Nathaniel BRANDEN, Pt. II

Q: In your earlier lectures, you had many fascinating things to say about masculinity and femininity, and yet you barely touched on those concepts in The Psychology of Romantic Love. You wouldn’t consider addressing these concepts again in some future book?

Branden: I’ve learned never to say never, but I doubt it. Not that the issue doesn’t interest me; a lot of issues interest me. Right now a lot of research is being conducted in this area. Let’s wait and see what turns up.

I sometimes wish there could be a twenty-year moratorium on the words “masculinity” and “femininity,” and, during the same period, a far greater emphasis placed on self-acceptance. If we were all as honestly accepting of our natural inclinations as we knew how to be, without concern about cultural stereotypes of what was “appropriate,” I think we would see patterns of difference between males and females. I have strong opinions about what some of those patterns would be. But it would be interesting to let the evidence accumulate and speak for itself.

Many feminists, of course, have an agenda in this area, and wish on political principle to deny any significant differences between the sexes except the obvious physical ones. They want to insist it’s all a matter of culture and upbringing. I think reality is against them. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty wrong with traditional sex roles. However, I think it’s foolish to imagine that our physical differences do not result in any psychological differences, at least as tendencies.

As an interesting aside, a psychological study isolated a group of men and women who by their peers were judged to be highly creative individuals. They gave this group a battery of tests and what they found was that creative men tended to exhibit a high number of traits the world calls feminine, and that the women manifested a high number of the traits that the world calls masculine. That doesn’t mean that the men were effeminate and the women were butch. But they seemed to have more of the traits commonly associated with the opposite sex.

I have an explanation for this, which is the following: highly creative people are at least in some respects more independent than the average person; they are much more attentive to their internal signals, and because of this, they are less likely to block off or disown pieces of themselves that don’t fit cultural stereotypes.

Q: There’s a lot of talk in psychology about the difference between men and women’s attitude toward sex and relationships—that when a man is younger all he thinks about is “nailing” a girl and all the girl thinks about is getting married. This is quite a conflict! What would you say to teenagers about viewing their sex lives, and understanding the other sex’s very different goals?

Branden: If we were more accepting of our own sexuality, and the sexuality of the opposite gender, I don’t think we so readily fall into adversarial postures. I think we could be more open and honest about our feelings.

I suspect we should not be so prone to treat each other as “objects.” Males tend to treat females as sex objects and females tend to treat males as success objects (to borrow a phrase from my friend Warren Farrell, author of a marvelous book on this subject, The Myth of Male Power). Just as lots of men like to “nail” (using your word) sex objects, lots of women like to “nail” success objects. We don’t relate as human beings. Alienation from the self inevitably leads to alienation from the other.

Q: One area where we’ve seen some evolution in your views is the issue of homosexuality. How did you see homosexuality in the past, how do you see it today, and why?

Branden: Today it seems clear that there is more than one kind of homosexuality—by which I mean there is evidence that in some instances people are born with this orientation, whereas in other instances it is learned, acquired during the course of development, and in other instances still, it is situational, as with people in prisons. Different explanations are needed, rather than treating all cases as the same.

In the past I described homosexuality as a developmental problem, which I think it is sometimes, but not always, not necessarily, so I prefer to avoid generalizations. Until much more is understood than is understood at present, I prefer to say nothing on the subject, especially since this is a field in which I am not a specialist or expert.

The only exception I will make is that I am convinced it is a major error to treat homosexuality as a moral issue. If I ever implied or conveyed anything to the contrary, I profoundly regret it.

Q: You’ve also conveyed that Rand did her admirers a disservice by her own moralistic pronouncements about homosexuality. What’s your perspective on this?

Branden: By treating homosexuality as a moral problem, all that is accomplished is to fill people with guilt for something about which most of them can do nothing. Now in therapy, if someone comes to me and insists that he or she genuinely wants to change from a homosexual to a heterosexual orientation, sometimes I am able to help, without judging the client’s choice, one way or the other. However, if a homosexual wishes to work on other problems and does not raise the issue of sexual orientation as an issue, I do not try to change his or her mind.

Ayn had the habit, unfortunately, of flinging moral pronouncements about which she had no knowledge to support her verdicts. So did I, at times. Not a good idea.

Q: After one lives with bad habits for 20 years, how does one change? Your books suggest sentence-completion work, but that doesn’t seem to be a very complete technology.

Branden: I have never suggested that sentence-completion work alone is a complete technology, although often it is a powerful force for change, as many people have discovered. Apart from the clinical practice I get a good deal of mail from readers who do the sentence-completion exercises I recommend in my books, and they report electrifying changes.

But in addition I do many, many other things—from various forms of psychodrama, to working with subpersonalities, to guided fantasy, to techniques adapted from Neuro-Linguistic Programming, to working with the person’s energy system, to all kinds of homework assignments, and so forth. What I do is much too complex to explain in an interview.

Q: Among the various movements in psychology and therapy what do you think of the “Iron John” movement? I had a friend who went through it, and I was very impressed with the things he told me. I was intrigued by their techniques of destroying a man’s false pride and helping him find to whom he relinquished his masculinity.

Branden: I’ve never read or met Robert Bly (author of Iron John), and I know only a little about the work he does. I can’t say it strikes much resonance in me but I do know men who find it enormously helpful, and I don’t dismiss that.

For many historical reasons, there’s great confusion today about what constitutes “masculinity” and “manhood.” Many of the old models no longer seem relevant. I see the issue as one of self-acceptance—forget social stereotypes. I’m convinced that if men have the courage to connect with the deepest parts of ourselves, they will discover their “masculinity,” just as women will discover their “femininity.”

Q: Do you think teenagers should experiment with sex or are they too immature to deal with such a complex issue, not to mention the problem of disease and pregnancy? At what age (generally) should a young person decide to have sex and under what conditions?

Branden: It’s not so much a matter of age as of psychological maturity. One can’t properly answer this question merely in terms of age.

The principle is, when people act, at any age, they need to know what they are doing, they need to operate consciously, and they need to be able and willing to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. This clearly excludes girls who get pregnant at 14 and the boys who impregnate them. But let’s assume a young couple practices birth control. Even so, one couple of, say, 15 or 16 might be fully equipped emotionally to handle sexual intimacy while another couple will not.

We live in a time of great irresponsibility and one manifestation of the irresponsibility is children having children and getting themselves diseased and passing that disease to others. There is no such thing as sexual morality. There is only morality. There is living consciously or not consciously, living responsibly or not living responsibly.

Q: What would you say to a man who says: “I’m a nice guy and because I’m a nice guy women aren’t interested in me; they go for these guys who leave them hanging by the phone. They don’t find me exciting.”

Branden: As long as there are girls with cold or rejecting fathers, a certain type of rejecting man will always have sex appeal for those females. That’s one part of the story. Let’s call it the neurotic part.

But there is another part that is less understood. There’s a story I like to tell men who are not especially self-assertive.

Many years ago I became friendly with a woman who worked in the same building, and occasionally we’d bump into each other in the elevator, and we’d end up having lunch together. She was dating a friend of mine at the time. So one day over lunch I said how are you and so-and-so getting along, just to make conversation. And she said: “I’m actually thinking of ending the relationship.” I said: “Really, if it’s not an invasion of your privacy, do you feel like telling me why?” She said: “Well, it’s really odd; I’m a fairly experienced woman, and he is by far the best lover I have ever known, and he is in many ways a terrific man to be with.” So I said, knowing I was about to learn something very interesting, “Then why are you ending the relationship?” She sighed, and she looked at me, and said: “Nathaniel, he’s too eager to please.” And I understood everything.

In other words he had such a desire to be liked or approved that there wasn’t enough male animal self-assertiveness in the relationship. He could be a marvelous lover, or a marvelous escort, but was missing something that she legitimately wanted. I wouldn’t call that neurotic on her part.

Q: While granting that self-esteem deficits lead to many other psychological problems, do you insist that “all” psychological problems are rooted in a troubled self-esteem?

Branden: If you mean caused by troubled self-esteem, and by that alone, no. If you mean, do we always find troubled self-esteem in the background, contributing to the problem in some way, often in a very basic way, the answer is yes, if not always, then a great deal of the time.

What I will say now is simply this. It is easy to see that many problems are a clear expression of poor self-esteem, such as fear of self-assertiveness, a habit of making self-deprecating comments, fear of change, novelty, or challenge, plus a good deal of anxiety and depression (although not all). And it is easy to see that many other problems are defenses against poor self-esteem, such as grandiosity, seeking always to control others’ behavior, focusing on popularity or material acquisitions as proof of self-worth, a habitual policy of putting other people down in order to lift oneself up, and so forth.

But to say that we can trace most problems to a troubled self-esteem is not to say that no other causal factor is involved. I need to clarify this point still further in some future writing project.

Q: On the subject of responsibility, what do you think of the practice of an unhappily married couple staying together “for the sake of the children?” Where does responsibility end and self-sacrifice begin?

Branden: A simple, general answer is not easy. There is no question that children suffer from divorce. It is also true that they suffer when the parents are always fighting and unhappy. And certainly responsible parents have to think about the impact on the children of their choices and decision. When children are involved—especially young children—self-responsible adults act slowly, thoughtfully, and non-impulsively. Their thinking does not stop at, “Don’t I have a right to my self-interest?”

Objectivism certainly teaches that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions. No one forces us to have children. If we elect to bring them into the world, we cannot walk away from our obligations to them merely because the obligations now feel inconvenient. But we also have a right to exist. And sometimes remaining in a marriage is so agonizing that we feel we must leave, if we are ever to have any kind of a life at all. I respect that right, too. So I do not condemn parents who break up a marriage, in spite of a possibly negative impact on the children.

What I cannot admire, however, is (a) parents who have children irresponsibly in the first place, (b) parents who walk away from a marriage without making every effort possible to save the situation, and (c) parents who do not think long and hard, and perhaps consults specialists, on how to minimize the suffering of children following the break-up.

There are three things never to do impulsively or mindlessly: get married; have children; get divorced. Of course, one shouldn’t do anything else mindlessly either.

Q: Leonard Peikoff said that it is all right to lie to someone if you think the truth is none of their business and is not owed to them. Do you agree? Is it ever morally permissible to lead someone astray with false information?

Branden: If you are being subjected to physical coercion or the threat of it, obviously you are morally free to lie to protect yourself and your possessions. We don’t owe honesty to someone pointing a gun at us.

When people ask questions that we perceive to be none of their business, it’s far better to refuse to discuss the issue than to lie. Better to point out, perhaps, that the question asked is none of the questioner’s legitimate business. Or to answer in a very general way that gives away nothing you don’t wish to give away. Sometimes nothing short of a lie will protect us, of course, and if the questioner truly has no right to ask what he or she is asking, I suppose a lie is defensible. But we are all on our honor here, because it is awfully easy to kid ourselves about what someone else does or does not have a right to ask.

What makes your question tricky, in part, is that you know, and I know, and many other people know—or at least we suspect—that Leonard developed this argument to legitimate Rand’s lying to everyone about her affair with me. She was demanding that Leonard and others in our circle damn me while withholding from them a vital piece of information that would help them understand what was really at issue. Once Rand asked her followers to damn Nathaniel Branden, she lost the right to claim that her full reasons and context were none of their business.

Not that she could always control herself. At the time of the explosion, in the summer of 1968, when my sister Florence met with Ayn and struggled to decide who to believe, she spent several hours in Ayn’s apartment while Ayn ridiculed the idea of an affair between us as absurd. But Florence persisted in her questioning, long after a loyal follower would have stopped—Florence was an admirer but not a true believer—and finally Ayn yelled that if I was the man I had pretended to be I would have been in love with her rather than with Patrecia. And then Florence knew that I had been telling her the truth.

Since Ayn insisted that she always took pride in her choices and actions, here was a chance to prove it. Why didn’t she repeat the statement she made to Florence, in the pages of The Objectivist? Why didn’t she say it to Leonard and the rest of our circle? Why didn’t she proudly assert her values and choices the way her heroes and heroines did? When I failed on this same account, it was properly regarded as a vice.

Q: At NBI someone asked if a person can be involved in two romantic relationships at the same time. You and Miss Rand replied that “Only giants can.” Considering the mess that the “giants” made, have you altered your view on this?

Branden: Today I would answer that people with a less grandiose view of themselves probably have a better chance of succeeding in such a project with some reasonable degree of sanity and balance. Ayn and I—who were operating totally out of reality—had no chance whatsoever. For further details about what is or is not possible in relationships, let me refer you to my Psychology of Romantic Love.

Q: Ayn Rand had a concept of the “ideal man” and she seems to have projected that concept first onto her husband and then later onto you—as if she could be in love with a man only if she perceived him as the embodiment of the “ideal,” irrespective of the man’s actual real-world traits. Is there a form of Platonism here?

Branden: Ayn one day admitted it to me, that if Frank had not looked as he did, she would never have fallen in love with him. Looks were terribly important to Ayn. I don’t mean that it’s wrong to care about looks. But Frank and Ayn were so profoundly different in so many ways. Whatever his virtues—and he did have virtues—I don’t think anyone can deny that he was passive, non-intellectual, non-assertive, and dependent.

Interestingly enough, it was Barbara who challenged me to look at Ayn realistically on this subject. One day, not long after the break, when I was trying to defend some aspect of Ayn’s behavior because of how hurt she was, Barbara said, “Nathan, be a psychologist. Look at Ayn as if she were a client in your office. She’s been in love with two men, and the first was passive and totally subordinate to her, and the second was a man, no matter what his strengths, twenty-five years her junior. What are the implications of that? Ayn needs to be in control. And look at how she behaves when she can’t be.” I was stopped dead in my tracks—because I saw that Barbara was right.

So, yes, Ayn did a lot of projecting, on Frank and on me, to justify and make sense of her feelings for each of us. There’s probably a little projecting in all relationships, but Ayn took projection into the stratosphere. She over-praised me many times. That was really harmful—and seductive. So long as I was “her” man, everything I did was “genius.” Very intoxicating to a young man.

Q: In Taking Responsibility, as well as in earlier writings, you acknowledge that destructive parenting can have a devastating impact on a young person’s development. In light of this, if one has a wounded or underdeveloped self-esteem, is it fair to regard oneself as immoral?

