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.

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

Compromise and responsibility in the bureaucratic state

“If we have proportional representation, the government will have to compromise.”
 
As opposed to what? Whether the compromise takes place as it does now between factions of one party, or — as it supposedly will under PR — between parties, what difference will it make to the voters?
 
Here’s one difference: when party factions compromise, someone has to take responsibility for the result. When different parties compromise in a coalition… Not so much.
 
If you’ve ever worked in a bureaucracy with, uh, diffuse responsibility for decisions, you may appreciate my misgivings about this “reform”.

The Sham of Democratic Reform

Often, when politicians break their promises the voters politely look the other way. After all, they understand that such promises are not to be taken seriously. Occasionally, however, a commitment comes back to haunt the candidate that abandons it, and Justin Trudeau’s guarantee that last year’s vote “will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system” may be among them. While it was always going to be difficult to pivot away from such a clear pledge, the Liberals’ response to the report submitted by the all-party committee they themselves created was particularly inelegant, as the responsible minister insulted its authors, mocked their use of mathematics, and did little to dispel the notion that the entire exercise was a sham. Read more

Who’d a Thunk It?

Canada’s Auditor General used his fall report to Parliament to break 2016’s least surprising item: the federal government is a mess that stubbornly refuses to clean itself up. The litany of chronic problems that Michael Ferguson notes include the following:

  1. “Programs that are managed to accommodate the people running them rather than the people receiving the services.”
  2. “Programs in which the focus is on measuring what civil servants are doing rather than how well Canadians are being served.”
  3. “Regulatory bodies that cannot keep up with the industries they regulate.”
  4. “Public accountability reports that fail to provide a full and clear picture of what is going on for a myriad of reasons—such as systems that are outdated or just not working, or data that is unreliable or incomplete, not suited to the needs, or not being used.”

Read more