The Gulch, Revisited

Perhaps the most delightful chapter in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is the one describing Dagny Taggart's visit to Galt's Gulch. Exhausted and frustrated by trying to run a railroad in the teeth of bureaucrats and bloodsuckers, she drops in to see what a free society is like--and is given a vision of liberty. If Rand had never written or done anything else, this single chapter (#1 of Part III) would make her life remarkable.

For any who don't recall it, the Gulch is a valley somewhere in the Rockies, almost inaccessible except by light aircraft, inspired by the mysterious and heroic John Galt, and populated by a talented group who, having succeeded in their careers only to see the fruits of their labors stolen by parasites in government and elsewhere, "shrug" off the burden of carrying the world on their backs and go live in this enclave together. Dagny is shown how it works out. If you read it and the saliva fails to flow, something's wrong. Check your premises! And your pulse.

There's an oil prospector, who enjoys his work as never before--because he's free to innovate and by doing so (in his reckoning) he adds to his lifespan, by completing a task in four hours instead of five, for example; and because the fruits of labor are all his to enjoy; no parasite takes a cut. There is a grocer, formerly the owner of a quality car maker, a pig farmer--formerly an aircraft manufacturer--and a chicken and dairy farmer, formerly a distinguished judge. From what I've seen of judges, I pity the fowl; but evidently it worked okay in Galt's Gulch. During the tour, Dagny is shown the compact, the agreement residents have made with each other; and it's a masterpiece: 

"I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for
the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

Drink that in, do! What's the most sacred thing by which one can make a solemn promise? Not "God." Not "my mother's grave." Not "my firstborn," even; but "my life." A person's own life is the most valuable thing he has, the primary purpose of his existence. And so he stakes it, as his solemn oath.

What is it he swears? Here's the other piece of genius: He doesn't promise a positive, but a negative: I will never live for anybody else. It is a declaration of pure selfishness. This is wholly shocking, to generations--centuries--of "Western" people raised to think that the highest virtue is to serve others. It is thrown in the face of Christian ethics. NO! says Rand. The highest virtue is to serve oneself! For only thus can every person's full potential be realized.

Does that extinguish the milk of human kindness, our generosity, our compassion? Not at all, not in Galt's Gulch. Dagny is greeted cheerfully by all she meets, made welcome because each resident sees in her something valuable to himself, for example the pleasure of her company, her conversation, eventually the possibility of trade and exchange with subjective gain to both parties. Such is the engine, the mainspring, of a free economy.

That simple, one-line compact contrasts with some others I've seen, over the years, for this or that proposed libertarian gulch or island or ship or other enclave. A single page was the shortest. More often the contract was as long as a short book, which had to have been written by a lawyer. No need, says Rand; just get the simple principle dead right in a single sentence, and the details will work themselves out. I agree.

So far, so super; and I don't fault Rand for stopping at this point. She clearly had the aim of whetting appetites, drawing back the veil and showing the essence of liberty. Here, her aim was not to provide a full detailed plan for achieving a free society. We do need that, but the "vision thing" comes first, and Rand provided it.

For the same reason, I don't believe she was saying "Do likewise by founding a real Galt's Gulch somewhere." She was just portraying what it will be like in a free society of any size. So the following critique of the enclave idea is not a criticism of her book, rather a suggestion that we need to implement her ideas in any way capable of working in practice; if a gulch will cut it, fine; if not, choose a structure that will.

As I see it, a gulch or enclave will not work, and the various ideas and proposals for creating one have been mistaken; I fear the designers may have been taking Rand too literally while missing the main point of her fiction. Suppose the contrary, to see why:

  • Galt's Gulch was "defended" by magic. This verdant valley was protected from hostile government attention by using so-far undiscovered electronic techniques for making it invisible from above; a spotter plane would see a mirage of mountains like those nearby, rather as if the landscape had been Photoshopped. From beneath, one would see clear blue sky normally and pilots "in the know" could dive through the barrier and land as usual. Magic. Real-life enclaves would need real-life defense.
  • Residents were skilled in various crafts, but there are holes in the account of how the valley's economy worked. Did they all bring wealth in, from the statist world outside? Was there trading with it, across the mountains? In a real-life gulch, how would that square with secrecy?
  • When Gulchers did fly in and out, how did they do so without alerting the FAA?  Filing flight plans?  Assuring "rescue" squads that no plane was missing?

