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.