TO SHRUG - AN ALTERNATIVE LIFESTYLE FOR AN INDIVIDUALIST
Throughout all my writings, I use the word "Shrug" (always capitalized) to designate a certain activity. That activity is described precisely in the book ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand.
This essay is a consideration of some aspects of that activity. If you have not read ATLAS SHRUGGED, you will probably find this essay to be somewhat obscure.
All civilization rests upon the productive achievement of creative individuals. Without that productivity, the amenities of civilization would be little, if anything, more than a cave, a bearskin and a chunk of raw meat. Observe that totalitarianism is not creative. A Sherman Tank is not a tool of construction, nor is the revolver on a policeman's hip an instrument of productivity. A totalitarian regime can exist only if it is able to to obtain economic support from the productive members of society. Without that support the regime will collapse or dissipate, as it has no other means of maintaining its economic existence. The evil is that which is destructive and life negating. The good is that which is productive and life sustaining. Evil is impotent - literally impotent - in a very fundamental way. The only power evil has is the power it gets, one way or another, from the good. Consider any evil action which you can conceive of, and take a real hard and deep look at it. What were the means by which that action was perpetrated? What is the basis (particularly the economic basis) upon which the perpetrator rests? If you look far enough into the matter, you will find that somewhere, sometime, something good must have happened before this evil could have come into being. To make only one example (but a rather blatant one): A thief cannot steal from me that which I do not possess. His act of theft presupposes my act of producing that which he would steal. If I do not produce it, he cannot steal it. It is only my sanction that gives him his power. Without my good, he is impotent. Without me, he can not even exist. This is true not only of the simple act of theft but of ALL acts of evil, no matter how complex they may be in their insidious manifestations, and no matter where or how they occur - materially, intellectually or spiritually. As you can see, this is the basic theme of ATLAS SHRUGGED.
All that is required for the defeat of evil is that good men stop their unwitting support of it.
A productive person who uses his creative energies in support of totalitarianism is acting according to an irrational morality - he is providing sustenance for an evil that tends to destroy him. The remedy is to STOP SUPPORTING THE EVIL THAT AFFLICTS YOU. The functioning of your mind - the creative application of your intelligence, is something that is entirely under your personal control. The guns of a dictator, though they may destroy you, cannot compel you to think (Thoreau and Gandhi taught us this). It is simply not possible to enslave a free mind. Your body can be enslaved regardless of your personal choices, but the creative power of your mind can be manifest only if you choose to express it.
The idea of Shrugging was not unique to Rand. Its advocates include such other illustrious names as Thoreau, Lane, and Ghandi.
Thoreau: "It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.... Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence."
In 1943 Rose Wilder Lane implemented yet another exercise in subversion, which was an attempt to reduce her income below taxable levels. It was merely the next logical step in her exercise in self-sufficiency combined with political resistance.
Ghandi's policy of satyagraha can be viewed as an "activist" expression of Shrugging.
Judge Learned Hand (1934): "Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one's taxes."
Implementation of Shrugging
On dealing with the immorality of government, here are five courses of action to consider:
1) Refuse to engage in any implementation of your personal creative ability which benefits the State. Take your brains off the statist marketplace. Act so that only those who add to your life, not those who devour it, comprise your creativity marketplace. Do not abandon creative productivity, merely deny it to all who advocate statism. Reserve your achievements for yourself and those who will join you in the endeavor to build a sane and sensible world. This is the main ingredient of Shrugging.
2) Arrange your circumstances so that the State benefits as little as possible from whatever sort of menial work you do.
3) Propagate the philosophy of libertarianism. Make these ideas known to others who are seeking a means to combat totalitarianism.
4) Actively oppose the State in a political manner.
5) Contribute in a positive way to the establishment of a new civilization. Establish for yourself a lifestyle which will demonstrate that rationally moral behavior is in fact eminently practical in one's personal life.
A Different World-View
Ayn Rand never advocated Shrugging (in fact, she was firmly opposed to the action) so there has never been any discussion of the nitty-gritty aspects of "how to do it." Nobody told me what to do after I Shrugged. I had to figure it out for myself. Most of my life's work since I Shrugged has been devoted to finding how to live an economically comfortable and secure existence while denying the State any benefit from my creative ability. The result of this has been the implementation of a lifestyle that maximizes my standard of living while minimizing my exposure to the oppressive elements of society.