None of this matters, in fiction; the problems can be waved away--it's one of fiction's big advantages. But in real life, an enclave of any kind, even a small one, can not long remain invisible to government snoops; there are too many of them. The movie Enemy of the State may be exaggerated, but not by much. And when the enclave succeeds and prospers--as it certainly would, without the benefits of regulation or taxes--the alarms will sound in enemy HQ and a search and destroy mission will be dispatched. We can be very certain about this; in 1861, a whole group of states decided to form a very large enclave (not a free one, but that mattered nothing to the powers in D.C.), and they were forcibly prevented at enormous cost. If anything like a Galt's Gulch were to form in reality, it would be taken out with a single nuke; and that's true whether it was in the Rockies, or in New Hampshire, or on reclaimed land offshore, or on a big ship built for the purpose, or whatever. When it demonstrates that ordinary folk are much better off without government, government will in the interests of its own survival wipe it out. Magic electronic roofing won't do the job.

So what can be done, to implement Rand's lovely vision of liberty? One other idea has been to form a kind of virtual Galt's Gulch, in cyberspace. Members communicate over the Net with unbreakable encryption, and trade with untraceable electronic cash--but live, physically, in the real statist world. I heard of one in the late '90s, but think it crashed and burned. But it's possible that others are functioning now; if they were, there'd be no way to know  . However, do they really implement the vision? I hardly think so. Possibly members can hide their incomes from government grabbers, but if they do well and spend it (on real, visible stuff), any alert snoop or neighborhood snitch is going to want to know whence it came. All the dismal restrictions on normal life, with which we're only too familiar, will remain in place and all will have to take care, every moment, to live like an undercover agent in hostile territory... which is, actually, what they'd be. Not my idea of fun, or of freedom.

There's another, perhaps more fundamental, objection to the enclave idea; if implemented, it would be a confession of failure. It would declare that living free cannot work for the great majority of human beings, from whom true believers need therefore to separate and perhaps to hide. That is to give away the farm. Freedom does apply to everyone, it is not just for a favored few. If we freedom-lovers cannot show that and persuade everyone else of the truth of that, we'll have failed. Liberty is how everyone can fully live.

Another, creative idea that's been around for two or three decades is W.G. Hill's "Three Flag" principle; a passport from one country, a home in another, and a business in a third--a.k.a. the multiple-passport solution or "perpetual tourism." Pretty good, for medium- or high-earners, as a short term defensive strategy. But it does nothing at all--it fails--to liberate the world, to leave it a more free place than we found it, for the next generation.

The same, needless confession of failure is made by those who don't even bother to propose any kind of enclave or even defense but who just misappropriate the principle of laissez faire and say that they don't care what anyone else does or says, they will just "live free" and leave others alone. This is especially deceptive, because of the accurate language it employs. Of course libertarians leave others alone! That's central. But to do nothing to change their mind is not just culpable idleness, it's a betrayal of the principle of self interest; for those "left alone" will not, alas, leave us alone; they will wreak their malevolence in the form of theft, manipulation and indocrination and will ultimately extinguish all trace of liberty. Either we change their minds, or they will destroy us; to do nothing is not a viable option.

So the real solution, the only one that can work in real life, is to induce everyone in the whole society (America would be a good place to start) to understand why it's appropriate to take the oath of those in Galt's Gulch. Back in 2006, a few of us outlined how; the plan is here and it's under way; and it does mean bringing about a radical, and rational, change in everyone's way of thinking, like that or not. There will be no enclave, hence no need to defend it; the resulting free society will be far too costly for any foreign government to take on and in any case such will be desperately busy fending off the imminent danger of being eliminated by their own freedom-seeking populations. In my Liberty Trilogy I've added some details to Rand's vision of liberty (and corrected her error of supposing that some minimal government would still be needed as referee) and shown how the transition to it will overcome hostility while it's in process. There is to the best of my knowledge no other way to fulfil the vision she gave us; it's that way, or it's no way. Should any disagree, let him spell out his alternative; or if he doesn't have one, let him plug the procrastinating, button up the bellyaching and get on board to help make it happen. Humanity has waited long enough already.

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