December 2, 2008

Spreading the Gospel

By: Matthew Fellowgard

There is a certain electricity in the National Press Club Ballroom. Businessmen in tailored suits mingle comfortably with shabby college professors; think-tank pundits and corporate lobbyists are schmoozing with reporters and students. The easy, congenial atmosphere is a testament to the power of their shared passion—there are few philosophies that appeal to so many disparate groups, and none that have done so as successfully as the writings of Ayn Rand.

People are excited about finding a small clique of individuals in Washington, D.C. who quietly roll their eyes when another lengthy lecture on public service begins. Conversations are excitedly punctuated with “I know!” and “I mean, really!” and references to 1,000 page tomes of philosophical fiction do not have to be explained. In the hallway outside, the Objectivist Society has set up a table adorned with literature. Passersby shuffle nervously in front of it, unsure if standard protocol applies. Yes, a woman smiles as if to assure them, you can take them. These, at least, are free.

Inside, the Ayn Rand Center For Individual Rights is preparing for its first public talk in its 22 year history, departing from its usual business seminars and high school book fairs to launch a bold initiative as the latest think-tank in Washington, D.C. The impetus to push in this direction, the speaker tells the audience, has been the view that a crucial perspective is missing from debates on public policy, and that conservatives have discredited their case for capitalism by constantly apologizing for it.

“I hope, as we open the Ayn Rand Center in D.C., you will join us for this historic battle for the soul of capitalism,” said speaker Yaron Brook, Executive Director and President of the center. “This historic battle is, I think, fundamentally over morality, not economics.”

The Ayn Rand Center is debuting at one of the most precarious moments in recent economic history. In the past six months, over 40 percent of the American economy has disappeared; a Republican president has engineered the largest bail-out in world history, amounting to $700 billion for the U.S. government to purchase faltering mortgages; and nine U.S. banks have been partially nationalized as the government has bought their plummeting stocks. Free-market capitalism is not being tested in this crisis, but instead is being whole-heartedly thrown overboard by policymakers in a seismic shift. Seemingly overnight, the United States has made huge strides towards socialism and an incoming Obama administration promises to further the effort.

“More brainpower has been dedicated to the cause for capitalism than at any other time in economic history,” Brook lamented to the crowd. “And it looks like we haven’t convinced anybody. There is no opposition. It is our failure.” The sudden emergence of the Ayn Rand Center is thus fitting for the historic moment.

Brook views the center as the only bastion of true capitalism left in Washington because only Objectivism is equipped to defend capitalism not only as an economic mechanism, but as a moral cause. “Laissez-faire capitalism is the moral system because it enables each individual to live by his own mind, for his own, selfish welfare and happiness, dealing with others by trade rather than by sacrifice and exploitation.” Brook explained.

This summation of morality, still pointed enough to bristle an audience to unease when delivered with enough aplomb, carries an undeniable logic behind it. The appeal of Objectivism is using economic language to explain moral conundrums, and employing the same paradigm of self-interest to resolve personal disputes. The center is dedicated to producing papers that, unlike other conservative or libertarian think-tanks, are centered on this moral dimension of capitalism which Brook claims has been missing from the discussion.  “Everything we do is a consequence of our uncompromising advocacy for a secular, individualist moral basis to public policy.”

Brook reserves his most withering criticism, however, for other traditions of conservatism, particularly as manifested in the Republican Party. “Modern conservatism is a travesty,” he noted.“The conservative argument that has gained the most traction since the 1980s is that religion is the basis for freedom and capitalism. But it isn’t, which is why the conservatives progressively gave up any semblance of advocacy of capitalism and embraced big government conservatism.”

According to Brook, American conservatism is fundamentally confused, unsure of whether it wants to promote capitalism or a social agenda that has become increasingly noisy and often at odds with the free market. The inability of Republicans to embrace and defend capitalism as an economically and morally superior approach to government has thwarted the movement time and again. Because they accept so many premises of socialism—responsibility to a common good, government-sponsored programs—they have undercut their case for capitalism and have made Republican lawmakers unable to initiate the grand scale-down programs they campaign on, even when they have unrivaled control of government!

“What we need are leaders who understand and support genuine capitalism, morally and economically,” Brook intoned. It is this uncompromising version of unfettered capitalism, without any socialist constraints, that will be the hallmark of the Ayn Rand Center.

The Center faces a stiff challenge in the coming years as pundits are already loudly proclaiming a new hour for liberalism in America. Brook describes the Center as out of step with the political mainstream, a third voice for policy debates, largely because he claims that even conservative think-tanks have so completely abandoned their principles. “Think tanks and policymakers on today’s ‘right’ advocate for positions that, thirty or forty years ago, would have been recognized as rank socialism.” Brook said.

In contrast, an Objectivist candidate’s platform would call for starkly different policies: massive rollbacks to—if not the outright abolition of—Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security; the end of the government’s involvement in banking and the printing of money; and an isolationist approach to foreign policy that would involve reducing aid to even the neediest of developing countries unless it also serves our self-interest.

Brook is surely accurate when he described the center as well outside the mainstream, and necessarily pragmatic when saying that the center’s biggest focus on the short-term will be on education, not legislation. Still, Brook remains optimistic about Rand’s ideas finding an audience within DC’s policy community. “My vision for the Ayn Rand Institute is to bring Rand’s ideas, particularly her moral defense of individualism and freedom, to the widest possible audience. Opening the ARC in Washington will greatly advance that goal.”

-Matthew Fellowgard is a journalist and fiction writer from Colorado.