I have been disappointed with most other libertarians because they manifest very little of any practical use - because they seem to want only to TALK rather than really DO anything to achieve freedom. To object verbally while non-violently submitting to (and economically supporting) an aggression is the behavior of a hypocrite whose talk and actions are diametrically opposed. My own goal has always been to eschew collective activities in favor of better ideas to apply to individual life, firmly believing that society will not be changed by people hollering and shouting in and about nation-wide mass movements, but will be changed only by people who choose to alter their own personal lives to live in accordance with a rational morality.
If there is ever to be a society of free men, there must first be free men to comprise that society. Assembling them into a society would be an interesting proposition, but the act of becoming free is the individual's self-responsibility, not mine.
I believe the best path to a free society is not via the alteration of government, but its abolition. Although I am in sympathy with those libertarians who seek freedom by means of social reform, my own primary focus is on the achievement of individual liberty and economic self-betterment. I am not concerned with getting other people to adopt Objectivism, but rather in reaping the rewards of living an Objectivist life myself. I think it unfortunate that other people do not accept this kind of life, but I do not consider it my job to induce them to practice good health - either physical, mental, economic or social health. I think also that it is rather a waste of time to try to do so - after all, the Libertarian Party has been at work since 1972, but still gets only about 1% of the votes. And too, it is over a third of a century since the publication of ATLAS SHRUGGED. Those mature adults who are intellectually self-responsible will have learned by now of the existence of the Objectivist philosophy. I have neither hope for nor interest in the others. If the vast majority choose to be fools, I can say only "Let them live with the consequences of their foolishness."
Most people who ask the question "Is there any hope for saving society?" will settle only for an answer that by its nature would enable one individual to make singlehandedly a mammoth immediate alteration in the situation. This is not my type of answer, and I believe it to be a futile approach to remedying the situation. I view the situation, and my approach to it, as a physician would view a society suffering under a catastrophic epidemic. He would not sit back, wringing his hands in dismay, lamenting the fact that he alone could not produce an immediate and total cure for the epidemic. What he WOULD do is simply pick up his little black bag and commence to treat as many afflicted individuals as he possibly could. I believe society is suffering from a disastrous epidemic of irrational morality, and that the remedy lies in the practice of a rational morality by each individual - especially by a certain type of individual: those capable of a high degree of productive achievement.
At an early age I started developing a world-view that can see outside the normal American lifestyle. I was in my early 20s when my fiancee and I went shopping for a house in the suburbs. We looked at a couple houses, noted the prices, and learned about financing arrangements. At this point I paused and the mathematical wheels in the back of my IQ160 brain cranked round a couple times. I said "Hey! over the course of a 15-year mortgage we will be paying almost TWICE the purchase price of this house! I'm not gonna do that!" The real-estate agent just gave me a funny look (I've been getting that funny look all my life) and terminated his presentation. And I began thinking about alternative lifestyles.
It didn't take me long to discover that there are also other people interested in alternative lifestyles - and not much longer to learn that by and large they are a bunch of losers. They don't drop out to find a better life; they drop out because they can't cope with the life they have. The few exceptions to this are those who drop out because of their environmental concern. A laudable motive, but these people throw the baby of technology out with the bathwater of pollution by renouncing any use of civilized technology in the primitive lifestyles they establish. People interested in a "natural" lifestyle seem to have no concern at all for any of the technological prerequisites of a decently civilized life. Many appear to see not much further than grubbing for roots and cooking over an open wood fire. Even Thoreau did a lot better than that! Our conflicting motives and disparate goals precluded much collaboration at all between myself and these people.
I think the best of the lot that I encountered was the Back-To-The-Land SIG in Mensa, but even they were a considerable disappointment to me, their primary focus of attention being the collecting of recipes on how to prepare natural foods. I wasn't interested in learning 47 different ways to cook organic turnips. My concern was "What am I gonna cook them WITH?" I was also surprised at how very few of them actually had any genuine intention of converting their daydreams into real life. They were almost all city dwellers who had no notion of any practical procedure for getting Back To The Land, and no genuine motivation to find or create such a procedure.
