Thursday, January 23, 2014

Future of Objectivism 5

Yaron Brook, orthodox reformer. Viewed from afar, Yaron Brook seems little more than a narrow, sectarian shill for a Peikoffian version of orthodox Objectivism. While his speaking and writing usually rise to a level of competence, there is nothing in what he has said or written that even suggests or hints at an original or deep mind. To those of us not in tune with Objectivist paplum, he may come across as a bit stiff and unyielding. His evident enthusiasm for laissez-faire capitalism and war against Iran obviously raise questions as to his judgment. One wonders if he has any real understanding of the subjects he talks about. There's ideology, and then there's reality, and the two rarely have much to do with one another.

If we look a little closer and, instead of comparing him to other pundits spouting less unreasonable ideologies, we compare him with other orthodox Objectivists, Brook cuts a more compelling figure. While he remains steadfastly orthodox and thoroughly Peikoffian in his official outlook, he has quietly, behind scenes, been hard at work trying to give orthodox Objectivism a public make-over. Without challenging any of the core principles of Objectivism or questioning Peikoff's ultimate authority as an interpreter of Ayn Rand's philosophy, Brook seems intent on focusing the core of ARI's intellectual activism on the issue of morality and politics. Rand's epistemology and philosophy of history will remain untouched and unchallenged; they may even be cited ocassionally; but they will no longer be front and center, or even close to front and center. ARI's principle mission will be to preach the morality of capitalism and war on radical Islam.

On the ARI website, Brook has a series of videos called "Yaron Brook's Call to Action." Everyone of them involves politics and political activism. No videos on epistemology or Immanual Kant or metaphysics or aesthetics. Brook, along with fellow Objectivist Don Watkins, have a website entitled "Laissez Faire: The Uncompromised Case for Capitalism." Brook has co-authored (again with Don Watkins) the book Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand's Ideas Can End Big Government, as well as numerous articles (nearly all dealing with the morality and politics as seen through a Peikoffian lens). It is obvious where Brook's passion chiefly dwells: he wishes to make the "moral" argument for both capitalism and an aggressively anti-Islamist foreign policy.

In the early days of ARI, the emphasis was on producing Objectivist academics, who would then, through their positions at Universities, spread the Randian message among aspiring intellectuals. Brook seems intent on taking a more comprehensive approach. He wishes to spread Objecitivism, particularly the pro-capitalist portion of it, by every means available: universities, cable television, youtube, social media, debates, radio, etc.

While Brook has been focusing ARI's evangelism on morality and politics, he's also been busy trying to clean up its public image. The Objectivist old guard, particularly Peikoff, never cared much for what other people might think. The recent McCaskey spat demonstrates Peikoff's blithe indifference to the public image of ARI. Such things matter to Yaron Brook. He did his best to give as good a spin on Peikoff's bad behavior as circumstances allowed. He even arranged a "debate" between himself and Peikoff on the issue of immigration, just to try to show that disagreement with Peikoff was not necessarily always verboten.

In other (admittedly) small ways Brook has worked hard to change the tone of ARI, to make it less insular, less cultish, less irrelevant to the outside world. For instance, in his co-authored book, Free Market Revolution, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, George Reisman and even Nathaniel Branden are cited favorably. That may not seem like that a big a deal. But for years orthodox Objectivists, because of Rand's hostility toward Friedman and Hayek, evinced a reflexive horror for these thinkers. And we all know the Objectivist attitude toward Branden. It's hard to imagine Peikoff, Binswanger, or Schwartz ever citing any of Branden's Objectivist writings. Brook (along with co-author Watkins) cites Branden by name as follows:

Lurking beneath these attacks is a view that Ayn Rand's then-colleague Nathaniel Branden, writing in Rand's collection The Virtue of Selfishness, called "the Divine Right of Stagnation." 

A paragraph later Brook and Watkins insert an entire passage from Branden. Since none of the quotes from Branden are particularly insightful or original, it's difficult not to suspect that the real reason for quoting him is to send a message to the Objectivist community. The years of ignoring Branden and pretending he wasn't an important contributor to in the early days of Objectivism are over. This is a subtle but definite move towards attempting to mitigate some of the most blatant aspects of cultism in orthodox Objectivism.

The one aspect of cultism that Brook has been unable to abate involves Leonard Peikoff. Free Market Revolution contains, in the acknowledgements, some embarrassing effusions of gratitude toward Peikoff and "his enormous and unparalleled contribution to our understanding of Ayn Rand's philosophy." One wonders, particularly following the McCaskey scandal, what Brook's true feelings are toward Peikoff. Is it possible that Brook's gratitude toward his "mentor" is not entirely unmixed with frustration at Peikoff's determination to drive away a major ARI doner over some excessively mild criticism?

