Sometimes bad people do good things

Margaret Thatcher has died, and the world is suddenly just a little bit lighter, sweeter and more beautiful. Thatcher once said, “There is no such thing as society”, and people claiming that in context this wasn’t intended as Ayn Rand philosophy just don’t understand Ayn Rand philosophy.

Perhaps the best way to remember Thatcher is through an extra on the Live Aid DVDs released a few years ago. In this clip, which I can’t find online to show you, Geldof tells Thatcher that there’s some good the British government is going to pay to destroy (in order to boost market prices), and his foundation will happily take it off the government’s hands and whisk it off to Africa where they can make high-calorie, nutritious little cakes that will feed a child for a day. It will save the government money, and still be kept out of the first world market so the prices can stay where they are.

Her response, over and over, is an unqualified no. Just no. No explanation. Just no. The food will be destroyed, and the starving third world – which is starving because of the actions of Britain and other first world nations – can literally just drop dead.

That was Thatcher. And as people call her a feminist icon for breaking through barriers, I’m reminded that she’s a wonderful example of something we see from time to time in the civil rights movement: people breaking barriers because they are incredibly self-centered and self-serving, not egalitarian. Thatcher’s policies harmed women. She didn’t break barriers for us. Any civil rights gain from her actions was despite her, not because of her.

That doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate that she broke those barriers. Just don’t respect her for what was an incidental byproduct of her lust for power. You can also admire her drive and ambition if you want. Just don’t think of it as having anything to do with feminism or minority rights. She wouldn’t appreciate it, and neither will egalitarians.

And when you’re evaluating people who actually do claim to be egalitarians, remember that the civil rights movement is a fairly small pond where an ambitious person might hope to feel like a big fish. Self-centered power-mongers will often claim a philosophy they don’t really believe in, just to gain power. It happens in mainstream politics and religion; it happens in fringe politics and the New Age movement. No philosophical movement is immune to the machinations of selfish people.

Statistically, it’s a good bet that some of our civil rights icons didn’t believe a word they said. They just said those things to gain power. This is a lesson I learned very early in life. Bad people are not uniformly bad all the time everywhere they go. If they were, it would be easy to recognize them. Sometimes bad people do good things because it serves their own selfish goals – or worse, so that admiring followers will instantly silence anyone who accuses them of harm. Don’t be that silencer. Don’t assume that because someone’s done good in the world, they aren’t doing evil behind closed doors.

None of this negates the good they do – and I literally mean none of it. If the clergy who brought you into a wonderful relationship with God turns out to be a child molester, your relationship with God is still intact. If your civil rights icon turns out to be a date rapist or someone who slapped her underpaid third world servants around, that doesn’t mean the good they inspired in you suddenly needs to be questioned. Think about it this way: if a loving, decent person you know embraces the idea that people shouldn’t need government help, simply because he doesn’t grasp how privilege is keeping so many down, his goodness doesn’t suddenly validate that world view, does it?

Actions and ideals cannot be judged by the quality of the people who hold them. Learn to admire things people have done while reserving judgment – approving or otherwise – for the people themselves.


  1. Nicole says

    Ugh, I have seen claims that Thatcher was a feminist BECAUSE she stood only for herself and… really? Really? Yes, because all us feminazi peeps are so gosh darn SELFISH for demanding equal treatment…

  2. says


    That sounds like a really warped extreme of the idea that women should be a bit more selfish – which, on the whole, is true in the sense that we are encouraged to lose ourselves completely in service to others and that isn’t healthy. But there are some genuinely extremely selfish women in the world. Of course, a lot of people just can’t seem to distinguish selfishness from self esteem, and think they’re praising the other when in fact it’s the former.

  3. Nicole says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    Oh, no, this was definitely one of those “feminists are evil and the root cause of all unhappiness in the world” type claims. The argument was that feminists were about selfishness – the old straw feminist who is out for herself and herself only and therefore we can ignore her because SELFISH – and that Thatcher was therefore the perfect feminist icon.

    Neatly dismissing both Thatcher and feminists.

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