Ayn Rand, Donald Trump, and Lex Luthor Walk into a Bar…

What does the author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead have in common with a couple of garden-variety supervillains like Donald Trump and Lex Luthor? Well, if you haven’t actually read anything she wrote and are going solely by hearsay and conjecture, it’s easy enough to blame Ayn Rand for all the ills of the world. The truth of the matter, though, is that she was extremely concerned about morality, and gave the subject a great deal of thought. Critics may disagree with her conclusions, of course. But only if they have an accurate understanding of what they are in the first place.

Lex Luthor, for example, is not a Randian hero. He thinks he’s better than the rest of humanity and wants to rule the world as a consequence. He doesn’t much care whom he destroys as he claws his way to the top, either. And he has a particular hate on for that uppity alien, Superman.

In contrast, an Ayn Rand hero, while supremely confident in his or her abilities, simply wants to get value for value, exchanging goods and services for money in voluntary transactions, and has no interest in ruling anyone. A trader with a benevolent sense of life, he or she explicitly rejects the master-slave dichotomy, intent on meeting others as equals before the law. Rand furthermore wrote a scathing essay condemning racism as the lowest form of collectivism, and she would no more judge a person by the indestructibility of his skin than by its colour.

Donald Trump, for his part, despite having surely done some good through deregulation and tax cuts, has also done plenty of bad. To take just one issue, he could not be more wrong on international trade. Whether with your neighbour across the street or a stranger on the other side of the planet, unfettered trade is a positive-sum affair, with both parties generally coming out ahead. Open commerce furthermore spurs people to be more productive and innovative. Make it more difficult or expensive to trade—say, with a tariff—and everyone but the specific beneficiary loses.

Rand understood this perfectly, and in fact expertly dramatized the issue in Atlas Shrugged. That book’s protagonists are fighting for the freedom to engage in unfettered trade, while its villains are pleading for special favours and restrictions on their competitors, messing with the steel market specifically, in fact.

You don’t have to like Ayn Rand’s work. A lot of people find enormous value in it, myself included, but it’s not for everybody. Still, to make a useful contribution to humanity, as opposed to just parading one’s ignorance around for all to see, at least a passing familiarity with the object of one’s criticism is required. Anything less is just a joke.

The “unruly” women who fought for Canadian liberty

Canadian women who care about liberty often look to our cousins in the United States for women who have contributed to the liberal tradition. Among libertarians it’s common to look to Ayn Rand, Rose Wilder Lane, and Isabel Paterson, the “founding mothers” of libertarianism.

Elinor Ostrom, still the only woman to win a Nobel Prize in Economics, advocated grassroots community management of common-pool resources rather than centralized government control. Like Ostrom, Jane Jacobs’ work on urban development showed how decentralized governance and “humble people [solving] humble problems” are superior to top-down solutions. These, and many others, are remarkable women whom we ought always to look to for inspiration.

Although Isabel Paterson and Jane Jacobs were also Canadian, too many Canadian champions of liberty are often overlooked. It should be no surprise that Canadian women helped make our country freer. Learning more about them, we can draw inspiration from their achievements.

This International Women’s Day, we’d like to take a closer look at four incredible and overlooked Canadian women who worked relentlessly for the cause of freedom: Chloe Cooley, Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie, Mary-Ann Shadd, and Viola Desmond. Read more

Getting So Much Better All the Time

In my previous post, I cited some facts from Johan Norberg’s recent book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, showing that in many ways, life on Earth is better than ever. On average, we humans have more food to eat, better access to clean water, and better sanitation. We live much longer lives, and there is a lot less extreme poverty in the world than there used to be, despite there being many more of us around. But what about violence, the environment, and inequality? It turns out there is good news on these fronts as well.

It’s true that we can all easily call to mind ample evidence of violence depicted on the nightly news or social media. This ease is one of the reasons we think we live in violent times. But there’s a strong bias for sharing bad news: If it bleeds, it leads, as the saying goes. It just isn’t newsworthy to point out that most people were not murdered last night, or that most parts of the world are not war zones.

Yet the numbers are clear. Read more

Diversity in social movements

The diversity of movements and organisations shapes them.