I had a philosophical motivation (based on my decision to Shrug) and also the economic motivation that I described above: I was strongly opposed to spending the major part of my life supporting the moneylenders.
Escape from the moneylenders
The first element of my economic strategy was to escape from the moneylenders.
When most folks begin their working life they immediately start making payments on a car, paying off a mortgage (or start paying rent, which is probably worse in the long run), and in other ways making long-term committments to moneylenders. They get economically locked-in to this syndrome and then find themselves in a situation which is very difficult, if not impossible, to break out of. They HAVE to live where and how they do, in order to keep making payments so that they can continue to live where and how they do.
The procedure for breaking free of the moneylenders would be quite different for people whose financial situations were different. One man might need to scrimp and save for a long time, whereas another might only need to divert immediately available resources from one area to another, but unless you can get out of this "eternal debt" syndrome you will never be truly free.
A suitable dwelling
"To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates....The philosopher is in advance of his age even in the outward form of his life. He is not fed, sheltered, clothed, warmed, like his contemporaries. How can a man be a philosopher and not maintain his vital heat by better methods than other men?" .... Thoreau
The biggest expense most people have is the cost of their housing, so I gave a lot of thought to what kind of dwelling would be suitable to the lifestyle I wanted.
I had no intention of giving up the comforts of a civilized life, especially since my philosophical principles require no such sacrifice. It is not at all necessary to settle for what Rand described as Galt's dingy little quarters:
"a long, bare garret with a bed in one corner and a gas stove in another, a few pieces of wooden furniture, naked boards stressing the length of the floor, a single lamp burning on a desk.... the wooden rafters of his ceiling.... the cracked plaster of his walls, the iron posts of his bed."
Extending the idea of "escape from the moneylenders" to include escape from other institutions that have economic control over everyday life (the foremost among them being the utility power companies), I concluded that what would be appropriate to my goals would be an inexpensive, energy-independent, mobile dwelling possessing the comforts of modern technology.
I considered living in a motor home, but I quickly discovered that motor homes and travel trailers are NOT designed for permanent residence, and are even less than not designed for living in a cold climate, [I went to college to learn how to write like this?] and are certainly not energy-independent, or even energy-efficient. I wanted a home that would be inexpensive to construct and maintain, be mobile, and still have all the amenities of a civilized existence. So I decided to create one myself. I began by doing renovations of vehicles - converting them into little "rolling homes." I gradually figured out how to use my knowledge of physics and engineering to convert an old van, truck or bus into a very nice little house - an inexpensive, energy-independent, non-polluting, transportable dwelling - for a whole lot less money than the cost of a new house, or even the cost of a new motor home. After building several such dwellings - and living in one of them myself for a few years - I came to realize the truth of Thoreau's observation:
"Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have."
Either as a permanent alternative to a fixed-box type dwelling, or as a temporary transition between the city rat-race and a rural existence in the country, a motor home offers an inexpensive and comfortable lifestyle.
As a transition device, a motor home offers the city-dweller the means by which he can get out of the city in whatever spare time he has (weekends, vacations, holdidays) and travel about in the country seeking land and housing suitable to his desired rural lifestyle. If he does find land without a dwelling on it, he will have a temporary living arrangement after he has left the city and is building his permanent home on the land.
As a permanent residence, I think this sort of home is a wonderful way to beat the housing racket with its multi-kilobuck lifetime mortgages for shoddily constructed boxes with built-in and almost irevocable dependence on the energy companies. A nice little home can be built in an old school bus for a modest amount of money and, if carefully done up, will keep you cozy and warm in the coldest climeates (I have lived quite comfortably through 20 Wyoming winters).
It's amazing what living in a Rolling Home does for your economic situation. Gone are the mortgage paymnts. Gone are the rent payments. Gone are most all of the utility bills (a small house takes much less energy to heat, and if, like me, you don't drive it too much, gas is a small expense). Gone are the huge tax bills laid on a stationary house. Sure, there are still some living expenses but they are a tiny portion of the expenses associated with a "regular" house. I can live on a MUCH smaller income than I needed before.
