Your Own Mask

“In the case of a sudden decrease in cabin pressure, place our own oxygen mask over your face before helping others”

My awakening to libertarian ideas came on a plane from Cincinnati to my home in Colorado in 1995. A few years earlier, a friend told me that a poll taken by the Book-of-the-Month club and the Library of Congress named Atlas Shrugged as “The second-most influential book for Americans today.” After the Christian Bible.

I wasn’t a reader of fiction. I spent most of my time building my businesses and thought I didn’t have anything to learn from stories on paper. At that time, I was spending a lot of time reading business books and magazines on planes traveling from client to client.

One day, I was at a bookstore in the Cincinnati Airport. I was looking for something light to read when I thought about my friend. Out of curiosity, I went back to the fiction section and grabbed a very thick book with lots of small type. Atlas Shrugged.

I cracked it open on the plane and was immediately hooked. For the next three days, I was inaccessible to my family, my friends, and my employees. The thing that struck me about the book is that it talked to me in a way that modern culture has long since forgotten how to.

Rand’s characters were too perfect, of course, but that’s not the point. I had always known that selfishness is the most natural and noble trait of man, but everyone from my mother to my minister to the worldwide press constantly talked about how we need to be “giving” and “selfless”. I knew that this conventional wisdom was ill-founded, but I had no foundation upon which to justify my own beliefs. I felt alone.

Enter John Galt. Rand’s impossibly perfect man is not a model for the real world, but certainly has some admirable traits that I could latch onto and see some of myself. Henry Reardan, the pragmatic capitalist, has more traits with which I can associate, but he eventually becomes attracted to the light of Galt.

The single most powerful image of the book for me was Galt’s Gulch. This is a remote valley where captains of industry have dropped out of an increasingly socialist/fascist world to pursue their natural talents. They are, to a man, selfish, arrogant, anti-social, and talented. But somehow they all work together to create a perfect utopia of capitalism, free men, free minds, and free markets.

What a revelation that was to me! I saw a perfect world where people working in their own self-interest increased the wealth of all people around them. Selfishness as the highest virtue. I had found a home.

For the next ten years, I toiled in a world where communal service and “paying your fair share” was the norm. I told many people about the virtues of selfishness and tried to point out that we all win by recognizing that there is no such thing as altruism.

I tried to change the world, but the world wasn’t listening.

And then I heard about the “Free State Project”. This is a group that is trying to collect 20,000 people who think that personal freedom is the most important thing. The goal is to move them all to a single state in the U.S. where they will all work for local freedom, and then, once they are free, to possibly think bigger. By being one of many like-minded activists terrorizing the government for political change, my single voice will have much more power.

This idea appealed to me immediately. After years of trying to convince people that they were not free and that they should fight for everyone’s freedom, I had found a group who thought that freedom is best won small.

If you are with your children in a life-threatening situation, you instinctively act to save them first. You’d jump into an alligator-infested swamp in they were in trouble. You think about yourself last. This is a natural reaction.

Now think of yourself, with your children, on a plane that has just lost cabin pressure. Your natural instinct is to grab the life-saving oxygen and put the mask on your kids before you put on your own. This is not a good idea. By the time you get them fixed, you’ve suffocated and who will help them now?

That’s why there is always an announcement at the beginning of the flight: “In the case of a sudden decrease in cabin pressure, place our own oxygen mask over your face before helping others.” By putting your own mask on first, you are alive and able to help any others who need your assistance. This is selfish, but it is clearly the right thing to do.

I can see a world where people who have managed to fight for and win their own personal freedom will be an example to others who might want to be free but see any number of barriers between themselves and their freedom.

The men who fought the American Revolution committed to give up “our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor” to have freedom. They sacrificed everything for liberty. It’s time for a second American Revolution. And all I have to do to be a part of it is to switch one warm house for another, move my business, and temporarily leave friends and family. Sounds like a fair trade.

That’s what I see in the Free State Project. I’ve lost the desire to try to save the world. It’s just too many children to save. Instead, I’ve chosen to save myself first, and then my family. After that, I’ll see what I can do to save the rest. You can’t save your children if you’re dead. You can’t work to make the world free if you are a slave.

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