Branden: This is an important issue. Let me take my time with this. I will begin with an observation that virtually every psychologist would agree with: a person who thinks of himself or herself as “immoral” is likely to turn that judgment into a self-fulfilling prophecy, by engaging in behaviors that are immoral. That is why we warn parents against labeling children. In the immortal words of child psychologist Haim Ginott, “Labeling is disabling.” Label a child as stupid, or sloppy, or incompetent—and watch the child go out to prove you’re right.

If a client wants to tell me that, in retrospect, he now perceives something he or she once did as immoral, I do not challenge that, assuming it makes sense to me. But if the person describes himself or herself as immoral, I certainly do challenge it. I encourage people to see themselves as results of the choices they make, and if they do not like some of their past choices, I may encourage them to understand why they made them, and to explore what better choices exist for the future. I am more interested in where we’re going than where we’ve been.

Now if parents have treated us badly, and we have acquired some destructive behavior patterns of our own, I see no value in worrying about what was my parents’ “fault” and what is my “fault.” I am interested in: how do I do better in the future? And that is what I teach clients. A client preoccupied with self-condemnation is harder to help, not easier. Also, as I discussed in Honoring the Self, sometimes self-reproach is only a defense strategy, an excuse not to grow: “I’m no good, so expect nothing of me.”

Finally, I will say this: nobody ever improved by telling himself he was rotten—or by being told he was rotten. And boy, is that something Objectivists need to understand. Sometimes it breaks my heart a little when I get an Objectivist for a client, and he says, “I’ve got poor self-esteem, I’m immoral, I must be or else I’d have good self-esteem.” And I ask of what the immorality consists, and of course the client can almost never tell me.

The psychological roots of most problems are fairly complicated, a mixture of environmental factors, volitional ones, and sometimes even biological ones. It’s not always possible to know all the factors involved or how they relate, and fortunately in most cases it’s not necessary to know in order to get the problem solved. It’s painful enough to have the problem. What is helped by, in addition, tormenting oneself with self-reproach?

Apart from the fact that in this sphere we often lack the knowledge to make appropriate judgments, even if we had the knowledge we have to ask: What is our purpose here in making moral judgments? Is it just to make judgments for the sake of making them, to prove I’m a good Objectivist? Is it to help me overcome my problems and grow? Moral judgments have to have a purpose, something we wish to accomplish. They rarely accomplish anything valuable when working on one’s own development. At best, they might be applicable to actions we’ve taken and now regret. Even then, however, people generally know when they’ve done something wrong. Psychotherapists don’t need to hit them over the head with it. More often, we have to make sure they don’t hit themselves over the head with it, to the extent that it blocks progress.

Occasionally, there is a client who does have to be helped to face the wrongness of some action, but in my experience such clients are a small minority. And even here, it’s not so much a matter of focusing on how wrong the action was—the client already knows that—as focusing on the fact that the client really did perform this action, confronting the full reality of it. With most clients my basic attitude is: “Shall we talk about how rotten you are or shall we look at how you can do better in the future, and create a happier, more satisfying life for yourself?”

Q: All the Objectivist virtues are directly volitional except one, Pride. Each day we can say: “Today I will be honest, productive, rational…” but you cannot say: “Today I will be proud.” Pride is the end result of practicing the other virtues, but it cannot be guaranteed if there has been traumatic damage done to you as a child. Pride is a feeling, an end result of virtuous action. How can a feeling be a virtue? How can the reward of virtuous action be a virtue itself? Should pride be included in the Objectivist list if it cannot be directly volitional?

Branden: What confuses this issue is that there are two different senses in which we use the term “pride.” We can mean pride as an emotional experience and we can mean pride in the Objectivist sense of a virtue. When we speak of pride as an emotional experience we refer to the pleasure we take in our own achievements, in what we have made of ourselves as human beings and what we have accomplished. When we speak of pride as a virtue, we mean moral ambitiousness. We mean a commitment to valuing our own life and striving to become the best person we can, in the moral sense. Here, choice and volition are clearly involved.

Pride as a virtue entails treating yourself as a value, treating yourself with respect, and this may not always be easy, because of one’s fears or insecurities. Courage may be needed. Of course, if one has been doing things about which one feels ashamed or guilty, and refuses to confront these issues and clean them up, pride is as good as impossible. Except that there may still be some spark of pride left that inspires a person to call a halt to his or her self-undermining activity.

Q: If pride is a virtue, and our goal if we are morally ambitious, do we not run the risk of trying to create pride by making our ego the goal of winning an argument, or deciding upon a set of truths that make us look good? Shouldn’t we just seek truth and be honest, productive, etc., and not worry about pride so much? Wouldn’t it be more philosophically correct and psychologically more healthy, if it were not considered a virtue, but just an emotional reward?

Branden: Pride divorced from honesty, reality, and integrity, is not pride. Pride is not about “winning arguments” or “looking good.” I have written about this in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. Neither self-esteem or pride are competitive or comparative. It is not about me winning over you or looking better than you. It’s about me being the best person I can be.

Q: You are often described as “the father of the self-esteem movement.” How do you feel about that? Do you think the movement has gone astray? If so, how and why has it happened?

Branden: Being described that way puts me in a difficult position. I don’t want to be ungracious about what is intended as a compliment. And yet, I have many problems with the self-esteem movement. I often agree with the attacks of its critics, although I am also convinced most critics don’t really understand the issues involved.

There are a few serious people in the movement, doing really good work, and I am proud to have them as colleagues. But there is also a lot of fluff, by which I mean shallow, sugar-coated nonsense that has nothing important to do with self-esteem. I’m thinking of the notion that you can grow in self-esteem by greeting yourself in the mirror every morning, blowing yourself a kiss, and saying, “Hi, perfect!” A lot of what is taught in the schools in the name of self-esteem is pretty poor. It gives self-esteem a bad name—like the notion that one should not let a child know how inadequate his or her mastery of some subject is, for fear of undermining self-esteem, as if self-esteem can be achieved by faking reality.

I have been fighting to put the whole subject of self-esteem on an intellectually serious foundation. I am happy that my definition of self-esteem was adopted by the National Council for Self-Esteem, although it is by no means universally accepted by all members. There is still an enormous amount of work to be done. What is certain, however, is that we have to get away from associating self-esteem with schoolchildren singing songs about how wonderful they are. We have to think much more deeply about what self-esteem depends on and how it is nurtured.

 The Objectivist ethics treats Reason, Purpose, and Self-esteem as its cardinal values. You have written a great deal about Self-esteem. Have your ever considered turning your attention in future books to Reason and Purpose?

Branden: I have a book coming out in the spring of 1997—The Art of Living Consciously. You can think of that, in a way, as my book about Reason, although I will have more to say about it in another book I am now planning. I don’t put my discussion in the context of Objectivism, just as my writing on self-esteem is not contextualized that way. I write as Nathaniel Branden, not as “an Objectivist.” As for Purpose, I don’t plan to write more than what I wrote in Six Pillars, where living purposefully gets a chapter.

Q: Might it be interesting for you to write a book about how to live rationally? Or on how to choose a productive career?

Branden: Live rationally? That’s The Art of Living Consciously. I’ve no plans to write about choosing a career. I find my interests turning more and more back to philosophy. I’ve done what I wanted to do in psychology.

Q: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to enter the field of psychology, especially clinical psychology?

Branden: Learn as many different ways of working with people as you can. Don’t get stuck on just one or two techniques. Almost every system has something of value in it. Find out what it is. And keep working on yourself. And whether you’re in clinical psychology or some other specialty, don’t think you have nothing to learn from other psychologists just because they are not Objectivists. You have plenty to learn.


Q: Do you consider yourself an Objectivist?

Branden: In terms of broad fundamentals, sure.

Q: What are your chief differences with Rand?

Branden: The biggest area of difference that I am aware of so far is in psychology. Most of the time I disagree with Rand’s psychological explanations of why people believe what they believe or do what they do. For example, I totally dismiss her analysis of the psychology of mysticism, for which, incidentally, she offers no evidence or proof whatever. I agree with her in rejecting mysticism, but that’s a different issue. Also, the psychology of sex is much more complicated than one would ever gather from reading Rand, although I once shared her views. And, in general, her explanations of why people hold the ideas they do are merely assertions, unsupported by argument, as if no other interpretations were possible than the ones that occurred to her. I regard her metaethics as solid, but her ethics itself as underdeveloped and very incomplete. Much more needs to be thought out in the sphere of human relationships. I have some reservations in the field of epistemology but so far they seem small and I am still formulating them. I think her achievements in epistemology are stupendous.

Q: In your talk for IOS this past summer, you spoke of your need to get away from Objectivism, following your break with Rand, in order to gain some perspective. What did you learn by doing so?

Branden: I saw that in the world I had formerly inhabited we were all both meat and meat-grinder—victim and executioner. I saw that Ayn’s literary and philosophical achievements had to be separated from Ayn the person to be adequately appreciated. I saw that she was a tortured and tormented giant. I saw that what I had gained from her, what she had given me, mattered much more to me in the end than any wrong I might attribute to her. And I saw that the pattern of our relationship—younger person and older; student and mentor; Champion and Queen—was not some unique experience I alone was suffering, but a story as old and familiar as history; in a word, an archetype. In the words of the poem, our end was contained in our beginning.

Q: In The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, you said that Rand never knew very much about mysticism, and also that mysticism and irrationalism are not synonymous concepts although they are often so treated by Objectivists. Would you clarify?

Branden: By “mysticism” I mean the claim there are aspects of existence that can be known by means of a unique cognitive faculty whose judgments are above the authority of sensory observation or reason. “Irrationalism,” by which I mean the sheer defiance of reason and logic per se, needn’t make any claim to other pathways to knowledge. One can be an irrationalist without being a mystic.

If Ayn had ever seriously studied mystical literature, she would have known how frivolous it was to identify mysticism with “the worship of feelings and whims.” The most brilliant and articulate spokesperson for mysticism to the West is a psychologist named Ken Wilber. It’s impossible to read him without learning that mysticism is a much more complex subject than we ever learned at Objectivist lectures. One doesn’t have to be a mystic to recognize that some of those people have extraordinary minds and sometimes very interesting things to say. I address these matters in The Art of Living Consciously.

Perhaps I should add that I remain an uncompromising champion of reason.

Q: Then the rumors are false that Nathaniel Branden has been flirting with mysticism?

Branden: Yes, they’re false. Also the rumors that I have become a convert to God, altruism, and flying saucers.

Q: Why do you suppose such rumors started?

Branden: Perhaps because of what I’ve just said about Ayn not knowing much about mysticism. Or perhaps because in my lectures and writings I talk about the importance of kindness and benevolence in human relationships. Or perhaps because, in light of how much Branden hurt Ayn Rand, why wouldn’t he believe in flying saucers?

Q: Rand always stressed that emotions are not tools of cognition. Many Objectivists seem to ignore emotions in the name of “being rational.” In contrast, you emphasize the importance of listening to emotions and learning from them. What role do emotions play in the acquisition of knowledge?

Branden: If our goal is self-awareness and self-understanding, they play a supremely important role. Emotions are not, literally, “tools of cognition,” to be sure, but they are often data of great significance. They allow us to directly experience what things mean to us. Without that experience, we are cut off from our own context. Try to decide “rationally” who to ask out for a date, or who to marry, or whether or not to have children, or what career to pursue, without the information provided by your feelings. One of the great insights of my life was the realization that most of the big mistakes I had made had happened while I was ignoring or was oblivious to what I felt.

Q: At the IOS conference, you spoke of the lack of any account of moral redemption in the Objectivist literature. How might such a gap be filled?

Branden: Fortunately, I can give you an example from Atlas. In one of Ayn’s daydreams about the story, she had Stadler redeeming himself at the end by turning against the government at great personal risk—I think he destroys the Project X machine. There is an explosion and when he wakes up he’s in the Valley; Galt and the other strikers have rescued him. That would have been a dramatization of moral redemption. The message would have been: One can fall but then one can rise again. It could have been very inspiring. But I don’t think moral redemption interested her very much. Some other Objectivist will have to write about it.

Q: Why do Objectivists so often appear arrogant? They seem to find it very difficult to say “I don’t know” or “I need to think about that.” Is this where a little humility might be a good thing?

Branden: I’m not fond of the term “humility,” but I sympathize with the intention of the question. What is needed is less pretentiousness and greater realism. Many Objectivists seem to feel that they are special because they share a philosophy superior to all others. It’s as if they base their self-esteem on being a follower of this philosophy, not on anything about their own character or actions. To be comfortable saying “I don’t know,” or “I need to think about that,” one has to have a decent level of self-esteem—and a decent level of honesty. That’s what appears to be missing. What’s involved here is more than lack of “humility.”

Q: You have expressed admiration for Dr. Sciabarra’s book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. What do you see as the chief importance of this book?

Branden: He has brought Ayn Rand into the history of philosophy. He has attempted to place her in a historical context. Whether or not he’s right in all his hypotheses is not the most important point. So far, his is the book most likely to gain the interest of the academic community, and that interest is essential if one is thinking long-range about the spread of Objectivism. You’ve got to get the teaching of Objectivism into the universities.

Q: What do you think of Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand?

Branden: That book wouldn’t influence anyone who was not already a believer. There is no attempt to build a bridge from other perspectives to Rand’s. Very disappointing. Here is the first major non-fiction work to introduce Objectivism to the world—and it’s stilted, pedantic, totally non-inspirational. No fire and no sense of joy. I had hoped for more from Leonard.

Observe that in the preface he gratuitously insults the academic community, yet he wants that community’s support, or else why would the book be advertised in academic journals? So, like a person with an inferiority complex, he beats the academics to the punch—rejecting them before they can reject him. The book that this one started out to be still needs to be written.

Q: Some thinkers—Doug Den Uyl, Doug Rasmussen, Chris Sciabarra—have argued that Rand’s view of man’s life as the standard of moral value entails more than mere survival but also entails the idea of “flourishing”—something closer to the classic idea of “eudaemonism.” What’s your stand on this?

Branden: You have to realize that when Rand spoke of “survival,” she intended that as synonymous with “the life proper to Man.” She meant a good deal more than merely not dying. She saw “survival” and “flourishing” as inseparable. The example I sometimes gave to make this point clear went like this. Imagine a man in an iron lung. He is not dead but clearly he is not living “the life proper to Man.” Such a life would have to entail the full and proper use of his faculties. I wrote an article on this—I forget whether it appeared in “The Objectivist Newsletter” or “The Objectivist.” So the debates I sometimes hear about between the “survivalists” and the “flourishers” have never made sense to me, not in an Objectivist context.

