A Review of I Am John Galt

A favorite game among comic book geeks is to imagine–and argue about–which contemporary actors would play which superheroes and villains. Now with his new book I Am John Galt Donald Luskin has brought the game to Ayn Rand’s two towering works of fiction: The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. And it makes for a splendid read indeed.

Capitalists, libertarians and of course Objectivists, all those who believe in liberty and the power of free markets can all rejoice. There is plenty here for those sorts of people to agree on and enjoy. Here is a book that reveals Ayn Rand’s philosophical vision in the flesh of the real world.

The cast of characters looks like this:

Steve Jobs — Howard Roark
Paul Krugman — Ellsworth Toohey
John Allison — John Galt
Angelo Mozilo — James Taggart
Bill Gates — Henry Rearden
Barney Frank — Wesley Mouch
T. J. Rodgers — Francisco d’Anconia
Alan Greenspan — Robert Stadler
Milton Friedman — Hugh Akston

As you might expect, some of the comparisons fit a bit better than the others. Don’t get me wrong; they all fit. But a few of them seem supernatural in their exactness, an almost eerie case of life imitating art.

Anyone familiar with the Randian source material and who has also been paying attention to the world past few years may find themselves thinking as they read this book: You know, I always did think of that guy as that Rand character.

For this reviewer that was the especially the case with Paul Krugman as Ellsworth Toohey.

Mr. Luskin has an personal beef with Paul Krugman that I found a little distracting, but one with which I could definitely sympathize. Luskin and Krugman had crossed swords for years–because Luskin refused to let Krugman get away with significant inaccuracies in print–and it had gotten personal. To be fair, that’s because Krugman made it personal.

That comes shining through in the book and not necessarily to the book’s benefit. But that sort of thing is likely unavoidable and can be forgiven, especially when it leads to passages like this:

I was gripped with horror. I’d spent months debunking and defanging Krugman; but until I saw that cheering audience, I’d never really grasped the vastness of the force I was dealing with. It wasn’t just Krugman; it was the millions of people who adore him, who already believe the kinds of things to which he merely gives voice, and who made him possible in the first place. I just wanted to get out and go back to my hotel and take a shower.

Luskin brings that immediacy and that intimacy to all his characterizations. There is definite bias to those deemed heroes and against those deemed villains, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone who picks up a book whose first paragraphs tells you it will be casting people as heroes and villains.

What does surprise is how honest and raw and real he makes all these figures seem, even when comparing them to the fictional counterparts he’s assigned to them. It’s an effective weaving.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is one of those life-changing works. Many people count that book as the one that got them thinking about the world rationally. A certain moral philosophy rooted in laissez faire capitalism always attends that. (In fact as Luskin reminds us, when Rand was asked for one word that summed up her philosophy she replied: “capitalism”).

Those who love Atlas Shrugged also tend to notice how sadly prophetic it’s proven to be. The world is unfortunately coming to resemble Ayn Rand’s fiction (though not nearly enough people are adopting her philosophy), which itself was a warning about the nationally and globally destructive power of creeping collectivism.

I Am John Galt is thrilling because it nails down the parallels–the implications are a bit frightening because of those disturbing parallels–but the book is fulfilling because it tells the complete stories of these people. Luskin must be given credit for his research and attention to detail, as well as how digestible he made all of it.

He never veers into textbook dryness even as he conveys all the biographical information and tidbits. I felt instead that I’d grown up with all these men and had a thorough understanding of what made them what they are today. Perhaps it’s  a bit trite to say, but I found myself caring about the characters, even when I wasn’t rooting for them or outright booing them.

Obviously there is nothing but admiration for men like tireless men of talent and ethics like John Allision and T. J. Rodgers, but I even found myself feeling a little sorry for even the worst villains.

That last part was another Randian outlook that suffuses this book: Evil is ultimately “small and impotent, and best simply ignored.”

Then there is Luskin’s take on Allen Greenspan, a complex figure if ever there was one. Luskin makes a compelling case that the man accused of selling out his libertarian convictions migh have actually been acting as a double agent. (Luskin presents data that suggests Greenspan was initially trying to follow a de facto gold standard.)

It would have been easy to continue the mistreatment that Greenspan has often suffered at the hands of libertarians and Randians. But Luskin avoids that and gives a picture of Greenspan that is balanced and tragic and that a reader is likely to feel is very accurate.

Luskin’s treatment of Milton Friedman is also of special note and the perfect coda for this parade of characters. There is a tendency for those in the Austrian camp to take a few cheap shots at the monetarists in the Chicago school, but Luskin’s narrative at the end would make even the hardest hearted Austrian cheer for Milton, the Capitalist Champion. As Luskin writes of Friedman’s eloquent defense of capitalism on Phil Donahue’s show:

This was not Gordon Gekko proclaiming that “greed is good.” It was classic Friedman. He made his point with supreme effectiveness, but there was not a hint of rancor in it, nor a trace of self-aggrandizement. It was all delivered with good cheer and an impish smile. Here was Rand’s Hugh Akston come to life, delivering not a deathblow in a debate, but more of a prayer–what Akston described as “a full, confident, affirming self-dedication to my love of the right, to the certainty that the right would win.”

There is a lot here to love. And after the breathtaking presentation of the real life versions of Rand’s heroes and villains, there waits for the reader a brief tutorial on how to make these lessons reality in his own life.

In the end it’s not just about ability, Luskin reminds us, for villains can be people of great ability too. It’s about how you choose to live.