Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Who is Henry Galt? Book Review: The Driver by Garet Garrett

The Driver by Garet Garrett
Photo source: Mises.org
Garet Garrett’s 1922 novel The Driver is about railroads. The line “Who is Henry Galt?” appears twice. As a result, there seems to be a rule that if you write a book review about it, you have to include a discussion of the similarities to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, with due aspersions cast on her originality. But since that’s been done in many other places, I’m going to make two other points instead.

But first, a plot summary. The Driver begins amid the economic Panic of 1893. While everyone else is convinced the country is bankrupt, Wall Street speculator Henry Galt is certain it’s rich. He takes advantage of the crisis to buy up shares of the Great Midwestern Railroad at bargain prices. Making himself chairman, he cuts costs, reforms a corrupt procurement system, and takes over other railroads. The resulting powerhouse makes Galt spectacularly wealthy and breathes new life into the American economy. But the pugnacious Galt makes enemies along the way. Unable to defeat him on the level playing field of the market, they turn to the government to take him down.

Now my two points.

The first is what the book tells us about the intellectual bankruptcy of the left. There was no Occupy Wall Street in 1893, but there was Coxey’s Army, a battalion of the unemployed that marched on Washington to demand what today we erroneously call “stimulus.” Here’s the narrator’s summary of his discussion with the marchers: “They blamed the money power in Wall Street. When they were asked how the money owner could profit by their unemployment, what motive it could have in creating hard times, they took refuge in meaningless phrases.” Sound familiar? In spite of a century of events that proved them wrong time after time, liberals still uses the same tired “arguments”. No new ideas in 100 years.

The second point is that it was a pleasure to read a story about an unapologetic businessman. Dragged in front of a congressional committee to defend himself against the antitrust and insider trading charges that his enemies brought against him, Galt said, “I made [my money] buying things nobody else wanted. I bought Great Midwestern when it was bankrupt and people thought no railroad was worth its weight as junk. When I took charge of the property I bought equipment when it was cheap because nobody else wanted it and the equipment makers were hungry, and rails and ties and materials and labor to improve the road with, until everybody thought I was crazy. When the business came we had a railroad to handle it. I’ve done that same thing with every property I have taken up. No railroad I’ve ever touched has depreciated in value.”

There are days when I can’t believe that, in spite of the unprecedented prosperity capitalism has brought us, we’re in the middle of a national debate over whether to continue to be capitalist. I’m astounded that the president of the United States can give a speech in which he demonstrates astonishing ignorance of what businesspeople do – as Obama did in his “You didn’t build that” speech – and be greeted with anything other than derisive laughter. It’s been embarrassing to watch Mitt Romney ducking the blame – it should, of course be credit – for Bain Capital’s controversial outsourcing decisions. If today’s businesspeople channeled Henry Galt a little – expressing pride in what they do, instead of distancing themselves from it – perhaps we would not have come to this pass.

Michael Isenberg is the author of Full Asylum, a novel about politics, freedom, and hospital gowns. Check it out on Amazon.com.

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