Q: You have said on more than one occasion that while it may not have been anyone’s intention, there are aspects of Objectivism that encourage repression and emotional self-alienation. At the IOS conference you read passages from Rand’s books to illustrate your thesis. How can a young student protect against this error?

Branden: By always remembering that there is nothing heroic about denying or disowning reality—including the reality of one’s feelings. And—dare I say this?—by studying my books. I have provided a badly needed corrective in this area.

Q: For Objectivism to spread in our culture, what do you see as our most urgent need?

Branden: More than anything, we need books and articles written either about Objectivism or about other subjects from an Objectivist perspective. We need to see more in print about Rand’s philosophy and more about its application to problems in a wide variety of areas. Study groups are fine, conferences are fine, public lectures are fine—but the spread of ideas still depends more on the written word than on anything else. And it’s disappointing how little has been written so far.

Personal Interests

Q: Is there any truth to the rumor that you have written several stage plays? If so, do you ever plan to publish them?

Branden: What a pleasure to hear a rumor about me that’s true. Yes, I have written for the theater. No, I don’t plan to publish; not good enough.

Q: Any plans to write a novel?

Branden: I’ve had it in my mind to do so for a long time. Other projects I kept feeling I “must” write kept getting in the way. Right now, I’m working on the outline of what looks to be a fairly big non-fiction book—an integration of philosophy, psychology, culture, history, and political economy—but am I absolutely certain I will write it, or write it next? Not really. I’ve surprised myself too many times in the past.

But what is on my mind, some time in the next few years, is to write a novel. There’s a story idea that’s preoccupied me for a long time. All I can say at the moment is that it feels promising, feels right. I’m reluctant to make forecasts because, you know, it often seems that the books choose me, I don’t choose them—I get this voice in my head saying, (of course I’m speaking poetry here), “I don’t care what your plans were, this is what you must do next.”

All I’m certain of is that as long as I’m alive and functioning, I’ll be writing. Apart from my marriage, working at my computer is the greatest single joy of my life. Sometimes my wife Devers pops in on me when I’m writing, and I look from the computer screen to Devers, and the back to the screen, and then back to Devers, and I don’t know how many times I’ve said to her, “I don’t know what anyone else wants out of life, or thinks life is about, but for me, right here, right now, everything I ever wanted is in the room with me. I feel completely fulfilled. All that’s left to want is that this will go on for a very long time.”

Personal Reflections

Q: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far in life?

Branden: I’d like to say, first of all, I hate being confined to the single most important thing. Can I mention two?

Q: Okay, what are the two most important things you’ve learned?

Branden: Let yourself know and fully experience how important love is and honor that importance in your actions. Don’t ever be careless with love. Be aware of the preciousness of each moment of your existence. Be aware that none of us is immortal—the clock is always ticking and none of us knows how long any of us has got. The time to let that other person experience how loved and valued he or she is by us, is right now. It’s one thing to love—and quite another to have the wisdom and courage to live that love fully, unreservedly, and to the hilt. Fully to surrender to love can be terrifying, but it’s the price life asks of us in exchange for the possibility of ecstasy.

Q: And your second message to the world?

Branden: Don’t deny or disown what you see or experience merely because you can’t explain it, justify it, or fit it into some familiar frame-of-reference. Allow a large space in your psyche to accommodate ambiguity and uncertainty. Don’t invent explanations prematurely just so you can tell yourself you have the universe all tied up in one neat package. Keep your eyes open, keep observing, and be confident that sooner or later the truth will appear to you, providing, of course, you live long enough. And if you don’t, well, hasn’t it been an interesting adventure anyway?

Interview with Mimi Reisel Gladstein by Karen Minto

Q: Where did you grow up and what kinds of ideas influenced your basic philosophical outlook?

Gladstein: My background is multinational. I was conceived in Poland, born in Nicaragua, and grew up in Texas, which was also once a republic. People are always surprised to find out that I am an immigrant and did not get my citizenship papers until I was 19. My family arrived, via banana boat, in New Orleans, and then made the trek across Texas to El Paso. We lived, for a while, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but moved back to El Paso when I was in the fourth grade. In high school, I won a Daughters of the American Revolution essay contest on the topic of “what America means to me.” My theme was our family’s realization of the American dream. My father was so grateful for the refuge and opportunity provided by this country that he even had a positive attitude toward paying taxes.

As for influences, I would have to say that my father was crucial in the formation of my philosophical outlook. Emil Reisel was an extraordinary man. He spoke eight languages and I often watched him add up a column of numbers faster than the adding machine could. He had absolute integrity and was utterly uncompromising about individual responsibility and independence. He and my mother demanded excellence. My mother demanded an explanation if I brought home an A-, which she considered a bad grade for me. Even though my father hadn’t learned English till he was almost thirty and I have a Ph. D., there were times when he corrected my grammar. He was a word wizard; no one could beat him at Scrabble or Boggle. His chess game was so good that, during WWII, he won an ivory and teak chess set in a match with the Air Force champ. His was an unquenchable spirit; when he was sick, he tried to make us feel better. He went through agonizing periods of bad health, but would giggle and make jokes to cheer us up if we walked in to find him on the floor after a stroke destroyed his balance. After he died, we got letters from people he had helped, people we did not even know.

Q: Tell us about your involvement with Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand. How did you become involved in the project and what reasons drew you to this enterprise?

Gladstein: It was wonderfully serendipitous. One day, I went to my mailbox and found a letter from Chris Sciabarra, a man I did not know. To this day we have not met face to face. In the letter, Chris asked if I would consider any or all of a number of proposals. He explained that Penn State University Press was interested in publishing a volume of feminist interpretations of Ayn Rand in their Rereading the Canon series. He asked: (1) permission to reprint “Ayn Rand and Feminism: an Unlikely Alliance” since it was the pioneer article in the field; (2) that I consider writing an update or follow-up to that article for the volume; (3) and finally, he asked if I would consider coediting the volume with him. I thought, “Why not?” The rest, as they say, is history.

Intellectually, I’ve always liked to follow unexpected leads. I’m a fan of serendipity, spontaneity, and variety. My publications include such diverse topics as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Mark Medoff, Jose Emilio Pacheco (a Mexican novelist and poet), Robert Raynolds (a Southwestern writer), and I’m even an authority on the Texas Western College 1966 NCAA basketball champions. Sports Illustrated reporters call me as a resource when they write about that historic moment in basketball history.

Q: What was it like working with so many authors and coediting it with Chris Sciabarra?

Gladstein: In the past, I always resisted editing anthologies. I never liked the idea of having to depend on other people to get their work in on time. I like the independence of research and writing. And though I’ve been part of numerous scholarly anthologies, I have always sympathized with the editors. Still, I must say that this experience has been much easier than I expected. Maybe it’s like childbirth and one forgets the pain when one holds the baby.

Working with Chris is another story. From beginning to end, the coediting process was amazingly smooth. We were in accord about almost everything. Our reactions were in sync; we found the same things problematic, marked the same grammatical errors. I like to tease him that we are like the couple in You’ve Got Mail. We fell in love by email. We have a tentative meeting set for May when my husband and I will be in New York.

Seriously, what we found is that we had skills and knowledge that complemented each other. Whereas my expertise is in literature and the humanities, his is in the social sciences. If I missed something, he noticed it. I found his editorial suggestions always on target and he was very positive about mine. If it sounds like we belong to a mutual admiration society, we do. It’s hard to convey the spirit of the experience in print, but we had a great time.

Q: Was it difficult to act as coeditors?

Gladstein: Certainly, my being in Texas and his being in Brooklyn, didn’t make the coediting job easier. But, he is wonderfully efficient and I had copies of all essays almost as soon as he had them. When I had marked each essay, I sent him a page by page listing of my corrections. Then we had long telephone conversations on any items that needed fuller discussion. Cowriting the introduction was made easier by email attachments. It’s like an obstacle course; you have a sense of accomplishment getting around or over each obstacle. Generally, I would say that I liked the challenge of dealing with all the difficulties.

Q: What criteria did you use for selecting among the proposed articles?

Gladstein: Naturally, we were taken with original and provocative perspectives. We also tried to achieve some variety in disciplines and critical approaches.

Q: Do you think the volume is balanced between perspectives and disciplines?

Gladstein: Not unexpectedly, the essays in the volume are predominately pro-Rand and positive about what she has to offer feminism. Still, they are not uncritical. As for balance among disciplines, there are, among others, literary critics, a political and psychological anthropologist, freelance writers, philosophers, psychologists and a professor of linguistics. There is even geographical diversity. Our writers come from as far north as Norway and as far south as Australia, and from sea to shining sea in the United States. It’s quite a mix.

Q: What do you think the impact of the volume will be, especially given that it is part of a series of similarly titled books, each of which examines another thinker in the Western tradition?

Gladstein: I’ve always heard complaints from Rand admirers that she is not given proper consideration in the academy. Well, this is as good as it gets in terms of being treated seriously and respectfully as a thinker in the Western canon. The series includes Plato, Descartes, Hegel, de Beauvoir, Wollstonecraft, Sartre.

Q: The Intellectual Activist sees the Feminist volume as another sign of “the academic deconstruction of Ayn Rand,” the same charge John Ridpath leveled at Sciabarra’s book on Rand. It condemns the book because it is a sign of the “dishonest methods of post-modernist academics.” This condemnation was based on the editor’s perusal of the volume’s website, not on the basis of any actual acquaintance with the text of the book. How do you respond to this?

Gladstein: I teach research and critical writing and if students ever write evaluations of books without reading them, I fail them. It is the first rule of criticism. You must read a work before you can evaluate it. Writing an evaluation from a website is like using Cliff Notes instead of reading the text. It is intellectually dishonest at best, lazy at least.

May I add that you can’t have it both ways. If Ayn Rand is to be part of the canon, her ideas, as they are embodied in her works, both fiction and nonfiction must be subject to discussion. She wrote fiction and essays, not holy writ. Analysis and interpretation is what are done in English and Philosophy classes. I’ll restrict my comments to literature, because that is my field. If we are discussing The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, we can use any number of critical approaches: mythic, feminist, Marxist, sociological, structural, post-structural, formalist, and so on. Approaching the work from each of these perspectives enriches rather than restricts our appreciation. We can admire how Steinbeck took what many considered a strictly temporal political situation and layered it with meaning, informing the particular with a universal significance. If this work were just a political ploy to elicit sympathy for the plight of a group of “Okies” moving to California, it would not be as meaningful today as it was in 1939. It is on almost everyone’s list of greatest works of the 20th century. I have taught that novel in Caracas, in London, and in Madrid and find that all peoples respond to it. Why? It has to be because the work addresses something universal. I don’t know what the Intellectual Activist means by deconstruction and dishonest methods. There are fourteen new essays and the introduction in the book. He has decided, without reading any of them that all use dishonest methods and deconstruct the text? This is a champion of reason?

Times change and even The Bible had to be reinterpreted in response to changing time. Rand’s work, too, has to be viewed in light of changing history. Let me use Rand’s own criterion to analyze her art. In her essay on art and sense of life, Rand explains that in real life if one sees a beautiful woman with a cold sore on her lips, it is just a minor blemish. However, she explains that if an artist paints it, then it is a “corrupt, obscenely vicious attack on man, on beauty, on all values—and one would experience a feeling of immense disgust and indignation at the artist.” When I read Atlas Shrugged and Rand has all the heroic characters putting cigarettes in their mouths, I find it disgusting. In my perception, cigarettes are cancer sticks, coffin nails, disgusting, nasty. However, I don’t discard all of Rand because I think she used an unfortunate symbol in this case. I understand that times changed and we have different knowledge now. That’s part of what happens in criticism. One doesn’t judge a ’50s text by ’90s standards.

One group cannot control the discussion. They can participate in the give and take of academic discourse, point out what they see as the fallacies in this or that argument. Pointing out the deficiencies of previous critics is a time-honored way of beginning a scholarly article. But it is the height of absurdity to condemn something you have not read.

Q: You were the first director of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Texas, El Paso. You were also the first person to write about the “unlikely alliance” between Rand and feminism in a 1978 College English article. In the feminism volume, however, you and Chris state that you approached Berliner and Peikoff to contribute to the volume but they declined on the grounds that feminism was irrational, and that any book based on feminism as the premise, rather than feminism vs. Objectivism, they could not sanction. How do you characterize the relationship between Objectivism and feminism? Are they compatible or incompatible?

Gladstein: In the first place, we weren’t looking for their sanction. We thought it appropriate to include their perspective even if that perspective questioned the validity of the concept. Their refusal to engage in a critical dialog in any venue except one in which they set the ground rules is disappointing.

As for my opinion about the compatibility of feminism and Objectivism, I guess that would depend on individual definitions of both. My Funk & Wagnalls defines feminism as “a doctrine advocating the granting of the same social, political, and economic rights to women as the ones granted to men.” Logically, there should be no reason for Objectivism and feminism to be incompatible. I have met many people who call themselves both.

As Chris and I say in our introduction, “Feminism is not a monolith.” Neither is Objectivism. However, what I understood in my brief discussion with Mike Berliner was that the feminism I espoused was invalid as a concept because it was subsumed under the category of individualism. My response is that that is all very well theoretically, but it ignores reality. The reality is that in 1970 when I wanted a bank loan, I needed my husband’s signature. Neither Objectivists nor Individualists were concerned with my problem. Feminists were. It was not until the ERA was passed in Texas that numerous obstacles to my full human potential were removed. That is reality. However, I have never been a collectivist feminist and think that such groups as N.O.W. have done great disservice to women.


Q: You have an upcoming expanded edition of The Ayn Rand Companion. How does it differ from the first edition?

Gladstein: Much has been added. The first edition was published in 1984. At that time there had been only three books about Rand written by academics, six books in all if one doesn’t count Who Is Ayn Rand? which is a special case since it came from within the pale, as it were. My new book bibliography includes 29 titles. That’s quite an increase. It’s hard to remember what we did not know or what had not been publicly acknowledged in those days. For example, I believe I was the first to publish the fact that Rand’s name was Alice Rosenbaum. Remember, none of the biographical works had been published then, except for Barbara Branden’s authorized essay, which does not include it. My biographical chapter was the first independent version of the life. The new biographical chapter certainly benefits from information that has come to light not only in the various memoirs of those who knew Rand, but also from the unique visual perspective of Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life.