And then, of course, there are all the benefits of mobility. If I don't like it here I can always fire up this old clunker and trundle off down the road, seeking warmer climes, more congenial neighbors, or even just a different view from my window.
Some comments on technology: many people seeking an alternative lifestyle reject technology. I think this is a mistake. I have a very high regard for technology - insofar as it is the practical application of human intelligence and creativity to the problems of living a SANE and SENSIBLE life in the environment of this planet. What I greatly object to, however, is the use of technology in irrationally insane manners that inhibit decent human life and contribute to the destruction of earth's environment. The big difference between me and many other environmentally concerned people is that unlike them, I do not advocate the destruction of a pricelessly valuable tool (technology) just because it is being used by some vicious people for improper purposes (don't throw the baby out with the bathwater!).
So I integrated two usually disparate ideas - a profound love for the ecology and an equally great respect and admiration for technology - and thereby established a style of life that incorporates all the stated objectives of the most enthusiastic environmentalist as well as all the comforts and conveniences available from modern technology.
I worked on the technological problems of self-sufficient living for many years, concentrating on the use of solar energy as the primary source of household power, and I found that a motor home - or a trailer house - makes a splendid dwelling if it has been designed and constructed to be energy-efficient (very well insulated) and frugal in its use of heat, water, and electricity. The operating expenses of such a home can easily be reduced to a few hundred dollars per year (assuming it stays parked in one place).
The lifestyle I have developed consists of more than just an unusual dwelling; it is a comprehensive set of practices that have led me to substantial economic success while reducing my being victimized by the government. Through the practice of this lifestyle, I have lowered my living expenses to not much more than what I spend in the supermarket, and an income of less than $200 per month (in 1994) can support me very comfortably indeed. I have a higher standard of living than anyone else I know, but my income is so small that I pay no income tax.
After I had reduced my housing expenses to just about nil, I had all that "mortgage money" to spend on other things - and I soon found a lot of other things to spend it on.
Another aspect of my lifestyle that has proven to be extremely economically advantageous has been my converting of money into merchandise. It really doesn't take much money (or much storage volume) to acquire a lifetime supply of X. For X, just substitute anything that you need to live comfortably and that can be stored away indefinitely. Socks, for example. If you have a few dozen pairs of socks in the back of your closet, then you don't have to be at all concerned that the price of socks is increasing continually - or that those socks may vanish off the marketplace entirely. Recently I took a brand new pair of trousers out of my storage trunk. While I was ripping off all the tags I noticed the price tag attached to the waistband. I thought it might be interesting to see how much the price had risen since I bought them, so I stopped in at the store where I had purchased them seven years ago, and was told: "Oh, those pants aren't being made anymore - they're no longer available!" I'm sure the lady thought I was completely crazy, because I burst out laughing.
If you save dollars, the government simply eats them up via its inflation of the money supply. But if you convert those dollars into books, tools, clothes, or even just cans of beans, then you beat that inflation. The government will eat your dollars, but YOU will eat those beans!
The best way to gain economic freedom is to cut expenses. People who squander their prime years on excessive work to pay unnecessary expenses, and then spend the remainder of their lives working just to stay sheltered and fed, can't enjoy much freedom.
As part of her exercise in subversion, in 1943 Rose Wilder Lane began an attempt to reduce her income below taxable levels. My own implementation of this has been a great success. As of 1992, the base (federal) taxable level of income in the USA is above $5000 per year. This represents over twice the amount necessary for me to live comfortably. For the final 14 years of my working life I worked two 8-hour shifts per week at or near the minimum wage (as dishwasher/janitor in local restaurants). My standard of living rose continually during that time, mainly because almost the entirety of my income was "disposable income." I had followed Ms Lane's example and reduced my living expenses to just about nil.
My standard of living has been rising continually since 1975, when I had fully implemented my lifestyle. Whether I consider the amount of material wealth that I possess or the amount of leisure time available to me or the amount of time I must devote to earning my living or the amount of economic security I have. In all these respects I am better off now than I have been at any previous time of my life.
