal of the genius in charge, would allow the suppressed geniuses to start coming up with new ideas.

In the words of "Wiseguy" Every leader has a hungry right hand. I suspect that a lot of geniuses have hungry right hands.