As a thinker Brook, despite a facile intelligence, is dismally conventional, unoriginal, destitute of insight. Immersion in Randian ideology has castrated his mind. He can do little more than repeat the well worn Objectivist formulas. Free Market Revolution is a tiresome book. You have to be woefully ignorant of human nature and political science to take its nostrums seriously. Brook and Watkins argue, in typical Objectivist fashion, that the growth of government and statism are the inevitable consequence of the failure on the part of "conservatives" to provide a moral defense of capitalism. In a review of Arthur Brooks' book The Battle, Brook and Watkins write:

The real battle for capitalism is the battle over the question: Is it moral to pursue our own happiness? If so, then why should we ever be forced to sacrifice for the needs of others? Is the moral call to sacrifice, which we’ve had drummed in our heads since childhood, right?

Only one thinker has ever challenged the morality of need and defended the moral right to pursue your own happiness: Ayn Rand.

Brook obviously regards Rand's moral defense of capitalism as some sort of panacea which, like a talisman with special powers, will dissolve America's unwillingness to embrace laissez-faire. It's easy for Brook to believe this because, as a person outside the mainstream, removed from the levers of power and responsibility, he can adopt any position he likes without worrying about it ever being tested (and proven wrong). But if he were, say, Paul Ryan's campaign manager for the 2016 presidential election, would he really advise his candidate to make the "moral case" for capitalism (i.e., "greed is good"). Or would the practical reality of the situation awake him from his dogmatic slumber and, shaking loose the Randian shackles, advise him: "That way madness lies."


QuantumHaecceity said...

This is an impressive post; Even by Greg Nyquist standards.

Nyquist manages to berate and insult Yaron Brook an astounding 8 times in one sitting.

Insults like.... "Yaron Brook seems little more than a narrow, sectarian shill"; "there is nothing in what he has said or written that even suggests or hints at an original or deep mind"; "As a thinker Brook, despite a facile intelligence, is dismally conventional, unoriginal, destitute of insight."; "You have to be woefully ignorant of human nature and political science to take its nostrums seriously."

...pepper the post throughout.

It remains absolutely fascinating to me, what the genesis is of Greg Nyquist's incredible level of hate and vindictiveness towards Objectivism.

The nasty nature of this post would be impressive even if Yaron Brook had actually done Greg Nyquist some tangible wrong.

But it becomes even more amazing when you realize it's very likely Nyquist is doling out such abuse towards a man who has probably never done anything to Greg Nyquist, nor even knows he exists.

I recall pointing out Greg Nyquist's nasty behavior on a number of occasion's in the past, but this is one of his most hatefilled exhibitions.

One must grant that this website has substantial substance, but it is again confirmed, that at the end of the day, this is a hate site.

And that simply cannot be denied. The fascinating question is why? Why this much hate, for this long?

Mark Plus said...

If Brook winds up running the Ayn Rand Institute after Peikoff's departure, I wonder if he will continue the practice of giving away "free" copies of Rand's novels to schools.

Though apparently the orthodox Randroids don't see the danger of that based on their own economic assumptions. If the ARI buys bulk quantities of these novels wholesale from the publisher and then gives them away to teenagers who might not necessarily want them, doesn't that private command-and-control economy distort the price signals which show the real demand for her works? And wouldn't buying them cheap and giving them away also run the risk of causing economic miscalculations, and possibly even economic chaos?

Neil Parille said...

I skimmed the book on Amazon. It looked like a lot of Objectivist and free market boilerplate.

Watkins and Brook make the claim that there was no science until the 16h century thanks to Christianity, which is of course completely false.

Then they say there was no science until the Renaissance.

The Renaissance and the 16th century are not exactly the same periods although they overlap in some chronologies.

And what were the great scientific achievements of the Renaissance?

I can't see the complete pages on Amazon so perhaps I'm misrepresenting them.

Neil Parille said...

And they refer to Bruno was an "astronomer" when in fact he was an astrologer and a mystic.

The basic facts of history aren't the strong suits of Objectivists.

Neil Parille said...

Interestingly, I had a run in with Watkins a few years ago. I had published my essay on Rand and evolution which he and Diana Hsieh decided to attack.

(Watkins' critique of my piece isn't available anymore.) He said I must be "joking" when I said that people like Freud were concerned that Darwinism might imply a kind of secular version of original sin. Apparently, this deep thinker didn't know this was common knowledge or that Freud had a heavily annotated edition of Darwin's complete works in his library.

Mark Plus said...

Neil Parile:

"And what were the great scientific achievements of the Renaissance?"

A lot of the mathematics we learn up through the high school level also dates from the Renaissance. Algebra and trigonometry might not seem like much now to people who can understand them, but at one time they pushed against the limits of the human mind's ability to deal with abstractions.

