In Atlas Shrugged, the government puts Hank Rearden on trial for the “crime” of selling his metal to a willing buyer. Part of the courtroom exchange sheds light on Ayn Rand’s view that, in a free and virtuous society, people’s interests do not clash in any fundamental way.
“Are we to understand,” asked the judge, “that you hold your own interests above the interests of the public?”
“I hold that such a question can never arise except in a society of cannibals.”
“What… what do you mean?”
“I hold that there is no clash of interests among men who do not demand the unearned and do not practice human sacrifices.”
“Are we to understand that if the public deems it necessary to curtail your profits, you do not recognize its right to do so?”
“Why, yes, I do. The public may curtail my profits any time it wishes — by refusing to buy my products.”
This is signature Ayn Rand. And the idea conveyed in the passage is central to her philosophy. Rand holds that people normally produce the values they need to live. One person’s productive achievement is not another person’s loss; it is another person’s potential gain. Rearden produces metal, creating wealth from the goods and labor that he purchases from others. Then he trades his metal for the goods and services produced by others so that he can live and enjoy his life. In a free society, Rearden’s interests align with the interests of “the public,” which is taken only to mean the counting of particular individuals. In a free exchange, both parties benefit. But if some people are able to loot others, the consequence is to reward the looters at the cost of the producers and encourage others to get in on the looting.