I often wonder what happened to America’s battle of ideas. I lift my gaze wistfully from the gutter – where the current debate takes place, nonsensical 140-character arrows hurled back and forth over a pile of garbage – to contemplate dejectedly the past when the titans of American thought sat astride our purple mountains, rallying a nation to the orbit of their conviction and the consequence of their immense talent. A colossal contest it was, the minds of noble men wrestling with each other over the soul of the greatest nation on earth. They built agendas, waged campaigns and organized coalitions – the clamoring of the populace serving to enhance the volume of the debate, lending it energy and purpose if not substance; for that they already had.
They were not afraid of their talent, those confident men of old. Industrialists, journalists and elected leaders who were also novelists, poets; artists – the last a calling card that served to legitimize, not invalidate their authority. People like William Buckley and Whittaker Chambers following the giants of the Old Right – classical liberals like John Roderigo Dos Passos, H.L Menken, Rose Wilder Lane, Albert Jay Nock and of course Garet Garrett, economist and journalist.
Today – of course – novels are reserved for the likes of Tom Clancy and Dan Brown – cotton candy of the mind, serving better the big screen where ideas come in last place after violence and sex. Nouveau artists and Hollywood stars who feel entitled to lead through the sheer brazenness of their banality – juxtaposed as it always is against ignorance masquerading as outrage; condescension as thought; opinion as understanding.
But I digress.
I just finished reading Garet Garrett’s short novel “The Driver”. Garrett is of course that figure of roaring twenties classicism. Economist, journalist, writer and novelist. ‘Liberal’, in the true sense of the word – ‘that which is conducive to a free society’. The novel is about Henry Galt, a Wall Street speculator who becomes a railroad man. A heroic figure of daring risks who, through his exceptional motive capacity, not only saves a railroad system – but also the stuttering motor of the national economy. The novel is a defense of sound money:
“It is my idea,” said Galt, “that the financial institutions of the country, instead of lending themselves out of funds in times of high prosperity ought then to build up great reserves of capital to be loaned out in hard times. That would keep people from going crazy with prosperity at one time and committing suicide at another time (…). Great Midwestern Properties will decrease their capital expenditures as prices rise and increase them as prices fall. We won’t have any more depressions (p 183).”
It is about the role of the industrialist in the development of national wealth and the battle of one man against those who line up against him, including many in his own government who use their public trust – coercive power – to attempt and destroy him.
For the astute observer, there are of course similarities with Ayn Rand’s epic novels. Henry Galt and John Galt. The powerful railroads that crisscross America. The focus on the motive power of man; and the classical liberal ideas of responsibility, hard work, individuality and private property. This is only natural – we all acquire inspiration through the process of synthesizing what we learn into something new. Perhaps Garrett was an inspiration to Rand, as Rand has been an inspiration to me. If that is the case, then Rand has become Garrett’s greatest and most successful pupil. We never know who reads us – we novelists. Whose hearts we touch; whose lives we inspire. Whether it is a private man in the quiet of his home who becomes a better person – or a juggernaut who takes our ideas to the moon. Yet we continue on, with the confidence that somewhere in the darkness our words are finding a resting place. This, my friends, is how the battle of ideas is won.
And – at least for me – is what makes writing all the more fun.