Premise: If you haven't read the book, the general theme is that as the government increases the tax and regulatory burden on the productive to serve the needy, more and more productive people opt out of society (going John Galt in modern parlance). They recognize that they are becoming beasts of burden for everyone else and they simply quit and disappear from society. The end result is catastrophic.
Summary: For me, the book is a classic. The themes within it are timeless and as I read it, I saw applications of it throughout my life. At work, at home, in the elections, the concepts of Atlas Shrugged are everywhere. I consider myself pretty well-read, but this book revolutionized the way I see many things. Despite its immense size, I highly recommend it.
In the book, none of the main characters have children. This allows them to behave like children. Going full on John Galt and opting out of society is an act of petulant childishness that is possible only if you have no tie to the future. Children tie you to the future and force you to remain in society and try to make it as good as it can be. While I see the themes of this book being played out with greater and greater strength in the US, there is not much of a chance I would go John Galt in that way.
Of course, Tuesday may change all that. Who knows.
The conflict in the book is cultural, not personal. Society is divided into producers and looters. The popular culture within the book and within America today takes from the producers and gives to the looters. As the plot progresses, more and more is taken from the producers to give more and more to the looters. The majority of Americans, both in the book and in real life, speak in terms of "need" as the primary motivation for action and disdain those who produce.
Example: Millions of Americans are without health insurance. They need it. We must take from the producers and give to the needy that they may have health insurance. At no time is the concept of "What have they done to earn it?" ever raised.
In the book, producers can understand the looters' mentality, but not the other way around. Looters see producers as evil and greedy. This is like the popular view of Exxon in real life. Looters do not understand that producers are the key to civilization until enough of them drop out and society begins to fall apart. Even then, they cling to the concepts of rewarding need and punishing greed as they increase the load on the ever-dwindling set of producers.
Example: California today.
Discouraged by high costs and strict regulations, just under 60 percent of California business leaders interviewed for a new study said they have policies to restrict job growth in the state or move jobs to other locations in the United States....Hmmm. I guess there's more than one way to go John Galt. I have to admit, I have considered moving to another state when I retire...
The consulting firm [Bain] interviewed chief executives or senior managers of about 50 small, medium and large companies with extensive operations in the state.
About 40 percent said their companies have an explicit policy to move jobs elsewhere in the United States, with Texas cited as the most frequent destination. Not counting those companies that must stay in California, such as retailers or health care providers, the proportion of businesses that said their policy is to move jobs rose to 55 percent.
Like I said before, the problem in the book is cultural. Even when confronted with the concrete results of their actions, the looters can't see the causes. As society crumbles they continue to speak in terms of what they need. The politicians continue to speak in terms of the government developing new plans to deal with one crisis after another when, in fact, the crises were created by government plans in the first place.
Example: The recent financial catastrophe was generated by the quasi-governmental mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac deciding to change their strict loan purchase policies and begin buying subprime loans. People needed to be able to buy houses and it was unreasonable to expect them to earn the houses. Now that mortgage defaults are skyrocketing, the government is working on mortgage bailout plans for needy borrowers who can't afford the homes they bought.
In the end, it is the looters' philosophy that fails. The collapse of society is a result of the doomed culture of consumption over production. All kinds of policies and government arrangements are tried, but nothing stops the inexorable decline of civilization because their mindset is centered around need.
If you go back and watch the debates, particularly the Democratic primary debates, I think you'll see this exact mindset on display.
In the end, the keys to success - hard work, thrift, skills and education, personal responsibility and so forth - allow the producers to escape the cataclysm. I won't spoil the book and reveal how. Here in the real world, a mix of Dave Ramsey, St. Thomas Aquinas and a solid set of valuable skills allow you to go John Galt in a variety of ways while the looters among us spiral downwards.
More on that in later posts.