This might sound trite, but it also creates a barrier to more diverse movements. This 2011 Daily Kos article is one of my favourite things on the Internet. (I know. The headline. Persevere.) It’s a consultant’s story about trying to help feminist groups become more racially diverse.

This isn’t necessarily about racism or sexism or classism or anythingelseism. It’s more about a kind of Hayekian concept of privilege. We don’t know what’s in other peoples’ heads, so we miss stuff when we don’t interact with or listen to each other.

Treating the Daily Kos article as a case study gives some insight into the barriers to diversity and shows us why diversifying can lead to pushback. Read more

Do You Believe in Miracles?

My workweek ended on a bright note today, as I happened upon one of the brightest pieces of news imaginable: the world is on the brink of eradicating polio, forever. A disease that for generations has killed or crippled countless among us – condemning some to decades in an iron lung – may soon go the way of smallpox: formerly a scourge of humanity, now the mere stuff of history books and medical texts. As someone whose own mother still lives a full four decades later with the (relatively minor) sequelae of a case contracted in early adulthood, my joy could not be greater.

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Peoplesplaining Is No Joking Matter

Earlier this week, Canada’s Prime Minister interrupted a woman to correct her after she used the word ‘mankind’. Trudeau asked that she instead use the word ‘peoplekind’ in order to be more inclusive. This exchange garnered international criticism, which led the Prime Minister to respond by saying the whole thing was just a “dumb joke”.

Apart from the fact that the Prime Minister used a word that doesn’t exist, à la Sarah Palin’s ‘refudiate’, he then claims it was a joke. This, to me, is much worse than if he had simply apologized.

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Don’t cheer for gridlock

In The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge, Vincent Ostrom argues that a democratic society must be a self-governing society. Not just one that’s designed the right way.

By explaining why people need to be able to use persuasion and work together to solve their problems to keep democracy healthy, Ostrom gives us a useful way to think about a common concern: gridlock. Libertarians often cheer for gridlock. We shouldn’t. And not just because it’s tone deaf.  Read more

Sweet talk and self-governance

We haven’t heard as much lately about panic over falling faith in democracy, but questions about the proper scope of democracy and what we mean by “democracy” are still relevant. Is democracy popping a ballot in a box, or does it include our conversations and what we do as communities?

Vincent Ostrom asks this question in The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge, and urges us to recognise a seldom-discussed danger to democracy. We often hear that we need to do more than just vote—we need to vote well. But, says Ostrom, we also need to be able to persuade each other—to use what Deirdre McCloskey calls “sweet talk“. Sweet talk is how we get people to act together when we can’t force them to. But we have to persuade well, the right way—building buy-in and consensus. The wrong kind of persuasion might be as dangerous as the wrong kind of voting. “Rhetoric pursued as an art of manipulation can be a trap contributing to the vulnerability of democratic societies.” (xiii)

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Getting Better All the Time

It’s easy to get caught up in all the bad things that are happening around the world. There are always plenty of leaders unfit to lead, plenty of disasters big and small raining misery down on us and our fellow humans. But while it’s good to shine a light on the darkness, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture—and the bigger picture, despite what you might think, is very positive. The good old days, as Johan Norberg puts it in the title of the introduction to Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, are now.

Don’t believe it? Let me throw a few facts at you: Read more

Two philosophies defended

Larry’s discussion of the different conceptions of capitalism and stateless society in his tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin reminded me of the discussions of capitalism and utopia in G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? and Jason Brennan’s Why Not Capitalism?

Cohen’s tiny book is a classic and an ambitious one. Though it barely clears 80 pages, it sets out to make the case that the utopia that we should wish for—even strive for—is a socialist one. As Brennan points out in his 99-page response, for many years Cohen’s opponents granted his claim that socialism doesn’t and can’t work, but if it could, and if we were good enough, it’s the morally best system to embrace.

Brennan makes it clear—more clear than Cohen does—that this is all Cohen argues for. He grants that the “design problem” of coming up with a workable economic system to replace capitalism might be one that we can’t overcome. All Cohen asks is that we want to overcome it, that we want to do better than capitalism. But this is ground that Brennan refuses to cede.
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