Interview with David Boazby Karen Minto

Q: Where did you grow up, and what kinds of ideas influenced your early thinking?

Boaz: I grew up in a small town in Kentucky. My father was a lawyer, eventually a judge and active in local politics. He was sort of a Jeffersonian Democrat, so I learned to believe in limited government at a very early age. When I was in high school I started reading books. I can recall reading The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater and then Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. My first issue of New Guard magazine from Young Americans for Freedom was very important in helping me understand that you can be a “conservative” but a radical at the same time–and I liked that possibility. And as a senior in high school, I read Atlas Shrugged and that put me on the final path to developing the ideas I have now.

Q: So was reading Atlas Shrugged merely saying “of course!”?

Boaz: I wouldn’t put it that way, exactly. I was certainly primed to agree with the arguments I found there, and it certainly had an influence on the way I thought. It made connections that hadn’t occurred to me, but there were some elements of it that took me a few years to decide that I agreed, so it was more than simply discovering that it was what I always believed. Ayn Rand put things together in a way that I had not done and convinced me that if you believe this, then you ought to believe this as well.

Q: What was your major focus of study during your university career?

Boaz: I was very interested in politics, so I started out as a political science major. But as I came to realize how useless academic political science was, I ended up as an American history major.

Q: What made it useless?

Boaz: It seemed to me that political science textbooks spent a lot of time belaboring the obvious and then missing the point about it anyway. The classic example I remember was reading 30 pages proving what everybody knows, which is that most state legislators are lawyers. And then it concluded that it didn’t make any difference, because the lawyers in legislatures were liberals and conservatives and rural and urban and so it didn’t affect legislation. What I didn’t realize at the time was that liberal and conservative lawyers think the law is the way to solve problems, and that’s why it’s relevant that most members of state legislatures are lawyers. One of the reasons we have too much legislation is we have legislatures full of people who think that legislation is the way to solve social problems.

Q: You were the editor of the New Guard magazine, can you tell us about this publication?

Boaz: I don’t think it’s still around. It was the monthly magazine of Young Americans for Freedom. I was in high school when I first read it and, at that time, it had a very strong libertarian element that made a great impact on me. After I got out of college, I got a job in the office for Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), then later was appointed editor of New Guard, and I served for about two years editing the magazine. It was a useful way to learn some editing skills and I hoped to inject a more libertarian element into the magazine that had disappeared for a while.

Q: You were the director of the Ed Clark campaign for Governor of California in 1978. Can you tell us what you learned from that experience about the practical or “reality” side of politics?

Boaz: At the time, on the gubernatorial campaign, I thought that the Libertarian Party was on its way up in American politics, and that if we ran articulate candidates with a little bit of funding and a serious approach to the issues, we would be able to make a difference. Clark was a good candidate: not a terribly exciting or dynamic speaker, but articulate and sincere, and he had the professional demeanor that made him seem like a possible governor. That’s something that a lot of third party candidates don’t have. I learned the importance of presenting a professional image when you are presenting ideas that are outside the mainstream. We did pretty serious research statements and policy papers for a gubernatorial campaign. We did some significant advertising that was very issue-oriented and we got a very good response from both journalists and the public. At the time, it seemed really like the harbinger of future success for the Libertarian Party.

Q: Were you ever tempted to run for political office yourself?

Boaz: No, I haven’t been terribly tempted. I don’t think I have the personality for being a candidate, which is actually true of most Libertarian Party candidates. I might like to work on a campaign again, but I think I have a skill set that is better suited for campaign managing than being a candidate.

Q: What is the necessary personality type—can you describe it?

Boaz: You have to be much more extroverted than I am. You have to enjoy shaking hands, you have to be a back-slapper. Dick Randolph of Alaska is the only Libertarian Party candidate I’ve ever seen who can “work a room,” as politicians put it. If you lack that skill, it is going to be very difficult for you to succeed in politics. Now, you can point to some counterexamples. I think Richard Nixon was not a very extroverted person, and it must have been sheer torture for him to do the retail kinds of politics. He was very smart and obviously extremely ambitious, and had the willingness to subordinate everything in his life in the quest for political power. This is one of the things I lack—what politicians call “fire in the belly.”

Q: How did you come to join the Cato Institute?

Boaz: After I worked for the Clark for President campaign in 1980 (and of course we lost) I was unemployed. At that point Ed Crane, whom I had met in the course of libertarian activities, invited me to join the Cato Institute and move to San Francisco where Cato was located at that time. It was a very attractive opportunity. Cato was on the upswing. I thought it had the potential to grow, and so that is how it came about.

Q: As Executive Vice President, what are your primary responsibilities?

Boaz: I oversee our public policy work. That is, I don’t have to do very much about administration and fundraising, but I do read most of the policy studies that we produce here. I do some editing on them, suggest topics that we ought to be considering, work with authors, look for authors, look for topics that we ought to be covering and consult closely with Ed Crane on what topics we should be studying and how we should be presenting them to the public.

Libertarianism & Objectivism

Q: You attended the recent “Atlas and the World” celebration hosted by your institute and the Institute for Objectivist Studies. What was your impression of the panel sessions and of the multimedia and pyrotechnic enhancements?

Boaz: I thought it was a very successful conference. We had over 400 people there. Incidentally, I noticed that nobody was milling around in the halls during the panel sessions. Even the fellow selling books for Laissez Faire Books would grab the cash box and come in and listen.

Q: Is that unusual?

Boaz: It is unusual in my experience with Washington conferences, and I suspect it is an indication of two things. First, that the people there were really serious about Ayn Rand and her impact on the world, and second that they were paying for this conference with their own money. Many of the people who come to Cato Institute conferences are working for the government or for a lobby or a corporation, and since they’re not paying with their own money they may take it a little less seriously.

I thought the panels were all very interesting. The businessmen who talked about the impact that Ayn Rand had had on their lives were particularly provocative.

I was a bit skeptical of the pyrotechnic displays that had been scheduled for the dinner. I had a fear that the media might treat that as somewhat less than serious for a public policy institute—in particular, that people would remember that the evening concluded with a fireworks display that left a flaming sign of the dollar on stage. And I had this terrible fear that the Washington Post story on the conference would begin “Some say they worship the sign of the dollar and you couldn’t have disproved it Saturday night.” Fortunately, the Washington Post treated the conference much more seriously than that, so it was an all-around success.

Q: Maybe they just saw it as symbolic, and people were just having fun. Objectivists can do that ….

Boaz: Perhaps they did. But given our experience with the Washington Post,I would have expected something more critical.

Q: Why do you think they weren’t this time?

Boaz: Well, the reporter said she was sympathetic to Rand. And it was a party story. And she’d had a good time at our 20th Anniversary extravaganza, as well as the Atlas celebration, so maybe she was just in a good mood.

Q: Last year, you spoke to Objectivists on the topic “The Libertarian Challenge,” in which you refuted some myths of libertarianism. What do you think Objectivists can stand to learn from libertarians such as yourself?

Boaz: In the first place, I am very skeptical of this whole question of “how can Objectivists and libertarians work together?”. I think it has to be phrased “how can Objectivist libertarians and non-Objectivist Libertarians work together?” because as far as I am concerned, anybody who supports individual rights, the rule of law, private property, and limited government is a libertarian—and I assume that includes all Objectivists. So, if the question is “what can Objectivist libertarians learn from libertarians outside the Objectivist movement?”, then I would say a couple of things.

First, the importance of being engaged in the world of policy and political change of working together to make a difference in the real world as it stands today. That could be through electoral politics, it could be through policy activity, but there’s certainly more to it than simply honing a philosophy. Second, I think Objectivists have had a tendency to emphasize philosophy at the expense of history and economics. And I would encourage Objectivists to pay more attention to experience, which is one way of describing history, and also to the practical side of the way freedom works, which could be considered economics.

Q: From what you know, do you think Rand was off the mark in any important way?

Boaz: Not in any important way. I think that she did not pay a lot of attention to history or economics, but I don’t think any one individual is required to be an expert in everything. So the fact that she concentrated on two things, philosophy and its presentation in fiction, is certainly not a criticism. As a person and as a movement leader I think she suffered from the flaws that a lot of movement leaders do. There was a certain intolerance of dissent and independent thought, which is particularly unfortunate in a philosophy devoted to independent thinking.

Q: Could you give some examples of Rand needing to pay closer attention to economics?

Boaz: If you read Rand, it is not so much that she was wrong, it’s just that she concentrated on individual rights and the morality of freedom. That’s a very important basis for a movement, but I don’t think it’s enough to persuade most people that freedom is good and that freedom works. I think the Chicago School economists have really done the most work demonstrating that in area after area, letting the market work produces good results. There may be a sense among some Objectivists and other libertarians motivated primarily by concern for individual rights that it’s a happy coincidence that pursuing a policy of individual rights leads to the results of prosperity and social harmony, but that if you had to choose, you would choose individual rights over good consequences. That’s a false dichotomy. It is implicit, although perhaps not played up as much as it should have been in Rand’s work, that it is not a happy coincidence—it would be unreasonable to expect that the proper philosophy for man did not lead to good results. It would make no sense to demand individual rights for a species for whom the pursuit of individual rights would result in social conflict and poverty. These two lines of argument have to work together. But it’s hard to think of people who you would call Objectivists who have pursued the policy-oriented analysis of the results of specific policies.

Q: Do you consider yourself an Objectivist, or is that too narrow?

Boaz: I would call myself a libertarian who is a great admirer of and was strongly influenced by Ayn Rand.

Q: Can you trace for us the major intellectual influences (writers and thinkers) who set the terms of debate during the rise of libertarian thinking in 18th century America?

Boaz: That sort of sounds like a final exam!

Q: It is! You didn’t know this?

Boaz: Let me try to do it very briefly. I think it’s pretty clear that the strongest influence on the American colonists and the developing libertarian sentiment there was John Locke. His Second Treatise on Government in particular, published at the end of the 17th century, was practically a bible for Americans in their arguments about government. Another important influence who gets less attention these days was Algernon Sidney, whose personal example of martyrdom and whose commitment to republicanism was very important to the colonists. The Cato Institute, of course, is named for Cato’s Letters, which was a series of pamphlets written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. They took the ideas of John Locke in particular and applied them to issues of the day, and they were probably more widely read in the colonies than Locke. But they were sort of translators of Locke. Jefferson in particular was also influenced by some French writers, the Physiocrats and Destutt de Tracy and people like that. Then you had the Scottish Enlightenment figures, people like Adam Ferguson, David Hume, and eventually Adam Smith, who were influential. At the very end of the century, of course, you have The Wealth of Nations and Thomas Paine’s writings that bring all of these things together. After 1776 with The Wealth of Nations and Common Sense, you have both the positive social analysis of libertarianism (Smith’s analysis of spontaneous order) and the normative philosophy (Paine’s treatment of individual rights) coming together to form a consistent way of looking at the world.

Q: Are there any 20th century libertarian writers of equal stature?

Boaz: I don’t know that I’m enough of an intellectual historian to feel comfortable judging people on that basis. Certainly if you look in the book I edited, The Libertarian Reader, you see a lot of 20th century writers. I would point to Ludwig Von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Rand, and Milton Friedman as the great 20th century libertarians who do deserve to be talked about in the same breath as some of those earlier scholars.

Cato Institute – Priorities & Projects

Q: Cato is one of the leading institutes of the market liberal counterestablishment that exploded on the political scene in the last twenty years or so. How do you explain the rapid proliferation of free-market “think tanks?”

Boaz: I suppose demand produces a supply, and clearly there has been a demand for these kinds of think tanks. One reason has been the sense that the universities have become totally alienated from the real world, and certainly from the defense of bourgeois civilization. And there are people who have wanted to create a sort of counterestablishment, a group of dissident intellectuals who would defend private property, the rule of law and the market order. They discovered that you cannot find enough of those people in the universities, so you have to go out and create alternative institutions. And that is what has happened. Then, of course, it is also necessary that the people in those institutions produce good ideas, articulate them effectively, and present them professionally, so that they can become part of the intellectual debate.

Q: What are the highlights of Cato’s agenda for 1998, with mid-term elections coming up?

Boaz: We try not to be driven too much by elections. One of the things that we have to constantly remind ourselves, being in Washington, is that we don’t want to get caught up in the day-to-day affairs to Washington. This year we will be talking extensively and researching extensively on social security privatization. We’ve done several books in that area, and we did a major international conference in London at the end of 1997 with people from 38 countries talking about the problems of public pensions and the private sector alternatives.

We’ll be talking about radical tax reform, getting rid of the income tax and replacing it with either a flat rate income tax or a national sales tax instead of income tax. And along with that, we will be talking about drastically reducing government spending so that whatever new tax system is implemented, the tax can be at a much lower rate.

We have just started a new Center for Trade Policy Studies, and we will be stepping up the work we do defending free trade. One of the major issues that will be before Congress in the first half of 1998 will be the effort to expand NATO, and we’ll be producing studies and going on talk shows to talk about the risks, the dangers, and the costs of expanding of NATO. Underpinning all of this is our Center for Constitutional Studies which tries to remind people in Washington, on the courts, and in the media that we live in a country based on a Constitution of delegated, enumerated and thus limited powers, and that the Constitution is itself based on America’s commitment to individual rights. So when we talk about social security or education or regulation, we try always to work in the point that the Constitution doesn’t really grant the federal government any power in these areas, and if we were going to abide by the law of the land, there shouldn’t be any federal policies in a lot of areas.

Q: What’s the strategy for the medium and long term? Is there a Cato “five-year plan?”

Boaz: We’re a little skeptical of planning. While we try not to get caught up in the day-to-day business of Washington, if we are going to deal with public policy we have to respond to what’s in the news and what’s going to be in the news. So we don’t actually have a five-year plan. We intend to keep pressing the issues I’ve mentioned, and we will respond to other issues, like the Global Warming Treaty, as they come up.

We do hope to improve the security of our funding so that we know that we will have a long-term approach. We intend to increase the number and quality of studies we can put out and we are working to improve the publicity and marketing that we do for our studies.

Q: Who do you view as the most dangerously effective policy group working on the political left?