An interesting thing about all this is that I believe ANYBODY could do what I have done. Anybody in America could work 10 years at minimum wage and then retire for life. As screwed up as it is, this is still the richest society the world has ever seen.
After I had thought about Atlas Shrugged for a while, I realized that Shrugging is appropriate not just to someone at or near Galt's level of productive capability, but to anyone who is concerned with the ethical propriety of his life. I believe that even though there are immense differences between Galt and a track walker, they are differences in quantity, not in quality. Thus Mr. Walker may well have just as legitimate a concern for the ethical propriety of his behavior as Galt has for his. When I contemplated the question "If Galt steps down to the level of the track walker, what would the track walker step down to?" I came to this as the essense of Shrugging: do not pay tax on your creative ability. I believe that EVERY person has some creative capacity, and that the proper way to respond to government is to deny it the benefit of that creativity.
"Physical labor as such can extend no further than the range of the moment. The man who does no more than physical labor, consumes the material value-equivalent of his own contribution to the process of production, and leaves no further value...." Rand
Consider that it is not just taxation per se that supports totalitarianism, but the exploitation of productive achievement. No government could survive merely by taxing ditch diggers, track walkers and dishwashers. These people do not create civilization (although I readily admit that they do help maintain it); civilization is created by those whose productivity generates the need for ditch diggers, track walkers and dishwashers. The taxes imposed on a dishwasher will not support a totalitarian state, simply because the dishwasher does not generate wealth. He merely manipulates the wealth generated by someone who is functioning at a considerably higher level of productivity. If this "someone" were to stop generating wealth, eventually there would be nothing for the totalitarian State to tax - and it would perish. If you wish to strike at the State then strike at its root - deprive it of its economic foundation. The functioning of your mind - the creative application of your intelligence, is something that is entirely under your personal control. The guns of a dictator, though they may destroy you, cannot compel you to think.
There are three major aspects to my security.
The first is that my house is both mobile and energy-independent. Even though I have not moved my little house in over ten years, I could readily do so if the need ever arose. Since my domestic utilities are almost entirely solar-powered, I am not dependent on outside hookups. I do not have blackouts or brownouts; I am not subject to power rationing, and they can't raise my rates!
The second element of my security is that I have provided for my future in ways that are linked as little as possible to money. I own my home, and it is quite capable of housing me for the rest of my life. Thus I will never have to worry about getting money in order to provide myself with shelter. I have sufficient clothing and other household goods on hand to keep me comfortable for longer than I expect to live. Unless all this property is physically destroyed, I will never have to obtain money to replace any of it. I have, in my parlance, "pushed self-sufficiency all the way to the bananas." All the way to those things that I cannot provide for myself and cannot lay up a lifetime supply of (such as bananas). I am as unaffected as I can be by the government's continual destruction of the American economy.
The third element of my security is that my philosophy, and and the fact that I actually LIVE by it, are so unthinkable to stateolatrists that I am essentially invisible to them. I call this the Thompson Invisibility Syndrome (see ATLAS SHRUGGED Part3 Chap8). This syndrome is their response to someone who is so far removed from their frame of reference that he is psychologically invisible to them. Their ignorance is my shield.
="TWELVE"> The Moral is the Practical
"You have been using fear as your weapon and have been bringing death to man as his punishment for rejecting your morality. We offer him life as his reward for accepting ours." John Galt
Now that Rand has given us the basic science of a rational morality, it is up to each individual to figure out how to apply that basic science to his particular situation - to deduce the "technologies" of living. It's very easy to drop into the interstices - once you are able to see them. But perceiving them requires the adoption of a suitable philosophical frame-of-reference.
Objectivism is not a mere philosophical assertion, but a living, concrete procedure by which a rational individual can learn the laws of the universe and implement them in his personal life. This living, concrete picture is itself profoundly convincing: it produces conversions and commitment to the idea of rationality. As this conversion and commitment spread to more and more people, it will become a movement, adherence to which will distinguish one as enlightened, and ignorance or denial of which will mark one as intellectually retarded or superstitious. People who ignore Objectivism are simply going to become irrelevant.
