Johann Hari: The year when an outpouring of charity trumped the immorality of a billionaire elite

In 2005, for a moment, the world stepped back along the long road of selfishness
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It starts with a tsunami and it ends with the freezing victims of an autumn earthquake. 2005 has been a year when the collecting tins never stopped rattling and the disasters never stopped rolling. Banda Aceh, Darfur, New Orleans, Kashmir: some of the largest trawls of cash for stricken people in history happened over the past 12 months. And some people - a fervid, hacking, influential minority - find this disgusting. On 30 December 2004 - when it was becoming clear that the Boxing Day tsunami had washed away whole generations in South East Asia - the Ayn Rand Institute sent out a stark press release. It was headed: "US Should Not Help Tsunami Victims". Do not give cash. Do not send help. Leave them.

This was not a random piece of spite. It expressed - with admirable clarity - a philosophy that has influenced some of the most powerful people in the world. Ayn Rand is the philosopher queen of America's billionaire chief executives, a woman who wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness and meant every word.

Although she is almost unknown here in Britain, Rand is the only novelist whose work has been read by every single US Congressman. Nor is her appeal confined to an elite: when the Library of Congress recently conducted a massive poll to find the most influential book in the US, her 1,070-page parable of market fundamentalism, Atlas Shrugged, came second. The only author to beat her was God. Rand's centenary has just been greeted with a slew of official celebrations, including a US postage stamp bearing her fierce smile.

The story of Ayn Rand is strangely revealing about the world - and particularly its most powerful nation - as it exists at the end of 2005. She was born into a family of wealthy Russian merchants during the moody dawn of the 20th century and spent her teenage years watching their riches and their dignity being stripped away by the Bolshevik revolution. She escaped as a young woman to America, and began to outline a philosophy called "Objectivism" that was the exact opposite of everything she had fled.

Where the Bolsheviks collectivised everything and left the individual with nothing, Rand demanded a mirror-image world where everything was privatised and nothing - no scrap of humanity - was left for the public sphere. There should be "no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest" - so taxation should be abolished, and all human worth should be measured by "exchange value". Altruism - like giving to an orphaned tsunami victim - is an "evil" betrayal of your own ego.

She explained her philosophy at first through pot-boilers like The Fountainhead. One of her heroes boasts that he is the polar opposite of Robin Hood: "He was the man who robbed the rich and gave to the poor. I'm the man who robs the poor and gives to the rich, or to be more exact, the man who robs the thieving poor and gives back to the productive rich." If you want a sign of Rand's quiet victory, close your eyes and realise this could be Dick Cheney in one of his more candid moments, explaining the logic behind his massive tax cuts for the wealthy.

Rand's morality is a perfect fit for the age of the celebrity billionaire. She conjures a world where the chief executive is Messiah, where the sign of the Cross is replaced with the sign of the dollar, and where hideous penis-proxies such as Trump Towers are the pinnacle of human achievement. In her novel Atlas Shrugged, the world's billionaires - the Ted Turners and Donald Trumps - go on strike in protest against the "insane regulations" and "exorbitant tax" handed down from Washington. The country quickly regresses into anarchy, with businesses collapsing, food distribution networks falling apart, and America becoming a wasteland - until finally the grateful populace welcomes back their economic overlords and promises to never again pester them with wild notions such as taxation or regulation.

It is just about possible to understand how Rand herself could have formulated this preposterous vision as a kind of political post-traumatic-stress disorder after the nightmare of Leninism. But how can we explain her extraordinary popularity in the United States? Many of Rand's personal disciples now fill the most powerful slots in US public life, from the benches of the Supreme Court to (until he retired this year) the head of the Federal Reserve.

Of course, even most right-wing Americans consider the specifics of Rand's philosophy to be loopy. But her rabid anarcho-capitalism has clearly tapped into something primal in American political culture: it is revealing that she is almost invariably described as an "idealist", rather than a maniac. She appeals to the ugliest side of Americanism (contrasting with its many, many strengths): a fear and hatred of the state, even in its most democratic form, and of wider collective action. Rand has only one conception of liberty - freedom from government.

As one of her heroes, Howard Roark, says, "The only good which men can do to one another and the only statement of their proper relationship is - hands off!" Like most of the American right, she has no conception of positive liberty. When asked how free a man in Harlem with no healthcare insurance and a kid with cancer is, she has no answer. She cannot see when hands have been kept too far off.

And - again like the rest of the American right - she finds it impossible to imagine a clash between the interests of the super-rich and the rest of society. While Rand is (rightly) appalled when the state kills people, she considers businessmen taking risks with the lives of ordinary people or government bureaucrats to be actually heroic. In Atlas Shrugged, the protagonist, Nat Taggart "murdered a state legislator who attempted to revoke a charter granted to him" and (ho, ho) "he had no trouble with legislators from then on." She really does seem to see the rich as more deserving of life than the poor. She refers to the rich as "really alive", while ordinary people are described variously as "savages", "refuse", "inanimate objects", "imitations of living beings". Who cares if the ubermenschen take risks with these creatures?

It is a sweet, neat irony that the centenary of this fifth-rate Nietzsche of the mini-malls has been marked by something she would have despised: an unprecedented burst of charitable giving. No society, not even George Bush's America, can be run on Randian principles. When confronted with raw human need the elaborate reasoning behind Ayn Rand's off-the-peg morality for an off-their-head corporate elite melts. In 2005, for a moment, the world stepped back a few steps along the long road of selfishness it has travelled in the past 30 years - and those tsunamis of charity are more inspirational than a thousand readings of The Fountainhead.