Boaz: I am inclined to say that it is the AFL-CIO. Without the effectively coerced union dues that the AFL-CIO brings to the Democratic Party and the social democratic movement, they would be much weaker. So in that sense I think the AFL-CIO is the most dangerous. You could certainly make a case for the Nader movement, which has taught all Americans that they are helpless pawns at the mercy of big corporations. You can make a case for the race and gender victimology community that has tried to use those sorts of arguments to fasten a whole set of regulations on the American people. But I think I would emphasize the AFL-CIO.

Q: How about on the conservative right?

Boaz: On the right, I would say the most dangerous and effective organization is the Christian Coalition, but it is perhaps quickly being passed on the right by the Family Research Council.

Q: How are they bad?

Boaz: Both of these organizations have a theocratic approach to public policy. They believe that what they consider Christian moral values should be the law of the land. Now, there are issues such as school choice and lower taxes where we can agree with these organizations, but I think their hostility to diversity and liberal values in general is the most dangerous aspect of the right wing.

Q: Many academics think that research published under the auspices of organizations like Cato is still second-rate, at least compared to research published in scholarly journals and by university presses. Is this just ivy-league snobbism, or is there a real credibility gap that you are working to overcome?

Boaz: I would challenge that question. I don’t know that academics in general think research from think tanks is second-rate. You mentioned university presses—many of Cato’s books are published by university presses. So we’re already partially working in that milieu. There is a sense, of course, of rivalry between the academy and the think tanks. Think tanks are always criticizing the academy for its alienation from reality and academics don’t appreciate that. Many of Cato’s studies are used in college classes and cited in academic writing, so I don’t think there’s as clear a dichotomy as you suggest. Now it’s certainly reasonable for intellectuals to say that studies published in refereed scholarly journals deserve some credibility that non-refereed studies don’t have. But we feel we’ve had a pretty good reception in the academy. People who disagree with us take us seriously and we get a lot of compliments from people who agree with us.

Q: If the Libertarian Party were to win majorities in both houses in 2000, and a Libertarian president were elected, how would you advise Congress to act—what are the most pressing and urgently needed reforms?

Boaz: Well, that is such a fantasy it hard to know where to start! We have published two editions of the Cato Handbook for Congress in which we give hundreds of suggestions to where Congress should start to reform things. If we had a Libertarian president and Congress they should start by affirming that the Constitution as written is the law of the land and that they intend to return to abiding by it. In pursuing that goal I hope they would abolish about eight cabinet departments that we have recommended: education, labor, commerce, transportation and so on. They should transfer Social Security from a bankrupt mandatory system to a privately funded, individually managed retirement system. They should radically change the tax system and they should start disentangling the United States from its foreign military alliances. How fast even a Libertarian Congress could do all of these things is difficult to predict but those are the areas I would expect you would work on.

Q: Tell me more about the Handbook, and how well it was received. Has it had an impact?

Boaz: We published that first in January 1995 and then we published another one in January 1997. In both cases we had some 30 to 50 chapters on different policy issues, a total of over 200 recommendations to Congress. It was designed to be the briefest, most concise, presentation of Cato analysis on all sorts of public policy issues and simple enough for a congressman to read. I think the first edition got a particularly good reception. We had House Majority Leader Dick Armey at a press conference to receive it, and say how delighted he was to have it. Sixty Minutes did profiles of both Dick Armey and John Kasich at separate times that spring and in both cases you could see the Cato Handbook for Congress sitting on their desks. I thought that was nice. A lot of Republican congressional staff members would call up and tell us how great they thought it was. In a sense, the Cato Handbook for Congress is like pornography for Republican staffers. They flip through the pages and say “oh, yeah, I’d love to do that, I’d love to do that!” They’re not actually going to, but they love to read about abolishing agencies and cutting taxes.

Interview with Douglas J. Den Uyl by Karen Minto

Q: Where did you grow up and what kinds of ideas influenced your early thinking?

Den Uyl: I grew up in a well-to-do suburb outside of Detroit (Birmingham, then Bloomfield Hills). My parents could be described as Goldwater-type conservative Republicans. My grandfather on my father’s side was a prominent businessman who was, I believe, reasonably well-known in national Republican circles. He was involved in trying to get General Douglas MacArthur to run for president. Political discussions were regular events in our family. I grew up hearing about the evils of communism, socialism, and Roosevelt. Thus unlike many libertarians, Objectivists, or other classical liberals, I did not convert from socialism (or some form of leftism) to my present political perspective. I was never really that attracted to leftist views in the first place. For me, therefore, what I needed to learn was that businesspeople can be statists too, just like every other group in society; for my prejudice was to equate everything said in the name of business as being pro-free-market, which it clearly is not.

Q: How do you pronounce your last name? Does it rhyme with “oil” or “aisle?”

Den Uyl: It rhymes with “aisle.” I’m used to all sorts of mispronunciations and misspellings and have a sense of humor about it all. No one who is introduced to me ever connects the sound of the name with the spelling, so there is no chance I’ll ever personally enjoy fame no matter what I write!

Q: How were you introduced to the ideas of Ayn Rand?

Den Uyl: Maybe like many teenagers, when I was 16 or 17, I was loafing around wasting my time. I was watching TV, playing in my rock band, or reading comic books. My mother was fed up with my choice of life style, particularly my reading habits. With respect to the latter, she became upset one day and bet me $5 (not unreasonable money back then) that I could not finish the longest book in the house. That turned out to be Atlas Shrugged. I guess I’m now supposed to say, “And the rest was history!” which is pretty much true. I would follow Rand and the organizations connected to her as best I could, but I was never an insider nor really even that close to the action. I never saw Rand speak, for example, and critical events, such as the collapse of NBI, went unknown to me for years. I was largely alone in my interest in Rand. My college campus was liberal but not activist, so although she had no respect there, I was left alone to pursue my interest in her without much harassment. Even the Philosophy department—which couldn’t have thought less of her—was mature enough to let me pursue my ideas as I saw them, so Rand did factor into my senior thesis. Tibor Machan at the close of my college years was really the first one to encourage me and to introduce me to others interested in Rand’s ideas, such as Eric Mack.

Q: Which particular ideas of Rand have enriched your understanding of philosophy and the world?

Den Uyl: My understanding of philosophy and the world just was Rand’s understanding (or what I took it to be) for a long time. I interpreted every issue through that framework until I went to graduate school. The bad things about that way of thinking and approaching things seems to me obvious. What we sometimes forget is the good side. With a framework or program of some sort, it is much easier to comprehend and integrate ideas and to see their general significance. As long as one is open to truth and self-criticism, making sense of the world through a given philosophy is as useful as learning to play an instrument by imitating someone else’s (a master’s) style—which is to say, very useful. But to answer your questions specifically, Rand’s deepest insight to me is the connection between Aristotelianism and classical liberalism. It is an insight whose connections still need to be explored in many ways, but one which is pregnant with possibilities and interesting research topics.

Q: What is Liberty Fund and how did you get involved with it?

Den Uyl: Liberty Fund is a private operating foundation that holds conferences on issues of liberty and personal responsibility mostly for college faculty. It began doing conferences like the ones done today a few years after the founder died (around 1976), and I have had some association with them since about that time. I went to my first Liberty Fund conference (as did Doug Rasmussen) in 1977. We were recommended to the organization by some of the businessmen in Milwaukee with whom we were involved in a monthly economics discussion group. Mr. Goodrich, the founder—an Indiana businessman, but with no connection to the tire company—was interested in great books as well as classical liberalism. He corresponded with Hayek and also knew quite well people like Baldy Harper and Leonard Read. Goodrich combined the reading of great books with his classical liberalism in a way that I guess has been a model for me also, judging from my work.

Q: Are you still teaching at Bellarmine?

Den Uyl: Yes. I am on an extended leave, but I will teach one course there next semester and may do so other semesters.

Q: Tell me about your books with Doug Rasmussen—Liberty and Nature and Liberty Defended. How did you come to collaborate with him?

Den Uyl: Doug and I spent time together in graduate school. Given the dearth of professional philosophers interested in Rand at the time, I suppose it only natural the two people in close physical proximity would get together and collaborate on something they both cared about. We also work well together because we understand each other and can communicate readily and quickly without having to explain everything. We also believe in each other in the sense that if one says something the other doesn’t understand or agree with, the other will pursue the matter until understanding is obtained (if not agreement), because we both assume that the other has good reasons for what he says.

Q: You and Doug Rasmussen also made a major contribution in our co-edited volume, Philosophic Thought Of Ayn Rand. Do you see any indication that Rand’s work is being taken more seriously by academics since the publication of your volume?

Den Uyl: Well there is the Ayn Rand Society that meets with the APA, and those sessions are generally well attended. People influenced by Rand are certainly in the academy, though they seldom footnote her in their works, which is understandable, if somewhat un-Randian. So Rand is taken seriously in that sense. But in a direct sort of way, I see improvement but the significance of it is questionable in my view. One can say that there could not have been an Ayn Rand Society connected to the APA 20 years ago. That would be true. But Philosophy as a discipline has splintered over the years and lots of associations are there now that may not have been so 20 years ago. There’s a kind of “catch 22” here that is hard to overcome: more serious scholarship on Rand is needed, but is not a ticket to promotion in most departments. Yet because Rand is still not acceptable, it is likely that only those who are promoted will be able to work on her. I am optimistic about the future, however, due to what I perceive as a new wave of popularity for Rand.

Q: A new wave of popularity? Among younger faculty, or undergraduates, I mean, what evidence suggests this to you?

Den Uyl: I’m not certain among who, but I’ve been asked to say more about Rand recently, and for a long time no one approached me at all. Since I am not a leading or “official” spokesman for Rand, if I’m being sought after, something is afoot. There is also the documentary and the movie on Rand’s life, so that too suggests to me a renewed interest. I do not believe there is any more official academic interest than I have indicated. But as students and the culture begin to talk about her again, the academy will have to deal with that in some fashion. It would be helpful to her cause if more decent work on her was being published today, so that she cannot simply be dismissed.

Q: Do you plan to do any more books with him in the future?

Den Uyl: Yes, we have another project planned, and next year brings us together again to work on it.

Q: Can you tell us what kind of project you two have planned?

Den Uyl: I cannot say too much about this project now, but I can say that we want to move away somewhat from the social/political and ethical issues to other areas of philosophy.

Q: When your book The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand came out, who was your target audience and what was their reaction?

Den Uyl: I suppose we thought that our audience would be academics, but I would guess it has sold mainly to people, academics or otherwise, who were already predisposed to read it. I guess then the reaction was that, for the most part, the book was ignored by academics other than those already predisposed towards it. That doesn’t necessarily mean much, however. Each generation finds new things, and that book still has a reasonable number of sales for an academic book. Moreover, its function of being an academic discussion of Rand’s philosophy is still being fulfilled even if it is not taking the academic world by storm.

Q: Tell us about the core issues in your book on Prudence. What is prudence and should it be included in the Objectivist virtues?

Den Uyl: I cannot speak about what should be on the list of Objectivist virtues, but in a way its classical sense is much like the virtue of rationality in Rand. And I may have originally wondered about prudence for somewhat Randian reasons, namely that it seems to be a virtue connected to self-interest that is not advocated much, so I wondered if an altruistic framework in ethics had driven it out. The truth, however, is rather different, as is my book. In simplest terms, prudence was the pinnacle of virtues in the classical world (recall the “four cardinal virtues” prudence, justice, temperance, and courage), but almost a non-virtue in the modern world. I wondered why that was the case, and much of the book is about that. Strangely—though this will sound a bit misleading in an interview context like this—the demotion of prudence comes in conjunction with its almost exclusive association with self-interest in modern times. There are positive parts to the book as well, and some of the rudiments of what Doug and I are interested in defending in ethics are described in that book.

Q: What did you think of Richard Kraut’s review of your book in Critical Review?

Den Uyl: I basically liked it. It was thoughtful and serious and it got some things right as well as wrong. I remember thinking at the time I read it that while some of our libertarian critics were perhaps hoping that we would be devastated by the review, it is libertarianism that takes it on the chin in that review. Even if, from Kraut’s perspective, we are wrong, we come off looking pretty sensible.

Q: Do you think Rand’s ethics needs expanding and if so, which areas would you focus on or want to change?

Den Uyl: Expanding could mean supplanting deficiencies, which would then call upon me to describe the deficiencies. What seems to me more fruitful is to say that there is more to ethics than Kant and Mill, and even Aristotle. Rand scholarship would benefit by seeing her in conjunction and comparison with other ethicists such as Smith and Hume, Spinoza, Cicero, Augustine, etc. and in light of other issues, such as the debate between the ancients and the moderns. To do this well requires, at least for a time, abandoning Rand’s gloss on the Western canon for a more sympathetic read of many of these authors. Her reading is very helpful in understanding her, but not very useful as a guide to understanding certain thinkers and doctrines. As I said earlier, it’s very useful to have a framework, provided one is not a slave to it. And one might arrive right back with that very framework after one’s search elsewhere. So much the better for the framework. But Rand to me points down a road more than leads one down it step by step. There may be many things down that road that she was unaware of, or that we are unaware of. The exploration will enrich her doctrine as well as ourselves.

Q: Which of Rand’s ideas did you disagree with? And do you still disagree with them now?

Den Uyl: As I said already, I really didn’t approach things early on in terms of what I agreed or disagreed with. Rand gave me a framework and seemed to have a lot of answers to a lot of questions I had. I’ve spent some time since then exploring the details of that framework and enlarging and enriching my understanding of many issues. So although on the one hand I was a kind of “groupie” who understood everything according to Ayn Rand, I was never comfortable with the closed character of that attitude and sought expansion, elaboration, and education as well as a need to reject anything I found wanting.

Q: What relationship does Rand’s works have to your own?

Den Uyl: Apart from work that is on Rand herself, the Aristotelian perspective, broadly understood, and her generally classical liberal orientation have informed much of what I have written in ethics and social political theory. But I have also been influenced in many ways by Leo Strauss, and have strong connections to the history of philosophy, both of which inform my work as well.

Q: Do you consider Rand as just another branch of Aristotelianism and that for scholars in the far future she will be a minor figure, or do you think she has created something entirely new and original and will be considered one of the giants in philosophic history?