Whether you are a rocket scientist today or a hunter-gatherer of 25,000 years ago, the extent of your failure to live by rational principles will be reflected in the extent of your failure to flourish. The more you use your mind properly, the more you'll flourish - succeed at survival. As the economy of America becomes more and more fouled up by government, those people who can bypass their dependence on this economy can function more efficiently. Those who continue to live within the mainstream have their economic efficiency diminished by a parasitical government.
I have proved in my own life that he who actually lives by the morality of Objectivism can thereby have a HIGHER standard of living than the large majority of people in America, who are hobbled, ethically and economically, by circumscribing their lives within the authoritarian frame of reference; and that the adoption of such a lifestyle is much less expensive and much more technologically feasible than most people surmise. Amidst a population of individuals employing one strategy, I employ a different strategy which has a higher payoff.
As Rand repeatedly asserted, "the moral IS the practical."
I believe the best way to go about implementing the lifestyle I have described would be to start by buying a pickup truck as your first (or next) vehicle.
When you are financially ready to do so, buy a camper to put onto the truck - or a small trailer to pull behind it.
Spend weekends, vacations, and as much time as you can living in this thing. This will prepare you for later full-time residence, and teach you what domestic facilities you should modify or add in order to create a satisfactory situation.
If you are the adventurous type and want to skip this intermediate preparatory step, then buy a large gooseneck trailer-house. You might want to consider buying a gooseneck flat-bed trailer and building your own house on it.
I have lived for 20 years in a 30-foot school bus and find this plenty large enough for one person (and three cats) to live in.
If I were to do it over again, I would opt for a truck/trailer combination, as that makes for more transportation convenience. When you want to stay parked in one place for any length of time, it is convenient to just detach the truck for your occasional trips to town.
Once your little house is fully prepared, take the next big step by moving permanently into it. At this point your economic situation should take a big leap upward as you begin to reap the benefits of the rent/mortgage money that you no longer have to pay out.
Two things you should consider doing with that money are stocking up with supplies of merchandise (such as the socks I mentioned above) and investing in a pension for your future years. It shouldn't take much to convince you that the government's Social Security scheme is of dubious value. There are other ways in which you can provide for your future. The best I ever found is:
Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association
College Retirement Equities Fund
730 Third Ave New York City 10017 800 226-0147
To initiate your participation in TIAA-CREF it is not necessary that you be a teacher. It is only necessary that you be employed, in any capacity, by one of the many educational institutions that comprise the Association. Once you have become a participant, you remain so for life regardless of your subsequent employment.
During the late 1960s I invested several thousand dollars into this scheme. That money was put into a wide array of commercial and industrial enterprises (not into government bonds!). Today, about thirty years later, I can begin drawing an annual pension that will pay me, each year for the rest of my life, an amount of money greater than the sum total that I invested so long ago.
When you have got yourself set up in your new lifestyle you can begin to think about changing over from full-time work to part-time work. For the final 14 years of my working life I worked only part-time (as a dishwasher and janitor). I usually worked one or two days a week - and had a five- or six-day "weekend." I went into full retirement at the age of 48, and have been living quite comfortably ever since.
From Loompanics Unlimited Box 1197 Port Townsend, WA 98368:
THE ALPHA STRATEGY by John Pugsley
Convert your money into merchandise.
FREEDOM ROAD by Harold Hough
How to establish life in a motor home.
HOME IS WHERE YOU PARK IT by Kay Peterson
How to live in a travel trailer.
TINY HOUSES by Lester Walker
Inexpensive, self-sufficient little homes.
ROLLING HOMES by Jane Lidz A&W Publishers, 95 Madison Ave, NYC 1979
HOW I FOUND FREEDOM IN AN UNFREE WORLD by Harry Browne Macmillan 1973
HOW YOU CAN PROFIT FROM THE COMING DEVALUATION by Harry Browne 1970 Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York
The best-ever textbook on economics. Unfortunately, now out of print.
J.C. Whitney Co Box 8410 Chicago IL 60680
Parts, accessories and appliances for cars, trucks and RVs. If you intend to build your own motor home, this company is an excellent source for parts and equipment.
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