Who is John Galt?

Written by Frank N. Wilner, Capitol Hill Contributing Editor

Watching Washington, August 2017 Railway Age: Free-market philosopher Ayn Rand, an émigré from the economic horrors of the command-and-control Soviet Union, was celebrated as the Reagan Administration’s “novelist laureate.” Alan Greenspan, who served as Federal Reserve chairman to four U.S. Presidents (1987-2006), is a Rand disciple. House Speaker Paul Ryan requires his staff to read her books. President Trump named Rand his “favorite” author.

Rand’s epic novel, Atlas Shrugged—published in 1957 and which motivated support for partial railroad economic deregulation in 1980—still sells some 200,000 copies annually and reflects the thinking of many in the Trump Administration. Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson speaks glowingly of it.

Enter into this environment the Trump-chosen Republican nominees soon to control rail regulatory agencies. If not already fellow travelers with Rand, they can expect coercion to favor her free-market philosophy by which forces of supply and demand are largely immune from government intervention.

Hark the plot of Atlas Shrugged, a railroad yarn in which the innovative “makers” of wealth go on strike against welfare-state “takers” in quest of an unfettered free-market economy protecting private-property rights. A similar result appears an ambition of former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who advocates destruction of the administrative state.

Federal agencies already are under White House directive to examine aggressively for repeal of existing regulations. Thus anticipate, from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), National Mediation Board (NMB), Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), and Surface Transportation Board (STB), measures disquieting to those inflexibly assuming government to be a first, last and always problem solver.

For example, expect from the FRA, in concert with the PHMSA, a rejection of command-and-control safety regulation in favor of innovation-tapping performance-based safety standards (see p. 10). Likely headed for the regulatory dustbin are Emergency Orders and rulemakings either unsupported by data-driven sound science, lacking transparent peer review and/or failing benefit-cost analysis. All such norms were wickedly absent in recent discredited attempts to mandate minimum train-crew size and electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes.

The NMB may soon reform a unique binding-arbitration system encouraging union leaders to file thousands of public-purse-siphoning grievances for which labor and management bear no cost responsibility. While the Railway Labor Act (RLA) prohibits work stoppages over such so-called minor disputes of contract interpretation and contested discipline, airlines and their unionized employees, similarly covered by the RLA, share the costs of binding arbitration—a monetary constraint on indiscriminate actions of both parties.

Awaiting arrival of a Republican majority at the STB are two cases with significant free-market implications. One is whether to grant a shipper request for so-called competitive switching—requiring that, at certain points and under certain conditions, a sole-serving railroad carry traffic to an interchange for transfer to a competing railroad. Also upcoming is whether to limit rail rate increases when railroads meet an STB established profitability test, also under review.

Atlas Shrugged fans will recall a drumbeat question, “Who is John Galt?” that peppers its 1,168 pages. Galt is the book’s gifted antagonist who persuades society’s creative leaders to withhold their inventiveness, vision and capital in protest against a government increasingly practicing a transfer of wealth from those with the greatest ability to those with the greatest need.

“Who is John Galt?” will not soon decorate banners attached to entryways of railroad regulatory agencies. The book, after all, is a novel. Nor is there indication that Trump nominees are dystopians predisposed to burning down the village. Indeed, laws remain in place defining the limits of regulators.

Still, this Administration is devoted to regulatory relief. The reality is that parties petitioning for government-imposed solutions recognize the question, “Who is John Galt?” as an expression of frustration with the government leviathan and its swelling limits on economic liberty.

Petitioners wishing to prevail in this new order had best craft a convincing theory supported by credible data.











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