An Interview with Yaron Brook: Pending Debate

Oct 4, 2013 by

Yaron Brook is an Israeli-born American entrepreneur, philosopher, and academic, who currently serves as the president and executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute

1) I understand that you are about to debate someone about money and power. How did this come about?

We have a long-standing relationship with the Ford Hall Forum—I speak or debate there every year. This year, we requested a debate. Hedrick Smith was suggested as an opponent since we are both authors of recent books on capitalism.

2) Who is Hedrick Smith and do you have a handle on his philosophy?

I’ll let Smith speak for himself, but what I’m aiming to do is to present Ayn Rand’s philosophic view of laissez-faire capitalism. Capitalism, in Rand’s view, is the social system in which the government’s sole job is to protect individual rights, leaving men free to produce and trade voluntarily. It involves a complete separation of state and economics. Today, we do not live in a capitalist system, but a mixed economy: there is some freedom, also a great deal of controls and regulations on businesses.

3) Money- what was Ayn Rand ‘s philosophy about it, and in which of her novels did she discuss the topic ?

Ayn Rand viewed money as a voluntary tool of economic exchange but, more deeply, she viewed it as a symbol of production and voluntary trade. This is the point made in her novel Atlas Shrugged, in particular in Francisco d’Anconia’s “money speech.”

In a free market, money comes from creating values—the goods and services that make people’s lives better. You get rich, not by making others worse off, but by making them better off, since a trade won’t happen unless all parties benefit.

Francisco puts it this way: “Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort. Money allows no power to prescribe the value of your effort except the voluntary choice of the man who is willing to trade you his effort in return. Money permits you to obtain for your goods and your labor that which they are worth to the men who buy them, but no more. Money permits no deals except those to mutual benefit by the unforced judgment of the traders.”

These types of uncoerced, win/win transactions are exactly what are threatened when the government intervenes in the marketplace.

4) Power comes in many guises – political, fiscal, charismatic – what aspects of power will you be debating?

I think a lot of the debate will come down to understanding the distinction between political power and economic power—a distinction that the critics of capitalism almost always ignore or deny.

Political power means the power of physical force: it is the power of the gun—the power to destroy. When the government tells you that you must buy health insurance whether you want to or not, or that two companies cannot merge even though both want to, that is political power. It means that individuals are not free to act on their own independent judgment and engage in voluntary, mutually beneficial relationships. When wielded in the marketplace, political power is incredibly destructive as it stifles productivity and creativity. (When the government puts thugs and frauds in prison, that too is political power—the proper use of political power.)

Economic power, on the other hand, is the power of the dollar—the power to offer rewards. Google, for instance, has created a massively popular search engine, and its economic power consists in part by selling people the right to advertise on its platform. Google can’t coerce anyone. It can simply say: voluntarily accept our terms or advertise elsewhere. No matter how large or influential a corporation is, in a capitalist system it doesn’t have the power of coercion. Others always remain free not to deal with them.

Many of the attacks on capitalism consist of arguing that we must “balance” the power of business with the power of government. What this really means is that, in order to protect us from some people’s economic power, we must get rid of limits on the government’s use of political power.

5) There seems to be a concentration of power among those who rule the airwaves and media. Am I off on this and what will be the point of departure in that realm?

This is a perfect example of how tangled views can become where there is not a clear distinction between political power and economic power.

There are all sorts of people, such as television personalities or radio talk show hosts who can have a great deal of influence on their fans. But this type of power is also distinct from political power. Sure these people are influential, but you don’t have to take their advice—you can, quite literally, turn the channel or switch off the radio entirely. If a large media company doesn’t produce content that people want, they won’t stay in business long.

It may be true that a small number of companies own most media outlets today, but that shouldn’t be seen as a threat. The real threat comes when government dictates to people how many newspapers or television channels they can own, or what can and can’t be said. That’s political power and it’s a particularly insidious form of violating rights. Political power is only properly used to protect individual rights, not wielded to limit free speech or dictate who can own what.

6) Why would Ayn Rand think “money and power” is important in 2013?

While we didn’t choose the title of the debate, I think the debate will bring out important issues—especially the issue of cronyism—government intervention used to reward politically influential businesses. I want to encourage business to fight back against government controls, rather than manipulating them so that they gain benefits or their competitors are harmed.

Today we a see a trend of increased state intervention into economics, much of it backed by companies and institutions that view this intervention as a benefit to them. Ayn Rand would have been concerned with that. She was an advocate of pure, laissez-faire capitalism and a staunch defender of individual rights. She saw widespread attacks on the economic freedom and spirit of individualism. Those attacks continue today.

7) What have I neglected to ask? The details- when/where and for how long will this debate go on?

The debate will take place Thursday, October 10, 6:30-8:00 pm in Boston. You can find more information about the debate here.

8) On a side note, I understand the play “Anthem “ is about to open in New York City ( I just returned from the Big Apple). Any insights or are you not involved in this?

The Ayn Rand Institute is supportive of the play, but not directly involved. The adaption of Ayn Rand’s novella “Anthem” was written by Jeff Britting, Archives curator at ARI. The show opened in September at the Jerome Robbins Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City. The show will run through December 1, 2013. We wish them well.

 

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