Den Uyl: I don’t see her as either a minor or a major figure. I see her as analogous to Machiavelli or Bacon. They have some great insights in their own right, but they were perhaps more significant in bringing in a new perspective. For example, at one level I think Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss have done more than any two people to revive an interest in classical or ancient philosophy and its cognate subjects (e.g., virtue ethics). Neither one, Rand especially, will be given the credit they deserve for this. Rand motivates people, and she saw that the usual ways of defending certain things didn’t work. In that way I believe she will be quite important to the direction of things to come, although it is not so clear what that direction exactly will be. When people look back, however, they may see that a certain thinking was made possible because of Rand, even if the influence is not in all cases always direct.

Q: Since interest in Rand is still not acceptable in academia, what do you advise young Objectivist academics to do? Stay “in the closet” and just go under the general description of an Aristotelian, or “come out and disclose themselves” perhaps giving interest in Rand more credibility as more Objectivists “come out?”

Den Uyl: Context and personal goals will determine part of the answer to this question, and where to draw the line is difficult to state a priori. It is important to realize, however, that no one does Rand any good by not first proving they are competent to do what other professionals in their field do. Whether it be with respect to Rand or someone else, in order to convince the profession to take that person seriously, one must already have a certain degree of demonstrable professional competence. On that argument, though, Doug and I would have come out with The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand too early, for neither of us had done much by then. But the opportunity was there, and the timing was right for other reasons, and we hoped it would help build a platform upon which other scholars could stand, including ourselves. In any case, my general counsel is prudence in the ordinary sense, but if one is going to lean in one direction or the other it should be towards disclosure. The other way makes it too easy to rationalize cowardice. Finally, it would seem to follow from this advice that graduate students should be the most cautious, since almost by definition they are learning the profession. Young assistant professors facing tenure are the hardest group to advise. Will it turn out for them in the end as it does for Roark, and are they willing to pay that kind of price? In my own case, I’m sure some of my association with Rand has been costly to my career, but I do not think I acted rashly, and I could not have lived with myself easily if I had done any less.

Interview with John Hospers by Karen Minto

Q: Where did you grow up?

Hospers: I was born and raised in a small Dutch town near Des Moines, Iowa, settled by the Dutch in 1847. The first language I learned was Dutch, and almost everyone in the town spoke it, as well as English. The Dutch Reformed Church dominated the life of the town, though there was no religious training in the public schools. People were very industrious and hard-working. I don’t think anyone in the town was on welfare, and the average income of families was the highest in the state. There were tulip gardens all over the place, and every year in May they’d have an annual tulip festival—everyone in Dutch costume, scrubbing the streets, singing Dutch songs—the whole bit. More important to me were the dogs and cats I always had, and finding homes for stray animals.

Q: What early influences affected your intellectual development?

Hospers: The religious influence was very strong, and at first I absorbed it like everyone else. It was a long time before I knew of anyone who did not share the prevailing Calvinism. Later, I got to thinking about it critically more and more, and that is undoubtedly what started my interest in philosophy, though at that time I was unaware that there was a subject by that name.

In sixth grade I read every article on astronomy in the school’s World Book Encyclopedia, and then I borrowed every book on astronomy that the city library had. I would figure out when different stars and planets would rise, and stay up at night waiting for it to happen. The laws of physics and astronomy never let me down.

The Central College campus was just a block from our house, and I would go to the college observatory and show the college students the rings of Saturn and various double stars. When I got to college myself, the dean, who taught astronomy, delegated the job of teaching it to me. It was my first and best teaching experience—I prepared the tests, taught the class, preparing the lectures and discussions with care. Here I was, a 17-year-old, teaching astronomy to college seniors. Sometimes the dean would drop in and smile, telling the class “I’ll leave you to John—he knows more about astronomy than I do.” Whatever compliments I have ever received, this was the one that meant the most to me.

A cousin who planned to go on to Harvard to study English influenced me to major in that subject. There wasn’t a lot of philosophy being taught at the college, so in addition to taking the few philosophy courses, I took a major in English. I might have stuck with astronomy, except that no one thought that such a subject would lead to any professional future. Meanwhile, even prior to courses in philosophy, I was having more doubts about religion: the usual ones about how one could know that this religion possessed the truth rather than another, how one could get knowledge of God, and so on. What saved me was the reading of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion—which I still think is the greatest book ever written on the subject. It reflected so many of my own thoughts that I knew I was not alone. I remember thinking, for example, that if God is both all-good and all-powerful, he would not let people and animals suffer. If he couldn’t prevent their suffering, he is not omnipotent, and if he doesn’t want to prevent it he is not all-good. We excuse a surgeon for inflicting suffering if he can’t cure the patient any other way, but an omnipotent benevolent deity would not have that excuse. That source of doubt was more important to me than the usual ones about where did God come from. I concluded with Hume that no attempt to get round this dilemma was successful.

I went on to get a Master’s degree in English at the State University of Iowa. I was all set to teach Shakespeare and Shelley, but I never got to do it: when I was offered a scholarship at Columbia University, I asked whether I could change my major to philosophy. That was okay with them, so it was in philosophy that I finally got my Ph.D., though I skated on pretty thin ice because of my comparative lack of background in philosophy. But the literature background prepared me well for a dissertation in aesthetics, which became my major field of study in philosophy.

Q: What philosophers did you most respect in graduate school?

Hospers: Hume and Mill. Also Plato and Aristotle, and to some extent Descartes and Locke. But Hume most of all—both his historical and epistemological works—which I admired as much for the beauty and clarity of his style as for what he said. It wasn’t until later that I got into contemporary philosophers such as William James, Blanshard, and most of all G. E. Moore, who was for a year my teacher at Columbia.

Q: What is your best philosophical work?

Hospers: Probably the aesthetics book, Understanding the Arts. The most famous section I ever wrote was the 100-page first chapter of Introduction to Philosophical Analysis,entitled “Words and the World,” which introduced a whole generation of students to philosophy via the study of language, and for which I am still best known. I also picked up some notoriety with my long piece in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Aesthetics, Problems of,” and even more with my 40,000-word article in the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Art, Philosophy of.”


Q: You used to be a determinist. Are you still?

Hospers: This depends on what the word “determinism” (like so many words ending in -ism) is taken to mean. Some people say that all events are predetermined by God; I see no reason to accept that view. Or that “it’s all determined by laws of nature”—if you knew all the laws and all the initial conditions, you could predict everything (as Newton did with regard to the planetary orbits). The problem is (one of many) that if you made the prediction and the predicted event didn’t occur, we would say, without any further evidence, that we hadn’t considered all the conditions—we’d take the very fact of the prediction going wrong as evidence that there was an error in our statement of the conditions. Thus the statement becomes what philosophers call a “functional tautology.” Sure, all our actions have causes. Do we really want to say that some of our actions have no causes at all? Freedom says “I cause my actions.” Determinism (in the unobjectionable sense) says “My actions are caused by me.” They are two sides of the same coin.

Q: How well did David Kelley defend direct realism in The Evidence of the Senses?

Hospers: I confess that I’ve never read it all the way through. Some years ago I was much more involved with problems of perception than I am now; his book came too late on the scene for me. But he writes with admirable clarity and doesn’t confuse one sub-problem with another, as so many writers do.

Many writers have defended direct realism, e.g. John Laird’s A Theory of Direct Realism. I must say I was never totally convinced by this view. It still seems to me that smells and tastes, and even colors, vary enormously from one percipient to another because of the differences in our sense-organs. Not only in our sense-organs, but in our state of mind: the dessert no longer tastes sweet after we have eaten something that tasted sweet just before. What does exist out there are certain chemical properties of the dish, and also of the human nose. But you can’t say that something has a property A and also doesn’t have it–only that it seems to one person that it has A, and doesn’t seem so to another. However, it may be that David doesn’t want to deny any of this. I’m afraid I’d have to go and spend some time with the book again.

Q: What did you think of Sciabarra’s view that Rand was a dialectical thinker, and absorbed her method of doing philosophy from Russian culture?

Hospers: Amen! That’s what I thought all along, and reading his book provided a confirmation I had greatly sought. “Dialectical” characterizes her method throughout, and helps to explain why Ayn and I came from different starting points, and conceived the issues differently. In view of this it’s amazing that we got on as well as we did. Her method was quite immune to the subtleties of language. Naturally, I believe that the method of philosophical analysis as done largely in Anglo-American philosophy is preferable; at least it gets the questions straight. I wish she had been exposed early on to the clarifying light of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. There is one book I would like to have gone through with her step by step: Alexander B. Johnson’s A Treatise on Language, published in 1836. He was never attached to any college or university, but figured out the fundamentals all by himself—truly one of the great figures of American philosophy. Very few people know about him, even today.

Q: What is the most profound thing that Rand got right in basic philosophy?

Hospers: Several things (I couldn’t pick out just one). That reality is there independently of us. That it cannot both be X and not-X at the same time in the same respect; that ideas can change the world, for better or for worse. That within limits, our destiny lies in our own hands.

She was right about value—though (she was probably unaware of it) the American philosopher Ralph Barton Barry had carved out much of the same domain in his Realms of Value. The deathless robot example had been used by Richard Taylor in his Good and Evil, to similarly powerful effect. Unlike Perry, Taylor drew from his working out of the concept of value a social-political ethics very similar to Rand’s, in his marvelous little book Freedom, Anarchy, and the Law, which I have occasionally used as a text in my political philosophy course. “All great minds run in the same channel,” it has been said—and while this isn’t true, more Randians should realize that other minds than Ayn Rand’s have had some of her most important ideas. The whole structure—the integrated system—is unique to her, but many of the ingredients have been created by others, often in unexpectedly subtle ways, and devotees of Rand should really appreciate this—they have often spoken as if hers was the only great mind that ever existed, and as if her ideas were spun directly from the head of Zeus.

Q: What is your vision of the future of Rand’s philosophy, say in a hundred years?

Hospers: I’m not in the prediction business. I’d say here what I always say in response to questions in ethics: “It all depends.” If free-market ideas and limited government really are the wave of the future, Rand will surely be seen as its Moses, leading the people into the promised land. But if the U.S. continues on the path to government-by-bureaucracy, Randian political ideas will remain what they are today, a discussion piece for a small but articulate minority. And in any future international crisis, the government will expand further and individualist ideas will tend to be drowned out.

Of course, her social-political philosophy is only a small part of her total philosophy, but it’s the part for which she is most famous. I doubt that her metaphysical views will take hold in the absence of her social and political ideas. They are the tail that wags the dog.

Q: What about the universities? Is getting Objectivism into the universities a valid strategic goal for the Objectivist movement?

Hospers: Universities have always been centers of statism, because professors believe they can do better when subsidized by the state than they could do in the free market. I don’t see this changing very much. Also, there are many technical issues discussed in philosophy departments on which Rand either has nothing to say or says something ill-informed because she had only a glancing acquaintance with what was going on in philosophy and other departments in the universities. Her review of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice without having taken the trouble to read the book, is a case in point. She didn’t do enough careful work in relation to views that she opposed.

Q: Do you have any advice to graduate students in philosophy?

Hospers: Be careful and be prepared for the worst. Most heads of departments don’t like Objectivist views (if they know anything about them at all), and one is less likely to be hired—and there are many more Ph.D.s being graduated in philosophy than the present market can place. So you might have to end up teaching something else. Or not teaching at all. Don’t go into teaching unless you are really dedicated. Most students would do better to go into something that pays, and study philosophy in their spare time.

Q: What is your assessment of the quality of liberal education in America? Has it got much worse?

Hospers: Yes, it has. Science departments are still tops, but the humanities have deteriorated. Much of philosophy is still pretty solid, though there is an emphasis on courses with popular titles that teach one very little about philosophical concepts. Much of it is just junk—instead of clarifying the student’s mind, it throws more words out, which the student takes down in notes, and the student may even fancy that she has learned something in philosophy. A lecture, it’s said, is something that goes from the notes of the teacher to the notes of the student without having gone through the minds of either. Philosophy has to be done slowly and carefully, from the ground up, Oxford-tutorial style, with the teacher correcting the student at every step of the way. The large lecture-hall courses in philosophy don’t begin to do that; they may give the student the delusion that something has been learned, and meanwhile a wonderful source of wisdom and guidance to living one’s life is out there and the student never gets a hint that it’s there. It’s a tragic situation—a waste of the student’s time. Literature courses have become corrupted in different ways: instead of a systematic study of Shakespeare or Milton, one just gets “impressions” and “interpretations” (the one supposedly as good as the other). When I studied Shakespeare you couldn’t get by with such drivel—indeed you had to know the material thoroughly, and every student had powerful responses to Shakespeare’s poetry, so that it would make a difference their lives. I used to commit passages of Shakespeare to memory, repeating them out loud while driving to school—I don’t think much of this goes on any more.

Most important of all perhaps is that this is the “first illiterate generation,” brought up on television and not trained to do anything with words—to write them, to combine them creatively in essays, and to read, read, and read. Some students still read a lot—though they’d rather look up a topic on the computer and pretend they know about it than actually look at a book themselves. But even graduate students I know don’t read just for the love of it. They will read on a topic if their graduate program requires it, but just to immerse themselves in books for the sheer joy of acquainting themselves with other minds—it seems to me that’s quite rare these days.

Last year I asked my ethics class to write a few pages on justice, before we discussed the topic in the course. Most of the papers were ill-organized and inarticulate, and the kids wrote as if “anything goes” in using language (do we believe “anything goes” when we’re trying to repair a car?). They thought they had done well—just putting down impressions—and thought I was “much too opinionated” in correcting them, though if I’d been conscientious I would have had to write more words in commenting on their papers than they had written in the papers. Then I saw a paper that was so clear, and had such elegant simplicity, that I could barely believe it—nothing complicated, nothing even taken from books, just the working out of a few fairly simple ideas. The girl who wrote it was from Korea and had learned English only six years before, in Korea. She had learned it “the correct way,” as a foreign language, paying attention to grammar and construction. How had this girl, who had had no philosophy course before, come to do better than any of the American-born students? I remembered that until after World War II, Korea had been controlled by Japan, and no Korean was permitted to embark on higher education. There it was—in a few years the Koreans have got way ahead of us (this girl wasn’t the only example), though we may still think we’re tops. The thought that scared me was, if they can rise so fast, we can fall pretty fast too. American students are near the bottom of the list in language, mathematics, and other subjects. How can we survive if we continue in the direction we are going?

