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Robert Reich Video Gets Ayn Rand Wrong

To promote his new book, The Common Good, political commentator Robert Reich has recorded a video called “Trump’s Brand Is Ayn Rand.” In it, Reich attributes a long list of current social ills to Rand’s influence over Donald Trump, political conservatives, and the culture at large. But his argument depends on distorting Rand’s actual views and exaggerating her cultural influence. All three of his main points can be readily refuted.

Is Ayn Rand Really “Trump’s Brand”? Reich points out that Trump and associated Republicans have expressed admiration for Rand’s writings. From these facts about a few individuals, Reich leaps to the claim that Rand is the “intellectual godmother of modern-day American conservatism.”

In fact, modern American conservatives have rejected Rand’s radical views at every turn, as Rand herself predicted they would in a 1962 article called “Conservatism: An Obituary.” “Today’s ‘conservatives,’” she wrote, “are futile, impotent and, culturally, dead. They have nothing to offer and can achieve nothing. They can only help to destroy intellectual standards, to disintegrate thought, to discredit capitalism, and to accelerate this country’s uncontested collapse into despair and dictatorship.” In her lifetime, Rand repeatedly condemned conservatives (such as Ronald Reagan) for failing to defend the values of reason, self-interest, capitalism, and the pursuit of individual happiness.

More recently, Ayn Rand Institute writers have made it crystal clear that Trump does not even understand, let alone advocate for, Rand’s cardinal values. The Institute’s Onkar Ghate has written at length of Trump’s anti-intellectuality, explaining in detail why Rand “would have despised a President Trump.” In another article, “One Small Step for Dictatorship: The Significance of Donald Trump’s Election,” Ghate condemns Trump for appealing to a dangerous authoritarian strain in the American populace.

Writing at the American Spectator’s website, ARI’s Elan Journo explains why key elements in Trump’s foreign policy are the opposite of Ayn Rand’s views. And Steve Simpson, at Learn Liberty, demonstrates how Trump and his minions display all the political vices of the villains in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. His title says it all: “Crony-in-Chief: Donald Trump Epitomizes Ayn Rand’s ‘Aristocracy of Pull.’” In “Donald Trump and the Anatomy of Cronyism,” Simpson details how Trump’s use of the eminent domain power puts him in opposition to Rand’s view of a government that refrains from seizing private property for the “public good.” And although Reich highlights Rep. Paul Ryan as a Rand disciple, ARI writers have made it clear that he, too, is light years from Rand’s view of proper government.

Does Rand Advocate a “Win-At-Any-Cost” Concept of Selfishness? Reich asserts that Rand’s advocacy of selfishness as a virtue has created a society he likens to a “jungle where only the strongest, cleverest, and most unscrupulous get ahead, and where everyone must be wary in order to survive.” He then produces a laundry list of bad actors from today’s headlines — fraudulent bankers and CEOs, lawbreaking accountants, crony politicians, even sex-crazed movie moguls — that supposedly personify Rand’s utopia.

But Rand utterly rejected the conventional understanding of selfishness as a dog-eat-dog, “win-at-any-cost” mentality. Instead, she proposed a new concept of rational self-interest leading to a society without sacrifice, in which the interests of rational men are in harmony:

When one speaks of man’s right to exist for his own sake, for his own rational self-interest, most people assume automatically that this means his right to sacrifice others. Such an assumption is a confession of their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man’s self-interest — which he must selflessly renounce. The idea that man’s self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others has never occurred to those humanitarian apostles of unselfishness, who proclaim their desire to achieve the brotherhood of men. And it will not occur to them, or to anyone, so long as the concept “rational” is omitted from the context of “values,” “desires,” “self-interest” and ethics. (“The Objectivist Ethics”)

Does Rand Deny That Individuals Have Common Interests? Reich correctly implies that Rand rejected his concept of “common good,” which rationalizes government programs such as public education, Medicaid and Medicare on the grounds that “we’re all in it together.”

However, Rand never denied that individuals have common interests. On the contrary, her novels and non-fiction envision a society of rational individuals who understand the many interests they have in common — a society permeated by voluntary cooperation, mutual support, strong and loving human relationships, and free trade. What she rejected was any idea of “common good” that rests on a conflict between the interests of society and the individual:

When “the common good” of a society is regarded as something apart from and superior to the individual good of its members, it means that the good of some men takes precedence over the good of others, with those others consigned to the status of sacrificial animals. It is tacitly assumed, in such cases, that “the common good” means “the good of the majority” as against the minority or the individual. Observe the significant fact that that assumption is tacit: even the most collectivized mentalities seem to sense the impossibility of justifying it morally. But “the good of the majority,” too, is only a pretense and a delusion: since, in fact, the violation of an individual’s rights means the abrogation of all rights, it delivers the helpless majority into the power of any gang that proclaims itself to be “the voice of society” and proceeds to rule by means of physical force, until deposed by another gang employing the same means.

If one begins by defining the good of individual men, one will accept as proper only a society in which that good is achieved and achievable. But if one begins by accepting “the common good” as an axiom and regarding individual good as its possible but not necessary consequence (not necessary in any particular case), one ends up with such a gruesome absurdity as Soviet Russia, a country professedly dedicated to “the common good,” where, with the exception of a minuscule clique of rulers, the entire population has existed in subhuman misery for over two generations. (“What Is Capitalism?”)

More recently, Gregory Salmieri and Ben Bayer dissected the “common good” / “public interest” concept in the context of analyzing Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged.