A John Galt thought experiment

In Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, the people on whom the nation depends to keep functioning – mainly entrepreneurs and their best middle managers – went on strike.  Led by the mastermind John Galt, they hid out in a secret place called Galt’s Gulch until the economy and society crumbled and the people were willing to give them their due.

I propose a thought experiment.  Make up your own list of indispensable people and then match it against the Forbes magazine list of the world’s richest people.  Or go down the Forbes 400 list and decide what would be lost if each of the members “went Galt.”

Norman Borlaug

One of my heroes is Norman Borlaug, the architect of the Green Revolution in Asia.  He of course did not produce the genetically improved crops by himself.  He was the head of a team of geneticists and agronomists.  But I think it is safe to say that without him the Green Revolution would not have happened when it did.  The environmental writer Gregg Easterbrook said that Borlaug’s work may have saved the lives of as many people as Hitler and Stalin murdered.

He had many of the qualities of an Ayn Rand hero – competence, determination, original thinking, indifference to public opinion.  His work was strongly opposed by neo-malthusians who thought saving the lives of people in overpopulated Third World countries was an exercise in futility.  But in one important respect, he did not fit the John Galt mold.  He did not get rich, or attempt to get rich, from his work.

Or, if you are not a fan of the Green Revolution, consider Jonas Salk, the creator of the Salk vaccine, or Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the software that makes possible the World Wide Web.  They made their discoveries freely available to the public, without charging a licensing free and without trying to determine who deserved their help and who didn’t.  This is in contrast to the fictional John Galt, who withheld his perpetual energy source until the world paid him tribute.  By Ayn Rand’s standard, Jonas Salk and Tim Berners-Lee were lacking in self-esteem.

Or compare them with Bill Gates.  His opportunity to become the world’s richest (now second-richest) person came when IBM Corp. hired him to provide the operating system for the new IBM personal computer.  He was chosen because the person who was IBM’s first choice was taking a flying lesson when the IBM representative came around.  Gates did not have an operating system, but he bought one from a fellow entrepreneur for $10,000 – without telling him what he needed it for, of course.

IBM’s downfall was in its representative’s failure to buy exclusive rights to the operating system, and in Gates’ skill in stringing IBM along until it was too late to start over.  This made it possible for Gates to position Microsoft as the provider of the common operating system for the entire industry.

It was beneficial to the world to have a common operating system, a universal operating system would, by definition, be a near monopoly, and Gates deserves credit for understanding this and acting on his understanding.  Maybe shared computer operating systems would have not have come about when they did without Gates, or maybe the eventual shared system would have been a better one.  Who can say?

To me Gates is like the winner of a high-stakes poker game.  I don’t question his right to his winnings, but I don’t think it makes much difference whether the game was won by him or someone else.

Similarly Warren Buffett’s success as an investor is like the success of someone who is astute enough to choose winners in horse races.  The race track bettor is entitled to his winnings, but his bets don’t make the horses run faster.  This comparison is not entirely fair to Buffett, because he bought controlling interests in some companies and by all accounts was a capable manager.

I don’t respect anyone simply because the person has accumulated a lot of money.  I respect a rich person if the person’s wealth was a by-product of achieving something worthwhile.   I have greater respect for those who are more concerned with the achievement than the wealth.

Click on The World’s Billionaires for Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s richest people.

Click on The Richest People in America for Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans.

Click on Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity for Gregg Easterbrook’s 1997 profile of Norman Borlaug.

Click on The Man Who Defused the ‘Population Bomb’ for Easterbrook’s 2009 obituary of Borlaug.

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