Q: Why does Borders stock so much Continental philosophy and post-modern junk? Who buys that stuff?

Hospers: Instructors like to assign it, to mystify students and show them how much more learned they (the instructors) are. But I doubt that that’s the main reason. It’s the magic of words again. There are certain words in titles, such as “the meaning of life,” which turn students on, and they think they are getting philosophy just because the book is stocked on a shelf labeled “philosophy.” They are fascinated by the occult, and often identify metaphysics with occultism of some kind—with the mysterious or the mystical, with E.S.P. and “inner revelation” as the key to knowledge. What they actually learn from all this is: nothing. But bookstores stock it because the untutored and the unwary buy it.

Q: Did you see the Sense of Life documentary? What did you think of it?

Hospers: I was moved by some parts of it, especially those parts in which Rand in her inimitable voice speaks with conviction about the topics at hand—especially in the interviews in the New Orleans gold conference, which I hadn’t heard before. I was again bowled over by her ability to say something with simple elegance, and to trace so relentlessly the consequences of her opponents’ ideas. I wanted to tell her how much she meant to all of us.

The parts dealing with the early years were revealing and moving. One disadvantage was that the film was told solely from the point of view of her followers. It would have had a richer texture if it had described some of the ideas being discussed by those who honored her and cared for her but didn’t necessarily believe that every word was sacred scripture.

Q: What is your favorite scene in Atlas Shrugged?

Hospers: There are so many—how can I choose? I guess I’d have to say the scene between Dagny and the tramp in the train, on what happened to Twentieth Century Motors, and why. It’s such a great literary piece—and it presents, as she does so well, the consequences of acting on certain ideas—in this case “To each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” When I finish reading those ten pages aloud to the class, half of them don’t understand it or don’t care, and the other half is thunderstruck—they have been hit over the head with new ideas, which they have never heard before, and they don’t quite know how to handle it or what to do about it. Many a future Objectivist has taken root from that reading in my class—and I’ve done it annually for about thirty years.


Dr. Douglas B. Rasmussen is Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University in New York City. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 1980, and his B.A. from the University of Iowa in 1971. He has co-edited The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand (University of Illinois Press, 1984) and Liberty for the Twenty-First Century (Roman & Littlefield, 1995). He has co-authored The Catholic Bishops and the Economy: A Debate (Social Philosophy and Policy Center and Transaction Books, 1987); Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order (Open Court, 1991); and Liberalism Defended: The Challenge of Post-Modernity (Edward Elgar, 1996). He has published over sixty articles and reviews dealing with issues in epistemology, philosophy of language, ethics, and political philosophy in various professional journals and books.

He has been a Bradley Scholar at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC and has received research fellowships from the Center for Libertarian Studies, the Institute for Humane Studies, the Reason Foundation, and the Earhart Foundation. He also has been a recipient of a summer seminar fellowship from the National Endowment to the Humanities and has received merit awards from St. John’s University. He was awarded by St. John’s University a medal for Outstanding Faculty Achievement in 1994. He is recently appointed Program Coordinator of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies at St. John’s University.

Dr. Rasmussen is a member of the American Philosophical Association and has presented and commented on session papers. He also is a member of the American Catholic Philosophical Association and has twice received the Matchette Award for the outstanding paper by a younger scholar at the ACPA annual meeting. He is a member of the Metaphysical Society of America and the American Association for the Philosophic Study of Society. He is a founding member of the Ayn Rand Society which meets with the APA.

Dr. Rasmussen is married. His wife, Caroline, is a clinical perfusionist at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, Long Island. He likes to travel and golf.


John Stossel is an internationally renowned investigative journalist for the ABC television network. Stossel graduated from Princeton University with a B.A. in psychology in 1969. After working as a researcher for KGW-TV in Portland and as consumer editor for WCBS-TV in New York City, Stossel joined the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 in 1981. He began doing one-hour prime-time specials in 1994. Stossel’s first special, Are We Scaring Ourselves To Death?, examined exaggerated fears over risks such as crime and pollution. It was followed by The Blame Game, which looked at Americans’ growing tendency to blame their misfortunes on others. The relentlessly objective probing continued in Junk Science: What You Know That May Not Be So, which exposed bogus scientific claims, and Freeloaders, focused on how getting “something for nothing” appeals to all of us, including rich people who use the power of government to help themselves. These and many other specials, including Boys and Girls Are DifferentLove, Lust and Marriage, and The Mystery of Happiness and The Trouble with Lawyers have earned Stossel uncommon praise: “the most consistently thought-provoking TV reporter of our time” (Dallas Morning News), “has the gift for entertaining while saying something profound” (Orlando Sentinel). In a new segment for 20/20, “Give Me a Break,” Stossel has taken skeptical looks at people who want to censor cartoons, regulate flagpoles, and have Congress rule on what prices are “fair.”

Stossel has received 19 Emmy Awards. He has been honored five times for excellence in consumer reporting by the National Press Club. Among his other awards are the George Polk Award for Outstanding Local Reporting and the George Foster Peabody Award.

Q: Where did you grow up and what kinds of ideas influenced your early thinking?

Stossel: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, in Wilmette, IL, of immigrant parents who probably influenced me by making me feel that you had to work for everything you got.

Q: Where did they come from?

Stossel: Germany. My mother used to say that if I didn’t study hard in high school I wouldn’t get into a good college and if there was trouble ahead I would freeze in the dark.

Q: Sounds like a good philosophy! So, what did you do professionally before your ABC job and spots on 20/20?

Stossel: I worked first for an NBC station in Portland, Oregon for four years after college, and then for eight years in New York for the local CBS station.

Q: A few years ago, FOX tried to lure you away from ABC. What was it about you that they were after? Given your current political opinions, one might think that you would not be in such demand.

Stossel: You would have to ask Rupert Murdoch. I hope he was after me because he thought I did a good job.

Q: Speaking as a student of psychology, what kinds of techniques do you use with a hostile interviewee that can get the subject to open up and reveal himself or the truth?

Stossel: It is interesting that you ask in the context of a background of psychology. I’m not conscious of how that has helped. I have always simply approached people as I would have it done to me. I am curious about things and if people don’t give me direct answers I like to keep reframing the question in the hope of getting an answer. It just comes out naturally.

Q: In the 1980’s you did some alarmist type reporting; exploding coffee pots and the dangers of Alar. You recently told Reason that you are embarrassed about some of that today. Having been there and done that, what kind of thinking leads reporters to engage in fear-mongering?

Stossel: Here the market encourages sensationalism. More people will read my paper if I warn you of a danger than if I say that it’s safe; more will watch my program. It’s also the bias of any individual to talk about a problem. When people are gossiping out by the back fence, they are not talking about who is being faithful to their spouse. If the plane crashes it is far more interesting to us than the miracle of millions of planes landing safely. The news is biased to being alarmist. But if the market works people will eventually wise up and reward those media that are less alarmist. That’s my hope.

Q: What show have you done that you the most proud of, and why?

Stossel: Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?, because I deeply believe that we have to focus on ranking risks and deciding which should get the most resources and because it was my first, and I had to fight so hard to get it on.

Q: What was the major objection to it?

Stossel: That it was not journalism, but bizarre theory.

Q: What kind of reception did it have once it aired?

Stossel: Wonderful. Good ratings and thousands of wonderful letters from people saying “Thank God, somebody finally spoke common sense.”

Q: And the people who said it was a weird idea, they were silent?

Stossel: Very. Well, not totally, but mostly.

Q: What were the major realizations that led to your shift from left-of-center to more libertarian views? Were there any specific events or discoveries you made that changed your thinking?

Stossel: No, just gradual exposure to real life.

Q: To what extent have the ideas of Ayn Rand been a factor?

Stossel: Minimally. I read The Fountainhead in college and liked it but then somehow, working for the first ten of my twenty-eight years as a reporter, I was not exposed to any such ideas, they were just not on the radar screen. By co-incidence, I am now reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time and I am thrilled and astonished that this woman could know so much so many years before everyone else did and express it so beautifully. And express some of the theories I feel in my stomach, as I go out to do battle.

Q: Do you part ways with Objectivism in any significant respect?

Stossel: I’m too ignorant to part ways. I have met, and am delighted by David Kelley. I have met other Objectivists who I find smart and stimulating. I am puzzled and bewildered by some feud which I know little about and don’t think I want to know about, and I’m puzzled by the intensity which some people will disagree over Objectivism.

Q: How did you meet David Kelley, and why did you choose him to be in one of your upcoming programs? And when it is airing?

Stossel: “Greed” is the title and it will be airing February 3, 1998, in place of NYPD Blue at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday night. I don’t know where I met David Kelley, though I had met him someplace…. But separately, the producers who work with me interviewed several dozen people who have opinions about greed, and he was one of the ones who most stimulated them.

Q: You said in the Reason interview that to have someone on your show, he must be dynamic; that even though the person may have good ideas, he may not come across well on camera. What made you think that David Kelley would be good on camera?

Stossel: Frankly, I didn’t think he would. But he surprised me by being very good. On television it is important to express important ideas simply and briefly. Scientists always complain that they don’t want to appear on television because we won’t give them a chance to make their full point, that it will take an hour and we will only give them minutes. I would argue, there are many things you can say briefly. “Give me liberty or give me death.” “The government that governs best governs least.” Or George Washington saying: “Government is not reason, government is not persuasion, government is force. It is a dangerous servant.” Kelley, in talking about capitalism, could synthesize complicated points in similar ways. I’m not at this point going to disclose what he says or what we will use. In fact, we haven’t even completed that project.

Q: You were recently at the “Atlas and the World” event hosted by the Cato Institute and IOS. How did you become involved as a speaker and what was your impression of the event?

Stossel: I like to rush back to my family after I speak so I did not attend the event beyond my appearance. I liked the people I met there. I got involved because someone from Cato, whose name I can’t now remember, invited me, and I said yes.

Q: On an episode of Politically Incorrect last March, Hugh Downs made some positive remarks about libertarians. Can we guess that you might have had some influence there?

Stossel: I think his son has much more influence on Hugh than I do.

Q: Do you know his son?

Stossel: I do not know him but I know he is a believer in liberty.

Q: What is the primary professional virtue of an investigative reporter? Is it objectivity, or what would you say?

Stossel: Finding out the truth. Letting the information market work by letting people know where people are misleading others, cheating others, and hurting others.

Q: In your opinion, how does the profession measure up in general?

Stossel: Fair. We do keep people informed of the big threats and the big schemes. We also sensationalize and don’t think critically enough.

Q: Is it getting better or worse, and why?

Stossel: I don’t know. I’m not wise enough to answer that, but I am pleased that we have so many more choices of media now. I’m also saddened that there’s not one voice that everyone listens to.

Q: What do you think of Rush Limbaugh?

Stossel: I think he is often witty and wise …. He once summarized Atlas Shrugged for a listener in under a minute. I thought that was very well done.


Dr. Wheeler has had two parallel careers for many years: one in the field of adventure and exploration as the owner of Jack Wheeler Expeditions; the other in the field of political freedom and human rights as President of the Freedom Research Foundation. Regarding the first, at age 12 he was honored in the White House by President Eisenhower as the youngest Eagle Scout in the history of the Boy Scouts. He climbed the Matterhorn at age 14, swam the Hellespont (Life Magazine 12/12/60) and lived with Amazon headhunters at 16, hunted a man-eating tiger in Vietnam at 17, started an export business in Vietnam at 19, and wrote The Adventurer’s Guide (New York: McKay, 1975), described by Merv Griffin as “the definitive book for anyone wishing to lead a more adventurous and exciting life.” He has three “first contacts” with tribes never before contacted by the outside world: a clan of Aushiri Aucas in the Amazon, the Wali-ali-fo in New Guinea, and a band of Bushmen in the Kalahari. He has retraced Hannibal’s route over the Alps with elephants; led numerous expeditions in Central Asia, Tibet, Africa, and elsewhere, including 16 expeditions to the North Pole; and has been listed in The Guinness Book of World Records for the first free fall sky-dive in history at the North Pole.

Regarding his second career, Dr. Wheeler received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Southern California, where he has lectured on Aristotelian ethics. Author of numerous articles in political philosophy and geopolitics, he began in the early ’80s a series of extensive visits to anti-Soviet guerrilla insurgencies in Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Laos, and Afghanistan, and to democracy movements in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, becoming an unofficial liaison between them and the Reagan White House. Based on this, he developed the strategy for dismantling the Soviet Empire, adopted by the White House, known as the “Reagan Doctrine.” It worked. The Freedom Research Foundation, founded by Dr. Wheeler in 1984, continues to provide information to a number of Congressional offices on issues regarding political and economic freedom throughout the world and in the United States. As Contributing Editor to Strategic Investment, one of the world’s most influential investment publications, his column “Behind The Lines” has developed an avid international following.

Dr. Wheeler has been called the “real Indiana Jones” by the Wall St. Journal, the “creator of the Reagan Doctrine” by the Washington Post, and an “ideological gangster” by the Soviet press. He has traveled to 180 countries and all seven continents, and leads 3 to 4 expeditions a year. He and his wife, Rebel Holiday, have two sons, Brandon (age 12) and Jackson (age 4). Their home is in Falls Church, Virginia, near Washington, D.C.

Ayn Rand and Objectivism: An Introduction


Anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of philosophy, history, politics and contemporary culture must become familiar with Objectivism. Knowing who Ayn Rand was and what Objectivism is are becoming part of what it means to be culturally literate in America. There is no other writer who could more readily cut through to the essence of an issue, explain it, resolve it, and impress the reader with the urgency that everyone understand it. She could show, like no one else, how and why philosophical ideas matter–and matter everywhere … in our personal lives, in movie theaters, book stores and art museums, in parliament or Congress.

Ayn Rand’s fiction depicted man “as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” The Objectivist  vision of the possibilities for the future is vivid and compelling, as is Objectivism’s critique of contemporary politics and culture. For millions of her readers, Rand’s work has provided them with the spiritual and intellectual guidance they sought in Christianity, Judaism, or in other secular philosophical systems, but never found. For them, reading Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s other works has been a transformative experience.