I have to wonder how much of the Objectivists' hostility to Christianity derives from Rand's background in Russia: She came from a barely tolerated Jewish minority in an overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian society. When she migrated to the U.S., the children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants from similar disfavored origins in Eastern Europe and Russia found an affinity to her world view, and I don't think that happened coincidentally, even though they faced only nominal discrimination in the U.S. and Canada which has since disappeared.

Neil Parille said...


I don't know that much about the history of science, but some writers I've read have said the Renaissance is overrated when it comes to science and other things.

It's interesting that so many Objectivists praise it since many of its leading thinkers were neo-platonists.

Neil Parille said...


An interesting topic might be why are people like Peikoff and Binswanger obsessed with Iran and bombing it.

In their debate on immigration, they both said something to the effect that we could end the threat of Islamic terrorism in "three weeks" with appropriate military action.

Assume we nuked Saudi Arabia and Iran and the countries were completely depopulated. Are Jidhadists in the west too stupid to make pressure cooker bombs without some Mullah giving them instruction.

And putting aside the morality of nuking innocent civilizations, what would happen to our economy with the disruption of oil supplies and the like.

FreeFromRandAtLast said...

Hi Neil! I was able to find Watkins' , ehm, "analysis" of your post on the web archive:


gregnyquist said...

Assume we nuked Saudi Arabia and Iran and the countries were completely depopulated. Are Jidhadists in the west too stupid to make pressure cooker bombs without some Mullah giving them instruction.

Well, even if they were nuked, they would not become depopulated. The nuke weapons would have to be airburst, to reduce fallout (otherwise the fallout would blow into other countries, and make it difficult to fly missions over area). Per usual, Peikoff and Brook are making judgments based on a sketchy grasp of elemental facts. You can't depopulate a large country with nuke weapons.

Perhaps Brook and Peikoff are assuming that the use of nuclear weapons will frighten the terrorists out of their terrorism. But that's speculative at best.

And putting aside the morality of nuking innocent civilizations, what would happen to our economy with the disruption of oil supplies and the like.

How do gas prices of $10 a gallon sound? Plus it would make the United States a pariah nation in the world, essentially alienating our european allies against us and strengthening Russia and China. I could even see Russian and China attempting to a form a coalition with the express purpose of destroying American military power.

Using nukes against Islamic Middle East countries would be virtually suicidal. America cannot stand up against the whole world.

gregnyquist said...

I was able to find Watkins' , ehm, "analysis" of your post on the web archive.

Watkins' reply suffers from the usual ailment of all such partisan writing from ideological and religious zealots: it takes assumptions which only an Ayn Rand zealot would make for granted, and then uses those as unquestioned axioms from which to attack Neil. Essentially he argues that Ayn Rand could not possibly have "distrusted evolution" because that would mean (1) Ayn Rand was irrational, (2)Ayn Rand's philosophy is a dishonest, fraud. If you assume that Ayn Rand can't be wrong, then you've effectively shielded yourself from any fact or argument that might prove your position wrong. It's certainly not the point of view someone primarily interested in facts and reality. Imagine a scientist who argued that Einstien's theory of relativity can't be right because that would mean that Newton was irrational and/or dishonest. Physicists would laugh at such an argument.

Neil Parille said...


The idea of Iran and Saudi Arabia being depopulated wasn't Brook or Peikoff's idea, but I thought experiment from me.

My point was that even if they got what they wanted (plus some) it wouldn't end terrorism.

Daniel Barnes said...

My current hypothesis is a follow-the-money one.

Look at it from a strategic perspective: As the new old generation fades, the new guard will be coming in and the big question will be: where is the growth going to come from? Over the past five years, the ARI had a once in a hundred year opportunity with the GFC, a surge of interest in Rand and anti-goverment ideology in general, a movie trilogy in the works, even a vice presidential candidate who was a fan. Yet that peak has now passed with Objectivism not noticeably further forward than it was before, and any benefits that could have been gained by networking and co-operation with the other groups utterly lost. You'd have to ask how, if the ARI couldn't get the movement decisively forward under those circumstances, it would ever really could.

So: a new approach was clearly needed. First, Ayn Rand is a much bigger brand than Objectivism is. So rather than alienate all those people who like her writing, like libertarians and conservatives, but aren't strict Objectivists, why not reach out to them instead? Second, which earns more publicity: epistemological analysis or political activism? Third, which earns more donor money: academic infiltration or political activism - particularly if your political activism aligns with the prejudices of extremely wealthy people? Fourth, and finally, what is Yaron Brook's day job? Well, he's managing partner of a not very high profile private equity firm - y'know, a fund-of-funds type thing - called BH Equity Research. So he knows how to talk the talk to likely donors, which would prove more effective than Peikoff's academic background. And not only that, from another angle I imagine having political activism as a calling card to get in front of like minded representatives of the investor class would be what they call a good "door opener" for a small private equity business, if you get my drift. So, hey, I can see there are any number of wins, and even win/wins, to this.