At the Ready to Pass Ammunition to Execs Under Fire
There’s a poetic circularity to how the headquarters of the Ayn Rand Institute, keeper of the laissez-faire flame, ended up in Orange County, where the libertarian owners of the local newspaper used to inveigh against “tax-supported” schools and other symbols of government oppression of the rugged individualist.
But if the Orange County Register’s publisher, the Hoiles family, has tempered its political views over the years to keep up with the changing demographics of its newspaper market, the institute has scarcely yielded an inch of its namesake’s uncompromising worldview. Rand used to identify business executives as the most persecuted and misunderstood minority in America and decrygovernment regulation as the historic enemy of capitalism. The institute today is busy exorcising the same demons, but doing so at a particularly fertile time.
Business owners and executives see the government’s dead hand everywhere these days. Across California, for example, many are whining about the Paid Family Leave Act, minimum wage increases, workers’ compensation costs and overtime rules. Meanwhile, the stock market plunge and relentless investigations of corporate crime have made businessmen into pariahs again.
Rand’s disciples are here to help.
“Last summer the regulators got a green light to go after big business,” the institute’s executive director, Yaron Brook, was saying the other day at the group’s new quarters in Irvine, not far from John Wayne Airport. The bustle of an extended moving day (the institute relocated from Marina del Rey this summer) penetrated his office from the hallway, where photographs of Rand, dark-eyed and exotic, glowered from the walls and racks of her books were being set up in the foyer. “Over the last year, businessmen really feel threatened,” Brook said. “They’re looking for moral support. We provide them with intellectual ammunition.”
To many people, the name Ayn Rand may summon only distant memories of the early postwar era, when her novels “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” were in vogue. Born in 1905, Rand emigrated from Russia to the U.S. in 1926 and soon began producing her fiction, a unique composite of free-market pamphleteering, boardroom intrigue and sadomasochistic sexuality. Think Milton Friedman crossed with Anais Nin.
Her philosophy was absolutist: Anything created by a person exercising reason belonged to him or her to use as he or she saw fit, and society’s attempts to appropriate it -- say, through taxation or regulation -- were immoral. She was certain that an analysis of human history would make it obvious to any unhypnotized observer that leaving each individual to the pursuit of his or her unremitting self-interest would end up benefiting all society, which is why she named her doctrine “objectivism.”
Her method of argument was to muster reams of evidence from current affairs and history and place them at the service of brusque interpretation. Reading some of Rand’s old work, one is hard-pressed to avoid the impression that she was trying deliberately to sound absurd. “Every ugly, brutal aspect of injustice toward racial or religious minorities is being practiced toward businessmen,” she wrote in a piece titled “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.” She would fit right in doing commentary on Fox News Channel.
Rand had a way of proposing solutions to social problems that avoided all the complexities, which is why much of her expository writing seems facile. If Third World nations “were taught to establish capitalism, with full protection of property rights, their problems would vanish,” she wrote in this newspaper in 1962. Just like that? (She clearly never met anyone like Mobutu Sese Seko.) She attacked foreign aid, the Peace Corps and the United Nations as instruments of “altruism,” which she abominated as the soft-minded sale of one’s efforts on the cheap. Objectivists still pronounce the word “altruist” with all the disdain of George Bush the elder throwing “liberal” back at Michael Dukakis.
The institute’s essays duplicate Rand’s bullying style. One recent op-ed exalted the commercialism of Christmas. (“Christmas should celebrate reason, selfishness and capitalism.”) Another defended GE ex-Chairman Jack Welch’s extravagant retirement package -- or, rather, thrashed him for caving in to public criticism by forswearing it. (“What chance does the rest of the business community have when the best one of them lacks the moral courage to stand up for what is right?”)
Leading the charge is Brook, 41, a sandy-haired Israeli who discovered the works of Ayn Rand at the same point in life as many of her readers, which is to say in high school. (Something about her iconoclastic and individualist heroes has a seductive appeal to people, especially males, who are experiencing their first gushing emotions of independence and invincibility.) After a stint running a Silicon Valley investment fund and teaching finance at Santa Clara University, he joined the institute full time.
He’s an articulate defender of the faith who shares with his mentor the consolation of utter conviction. “I’m one who has never seen a tax cut he didn’t like,” he says. And: “I think the redistribution of wealth is an evil idea.” And: “I don’t think there should be a Federal Reserve.”
After this last remark, he smiles and adds: “Alan Greenspan didn’t see a need for it either when he was writing in the ‘60s.”
This is an allusion to the Fed chairman’s role in that era as a Rand acolyte. One wonders whether Greenspan wishes he could take back phrases like these, which appeared in an objectivist newsletter in 1963: “Regulation -- which is based on force and fear -- undermines the moral force of business dealings.” Or, “Government regulations do not eliminate potentially dishonest individuals, but merely make their activities harder to detect or easier to hush up.” (Greenspan’s prose was rather more direct in those days than now.)
Blunt declarations like these are, of course, designed to end discussions, not open them. Up to a point, Rand’s work amounts to a rational analysis of the conflict between market economics and bureaucratic intervention. But positing that supply and demand will reach a perfect equilibrium is an idea; imposing that idea on all human interactions turns it into an ideology.
Although it is possible that eventually this equilibrium will emerge, history suggests that empires can rise and fall and revolutions run their course in the meantime. And what, then, of society? George Soros, the financier and critic of laissez-faire capitalism, argued in a magazine article not long ago that leaving markets unregulated in the hope they will find their own equilibrium would simply allow wealth “to accumulate in the hands of its owners,” and thence lead to intolerable economic inequity.
Soros’ view has one virtue Rand’s lacks: humility. Her expectation of the triumph of perfect reason presupposed that human beings can and will act with perfect rationality. That is perhaps a condition to strive for, but most philosophers, scientists, political leaders and pastors harbor at least a suspicion that it is a chimera.
We all know in our hearts that the current picture of the American businessman as greedy and amoral is a rank caricature, and if honest executives feel unfairly maligned they deserve to find solace where they can. But the world is becoming more complicated than it was in Ayn Rand’s day, not less. Objectivists would undoubtedly say this is just what she predicted, given our predilection for messing with the natural order of things. But it may be that times have finally passed Ayn Rand by, notwithstanding her institute’s fresh new Orange County digs.
Michael A. Hiltzik can be reached at golden.state@ latimes.com.