"Who is John Galt?" the blue-and-white bumper stickers ask.
For the 300 libertarian true believers attending the 13th annual "Future of Freedom" conference at Griswold's Hotel in Fullerton last weekend, that question is about as cryptic as, "Who is Ronald Reagan?"
But for a reporter uninitiated in the libertarian belief system, identifying John Galt was merely a first step in a marathon, weekend-long quest to understand the complex (some would say chaotic) mosaic of ideas and characters (living, dead and fictional) that make up the "libertarian movement."
The answer to the bumper sticker riddle came late on Friday night, at a crowded cocktail party in the hotel's hospitality suite. A tall, pale, paunchy 25-year-old computer programmer from San Francisco was explaining that, in his experience, about 35% of people belonging to Mensa, the high I.Q. society, are also libertarians. The reporter noticed his name tag and asked: "So you're John Galt?" Martin Tabnik, a Redondo Beach computer consultant, interrupted.
"John Galt is the main character in 'Atlas Shrugged,' " Tabnik said with a patient grin. "Atlas Shrugged," he went on to explain, is a novel by the late Russian emigre and philosopher Ayn Rand, whose teachings in novels and nonfiction books such as "The Virtue of Selfishness" and "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal" were extremely influential in the development of libertarian ideals.
"So you're not really John Galt?" the reporter asked the man with the "John Galt" name tag pinned to his pink, tie-dyed T-shirt.
Changed His Name
"It's my real name," he replied. "My name used to be John Anderson, but I changed it the year a certain person by that name ran for president."
According to the "Ayn Rand Companion," one of dozens of books by and about Rand on sale at the conference, Galt is "hard and gaunt, with chestnut brown hair and deep, dark green eyes . . . a sun-tanned body and guilt-free face." He is "the man who stops the motor of the world when he leads the 'men of the mind' on strike against all the leeches and parasites they have been sustaining throughout history."
Although the computer programmer was apparently the only person at the conference to actually adopt the name of a Rand hero, a show of hands during one lecture revealed that almost everyone became interested in "the movement" because of Rand, who died in 1982.
A book aptly titled "It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand" explains: "Ayn Rand was not the first to advocate individualism and economic laissez-faire, but she was certainly the first to elevate selfishness (also known as "rational self-interest") to the level of a philosophical absolute."
"Rand had a profound effect on the emotional development of the movement," explained Jeffrey Hummel, whom conference organizers pointed out as a good source on the history of libertarianism. Men such as Murray N. Rothbard, who had been a part of the circle of followers who surrounded Rand, gave the movement its intellectual direction, Hummel said, adding that British philosopher John Locke, American anarchists such as Lysander Spooner and founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were also influential.
The real turning point for the modern movement came in 1969, at the St. Louis convention of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, Hummel said. A libertarian-oriented faction of the group had grown disenchanted with Republican attitudes toward Vietnam, the draft and drug laws, and a schism occurred. Thus, the libertarian movement was born, Hummel said.
Before long, liberals, uncomfortable with Democratic views on the economy, also converted to the libertarian camp, and a fusion of radical leftists and rightists occurred, he said.
Although Rand, with her "objectivist" brand of libertarian thinking, has lost favor among some movement firebrands, her influence remains strong, Hummel said Saturday night following the Free Press Assn.'s H.L. Mencken awards ceremony.
"Some libertarians still go through a hero worship phase for Ayn Rand," he said before heading for the hospitality suite, where arcane libertarian discussions would rage past 3 in the morning in one room while, in another, a dozen or so libertarians--spread out across a king-sized bed beneath a mirrored ceiling--watched videotapes of the science fiction show, "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy."
The next day, as a small group in the video room watched a tape of Tom Snyder interviewing Ayn Rand, Caroline Molitch, 41, an eighth-grade teacher from La Puente, sat in the hotel coffee shop and, between bites of a tuna sandwich, explained how Ayn Rand had seduced her into the movement.
Even as a little girl, Molitch said, she had been attracted to heroic characters--Flash Gordon, for instance. It was only natural that she was taken by the strong-willed, idealistic heroes and heroines she encountered in Rand's novels.
When told that someone at the conference had adopted the name of John Galt, Molitch scoffed: "That's awfully pretentious--like taking the name Jesus Christ." She added, however, that she does see the qualities of courage and idealism in some of the flesh and blood leaders of the libertarian movement--especially Robert Poole, the creator and editor of Reason magazine.
"He built that magazine up from nothing, and now it's a respected publication," she said.
Recently, Molitch has been attending fewer libertarian conferences than during her initial infatuation with the movement, she said. This is not because of any disenchantment with libertarianism, she said, but because her growing interest in science fiction has led her to attend more and more science-fiction conventions. There's a definite connection between the people who attend the two types of events, she said.
"One common denominator is that they're all smart. They have a low tolerance for stupidity," she said.
Could another factor be that people who enjoy plotting out the blueprint for a perfect, totally free society tend to be romantic pie-in-the-sky dreamers?
"I think a lot of libertarian ideas may be pie-in-the sky, unrealistic," she conceded. "But I don't care. It's important that the vision is there. It's something to reach for. Something to care for and believe in. It makes me happy. . . ."