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.

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

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

Mao’s Inhumanity to Man

Human beings are capable of many wonderful things: creating inspiring works of art, curing debilitating and deadly ailments, connecting the corners of the world with ever more impressive technologies of transport and communication. Though not the stuff of newspaper headlines, most of us contribute at least in some way to the betterment of our fellow man and woman through our productive work. We also perform many small yet significant acts of kindness and respect that reaffirm the value and dignity of each individual, as well as acts of love that signify even more. Read more