On Going Galt

I can’t help but feel that threatening to withdraw from economic production, ala Atlas Shrugged‘s John Galt, is a certain kind of libertarian-conservative’s version of progressives threatening to move to Canada. For my part, I can’t imagine what would make me want to stop working, and each new president makes me want to move to Canada.

Despite my own inclinations, I’m among those who believe that labor supply is pretty sensitive to marginal tax rates, and I have no doubt that increasing the top marginal rate will make it so that some very productive people will quite rationally choose to produce less. But the effect comes from aggregating hundreds of millions of choices about the worth of an extra hour of work, not because the willing efforts of a small handful of productive geniuses are a necessary condition for ongoing economic production (and, therefore, civilization). Maybe vocally “going Galt” as a protest move is a useful way to put a dramatic face on optimal tax theory, but of course that’s not what folks who talk about it have in mind. They have morality in mind. And taxation is a moral issue, a matter of justice, and I’m glad Americans resist the idea that their government is entitlted to consume ever larger portions of their incomes. So I certainly don’t mind if a bunch of people declare they are “going Galt” if it reinforces healthy, deep-seated American norms about the injustice of excessive taxation.

But insofar as this is all about taxes on the wealthy (as the link to Malkin suggests) it’s a bit hard to see tax rates somewhat exceeding the Clinton era’s as a move over some inflection point from the tolerable to the completely outrageous. And of course none of these folks designed an engine that would have created basically free energy (and made global warming a non-issue). In the individual case, “going Galt” smacks of a kind self-aggrandizement in the same way that climate smuggery does. Because, really, your marginal contribution doesn’t matter that much.

By the way, Atlas buffs, the point of Atlas Shrugged is not that you are John Galt. The point is that you are not John Galt. The point is that you are, at your best, Eddie Willers. You’re smart, hardworking, productive, and true. But you’re no creative genius and you take innovation — John Galt — for granted. You don’t even know who he is! And this eventually leaves you weeping on abandoned train tracks. 

I think Obama’s policies will be bad for innovation, but not because higher marginal tax rates will lead our best and brightest to retire from the field of endeavor. I’m rather more worried that our best and brightest will follow the incentives and go Robert Stadler. I’m worried that our money, which might otherwise have gone to capitalize real innovation, will be confiscated in order to finance government directed “investment” instead. Our economy can readily absorb a passel of drop-out Willerses (though Eddie never quits!). It’s the misdirected capital embodied by the Stadlers and their Project Xes that really hurts.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center