Who is not John Galt?

Nobody ever reads Ayn Rand and identifies with the mediocre masses. Sure, a lot of people get to the end of books like The Fountainhead, Anthem or Atlas Shrugged and say “Wow, society really does oppose our most exceptional people at every turn.” But nobody ever says “I’d better get out of the way so they can do their thing.”

No, they identify with the protagonists. The Howard Roarks, the Equality 7-2521s and the John Galts who dare to stand up against the oppression of mediocrity. They identify with these mavericks in the same way that lonely teenagers identify with superheroes and vampires.

The problem, of course, is that most people aren’t exceptional. Sure, you could easily argue that the exceptional people are the ones who read and “get” Rand, and the mediocre masses are the ones who throw The Fountainhead across the room and yell “What a bunch of poorly-written nonsense!” But even then, the fact remains that you can’t have an exception without an average.

This is true by definition, and in a way it’s one of the most fundamental ideas of Ayn Rand’s objectivist┬ánovels and philosophy. Which is ironic, because it’s also the reason that philosophy doesn’t work in practice.

Now, it’s not a universally terrible philosophy. Rand had some good ideas about reason, logic and objective reality, and you can argue that when she fought for “the individual,” she wasn’t necessarily fighting for “the few.” But that tends to be what the most vocal advocates of Rand’s individual self-interest are fighting for, and to do it, they’ve usually got to leave reason and logic on the shelf.

We see this a lot in the States, where people are really big on the rugged individual. Whenever Rand’s philosophy is trotted out, it’s to critique a “socialist” law or measure that would help a lot of average people, but would disadvantage the supposed hard-working achievers at the top. Politicians put it out there, either because they’re dishonest or deluded, and people go along with it because they identify with that upper crust.

Generally, this is a case of what’s called “aspirational voting.” People think it’s only a matter of time before their ship comes in, so they vote in favour of parties and policies that they believe will be good for them one day, even if they’re bad for them now. It’s the reason so many poor Americans support tax cuts for the rich. It’s the reason so many people voted for Bush in 2004.

And it doesn’t make sense, in theory or in practice. Most of those people are never going to get there. It would be great if they did, but they won’t, and in the meantime they’ll keep voting to keep themselves down. Show me a middle class voter who fervently insists she’s “not the 99%,” and I’ll show you someone who’s ripe for exploitation by the 1%.

That’s reason, logic and reality, which are the principles that Rand felt should determine the way we live. If that part of her philosophy had gained more traction, maybe people wouldn’t keep falling for the other part.

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