In order to justify her secular individualistic view of man and morality, Ayn Rand elaborated a system of thought–“Objectivism”–that addressed issues in technical branches of philosophy usually left to advanced students and academics. Objectivism is routinely dismissed by academic scholars, however, for a few reasons. Rand’s prose reflects the dramatic sensibilities of her fictional writing: it is direct, uncompromising, essentialistic, and wrought with emotion; it is therefore usually lacking in scholarly rigour. Rand eschewed the apparatus and dry style of scholarly writing, and was never published by an academic press. As well, Objectivism, as a philosophical system, is technically incomplete in many areas.

Despite the neglect of Objectivism by academicians, their studies, too, can benefit from serious consideration of the arguments Ayn Rand sketched. (The who have discovered this attend IOS’ Summer Seminars, the Ayn Rand Society meetings of The American Philosophical Association, or subscribe to one of the several lists on the the internet that discuss her ideas at an advanced level.) Objectivism is a motherlode awaiting a philosophical gold rush, the vanguard of the Second Enlightenment.

Here are some of Rand’s central and distinctive contributions:

ObjectivismOther theories
Metaphysicsnext.gif (114 bytes) primacy of existencenext.gif (114 bytes) atheismnext.gif (114 bytes) non-reductive monismnext.gif (114 bytes) causal realismprimacy of consciousnesstheismdualism and materialismHumean anti-realism
Epistemologynext.gif (114 bytes) perceptual realismnext.gif (114 bytes) concepts as abstract ideasnext.gif (114 bytes) objective knowledgerepresentationalism and idealismnominalism, classical realismintrinsicism, subjectivism, faith
Ethics and Value Theorynext.gif (114 bytes) naturalistic value theorynext.gif (114 bytes) rational egoismnext.gif (114 bytes) the trader principleconventionalism, relativismaltruism, dutythe rule of force
Politicsnext.gif (114 bytes) individual rightsnext.gif (114 bytes) limited governmentnext.gif (114 bytes) laissez-faire capitalismgroup & positive rightspaternalistic statism,
central planning,tyranny, socialism, fascism, anarchism
Estheticsnext.gif (114 bytes) art as applied metaphysicsnext.gif (114 bytes) romantic realismart as imitationnaturalism,


In the afternoon of September 6, 1976, with only 30 seconds of fuel remaining, a MiG-25, one of Soviet Russia’s most prized and secret weapons, broke through the clouds above Hakodate, Japan, narrowly avoided a departing Japanese airliner, and dove down to the city’s commercial airport where, in front of hundreds of amazed Japanese motorists, it landed—screeching, skidding, blowing a tire, plowing 800 feet off the runway, and finally stopping a few feet from a large antenna. Viktor Belenko had arrived in the West. Unlike the defections of athletes, artists, and diplomats who knew the truth about the United States, Belenko knew little other than the lies of Soviet propaganda. As a jet fighter pilot he was one of the elite of the Soviet military; with his future secure he had the best which that society could offer. But the lies, hypocrisy, and corruption inherent in that system made living there intolerable.

The following excerpt is from Karen Reedstrom’s interview with Viktor Belenko in the November 1996 issue of Full Context.


Q: What did you think of John Barron’s book about you?

Belenko: I believe John Barron did a good job for that condition. He did use my manuscript, but at that time I was not strong with my language to express my feelings. Also, I did not know much about American society. But he did a very good job.

Q: When you were growing up in Russia the book Spartacus, by Howard Fast, was an inspiration to you. What was inspiring about it?

Belenko: As brief as possible, you can’t keep a free soul in a cage. You can’t keep eagle in a cage. I’m talking about Spartacus. And that’s a very short answer to the influence of that book.

Q: When you were a fighter pilot, in Russia, you must have been living better than the common worker. What made you want to leave Russia when you did not know what the conditions in the U.S. were really like?

Belenko: Soviet propaganda at that time portrayed you as a spoiled rotten society which has fallen apart, no human rights and so forth. But I had questions in my mind, a few of them.

Q: What made you question?

Belenko: Because I am very practical, technically oriented, person. I love to be in wilderness alone with Swiss army knife and matches rather than have a huge surplus and a huge crowd. When you’re around very sophisticated equipment you have this honest trait-do it right and enjoy, do it wrong and die. You cannot use ideology to survive, or be like American lawyers who can talk themselves out of any situation. So I questioned the Soviet system by using my technological knowledge. I said okay U.S. is so bad how come they send man on the moon and bring him back? (Russians could send men on the moon in only one way.) If U.S. is so bad how come they’re building best fighters in the world? If U.S. is fallen apart how come they have more Nobel Prize winners than progressive communist society? At same time I could not ask anyone those questions. If I had, at that time (in late 1960s), I would have ended up in mental institution. So I made my conclusion that U. S. is not that bad. At same time I did not have a clear picture of American society. And when I came to U.S. I behaved like someone from outer space. I put myself in very funny situations. Americans were laughing at me. I behaved worse than Mork in “Mork and Mindy”.

Q: Like what did you do, for example?

Belenko: First of all American super-market, my first visit was under CIA supervision, and I thought it was set-up; I did not believe super-market was real one. I thought well I was unusual guest; they probably kicked everyone out. It’s such a nice, big place with incredible amount of produce, and no long lines! You’re accustomed to long lines in Russia. But later, when I discovered super-market was real one, I had real fun exploring new products. I would buy, everyday, a new thing and try to figure out its function. In Russia at that time (and even today) it’s hard to find canned food, good one. But everyday I would buy new cans with different food. Once I bought a can which said “dinner.” I cooked it with potatoes, onions, and garlic-it was delicious. Next morning my friends ask me, “Viktor, did you buy a cat?” It was a can of chicken-based cat food. But it was delicious! It was better than canned food for people in Russia today. And I did test it. Last year I brought four people from Russia for commercial project, and I set them up. I bought nibble sized human food. I installed a pâté, and it was cat food. I put it on crackers. And they did consume it, and they liked it. So the taste has not changed. By the way, for those who are not familiar with American cat food. It’s very safe; it’s delicious, and sometimes it’s better than human food, because of the Humane Society.

I bought a box of Freedom with the picture of nice looking lady. I did not know what it was. (I’m talking about maxi-pads.) I brought it to my apartment, I opened it, and I tried to figure it out. I thought well it’s probably some cleaning device for the kitchen to give these American women freedom in the kitchen to clean up and absorb everything, because even today Russian women do not have this convenience.

Q: What do they use?

Belenko: Well, what American women did in 1920s. This is the gap between two societies. During my presentations I emphasize this by using samples from everyday life. I had so much fun and adventure during my assimilation of American culture. You could write a book or make a movie, “Top-Gunski in America.” I know how Russians live today, and as long as I live I’ll never take those things for granted which many Americans do take for granted.

Q: How long did you plan your escape, and what did it involve?

Belenko: In terms of the evolution of my thoughts and making the conclusion to escape I do not have a precise time. I did make that decision based on my dissatisfaction with that country. I tried to do my best. I was one of their best fighter pilots. When I was young I was possessed by socialist and communist ideas which are very appealing because they promise full employment, free education, free medical care, good retirement, free child care, and so on. But later I discovered that those ideas were serving only a very small number of Communist nomenclatura, and the rest of the people were basically slaves. I made my conclusion that I could not change that system. The system is so big that there’s no way I could change it or exist inside of it as a normal human being. For me, it was the best thing to divorce myself from that system. I was a fighter pilot, but that had nothing to do with my decision to escape. If I had not been a fighter pilot, I would still have found way to escape from that concentration camp. Even today, with all the slogans and all the freedoms, that country is still a closed society.

It took me a while to build the critical mass in my mind to make that decision, but the final decision I made a month before my escape, and when I made that decision I felt so good about myself! I felt like I was walking on the top of clouds. I felt free. But for me to achieve my objective I must have good weather in Japan and 100% fuel, and it took one month to have those two components in place. During that month I performed my duties so well that my commanding officers were ready to promote me. But on September 6, 1976 all components were in place. By the way, I did not steal the airplane. I had clearances. I just changed my flight plans slightly in the air.

Q: Why did you choose the U.S. over other countries?

Belenko: We studied, in high school, the history of the United States. I considered United States as country of immigrants, and also because of my analytical conclusion of achievements in that country. I made my conclusion that U.S. was still the best country in the world. Yet at same time I did not have clear picture of U.S.

Q: After your arrival what was the hardest thing for you to understand in the USA?

Belenko: After my arrival, the hardest thing for me to understand was freedom of choice. When you are in a closed society and the government is making decision where you live, what you do for a living, and even where you die, it is very hard to understand freedom of choice. Those people who spend many years in U.S. in jail have a hard time after their release. But when I discovered the freedom of choice in the U.S. it became the best part of my life today.

Q: What have you been doing since?

Belenko: I was hired as a consultant for government agencies, and I’ve had real fun exploring United States. I’ve been involved with different aero-space companies here in the U.S. and abroad. What I discovered was that my biggest value for the West was not the hardware, MiG-25, but the Russian mind. American scientists and Russian scientists and designers are abreast with each other, but Russians have a big short-coming. They are not equipped for transforming their discoveries into manufacturing technique or into processes that will benefit people in terms of practical application. It’s a big short-coming. They have so many smart, genius Russian scientists who make discoveries, but their discoveries are sitting on the shelf. In 1990 President Gorbachev made that point during his presentation for Russian scientists. So in terms of secret hardware I did not bring anything because Americans knew everything about MiG-25 already. In terms of practical application American technology is two decades plus ahead of the Russian.

Q: Is that because of red tape, and everyone has to approve every decision?

Belenko: Not only red tape. Scientists in the government structure are not motivated by the system to make their scientific discoveries be in place for practical use. So it sits on shelf for a very long time. By the way, radio transparent technology, which Americans applied for to F-117 and B-2, originally came from a Russian scientist. An engineer scientist from American company discovered it by reading scientific paper and he said, “Hey, we can do something with that.” Other areas show that Russians are not using their discoveries for practical application. At the same time it means that American scientists can help them. American society is equipped to find the best and fastest way for practical application of some new discovery. I’m talking about a friendly corporation, and how it can help Russians. In the aerospace industry we know that the Russians make a very good fuselage for aircraft. At the present time Russians do not have small commuter aircraft. We can help not only Russia but third world countries, who do not have small, affordable commuter aircraft, by using good Russian fuselage and good American engines and avionics these two countries could build a very good commuter aircraft which could corner the market.

As soon as I discovered freedom of choice I started doing different things. I built my own home from scratch, started from zero. I hired a few construction workers, and I told them, “Look I’m going to work for you.” I learned so much. Now I have, with my partners, a construction company. I love to do things with my hands. Landscaping is piece of cake. Commercial sport fishing is a big business, and I have piece of action in Alaska.

Q: What kind of speeches and presentations do you do for audiences?

Belenko: I make presentations for basically four groups-for business, military, political, and educational. And I tailor my presentation according to audience. The toughest audience is high school kids. If you keep that audience on the edge of their seats for an hour and a half you’re in the speaking business. And I do it. With high school kids I have slide show about life for high school kids in Russia today. I show them one day in a Siberian village, including all their chores. It’s a challenge for me, and at the same time it keeps my presentation skills on the edge. For business groups I act as a bridge between Russia and United states. There’s lots of opportunities in Russia today, and many American entrepreneurs are trying to do things. Since I do know both sides, I’m helping both of them. For instance last year I brought four people from Moscow for five different projects. I raised money for the trip. Russians are very poor; at the same time they have pride, but I have found ways to convince them that it’s good for them to come to America. They’ll be more productive to both groups than for Americans to go to Russia, and it’s cheaper. I had so much fun with that group in one week. I felt like I had four babies on my hands; their behavior was akin to Viktor’s 20 years ago. I took them to the super-market, the shopping mall, to the poor neighborhood, the middle class neighborhood, and the rich neighborhood.

For military groups I am covering changes in Russian military and the Russian experience in Afghanistan and Chechen Republic. For political groups I talk on how to save Yeltsin and “Who is Yeltsin? Another Chameleon from the Kremlin.”

Q: You don’t think much of him then?

Belenko: No, he’s just a symbol. If he dies tomorrow nothing will change. You have to look at their situation as a system, and I have specific details about that.

Q: What do you do for fun?

Belenko: This country has so much to do for fun. I’m outdoorsman. I’ve done hiking and fishing with General Chuck Yeager for 16 years in High Sierras, usually it takes two weeks.

Q: You catch Golden Trout?

Belenko: Yes, Golden Trout. You know California is over-populated state, but, even in that state, you can find real wilderness, clean air, clean water. Obviously, it takes 3 1/2 days to hike up to that point. It’s hard work. Besides California there are so many beautiful states in this United States. I do not understand those Americans who like to spend their vacation in Switzerland or Italy or Europe. Many of them have never been in Yellowstone Park or Glacier Park. But that’s their choice; I’ve made my choice. I’ve been in 68 different countries after I received my American passport.

When I became U.S. citizen with American passport I travel around the world. My first trip was actually a business trip with U.S. Air Force. I went to England. I did not speak English when I came to U.S., and I learn American-English. When we went to England I thought well English is English. After my arrival I heard very strange English. It was British-English. I had very hard time to understand them. But the British do speak English. Customs are almost the same, except British cows give tea instead of milk. Also they’re driving on the wrong side of the road! And they do serve warm beer; it’s ridiculous. I noticed, after my experience in U.S., that there was not warm reception for you, as a stranger, when you walk into their pubs. Later I complain about that to my friends in Wyoming. And they said, “Viktor, Brits love cowboys.” I said, “Really?” Next trip I had cowboy hat, cowboy boots. I show up in their pubs; they look at me with astoundment. “Are you cowboy?” I say, “Yup.” My vocabulary was very limited: Yup and Nope. But I did notice that they accept American cowboy with respect. And not only in England, in Europe and other countries as well. So I do advise my friends, who are traveling abroad, wear cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and act as a cowboy. American cowboys belong to the world!

Anyway, in terms of doing fun in America there’s so much. What I do I like to fish, hunt, travel. I have friends in all 50 states, and basically I have room and board in all 50 states. It means I do not have to spend money in hotels. Even in northern California, General Chuck Yeager ordered me: “Viktor, when you’re in town stay at my house.” It’s a big privilege for me to stay in real American hero’s house.

Also I’m working on this global traverse expedition with Jack Wheeler. So in America there is so much to do for fun; I do not understand those people who are sitting on their big cushions in front of T.V. and complaining.

Q: After you escaped what was said about you by the Russian government?

Belenko: At present time the general population in that country thinks that I was killed decades ago. My death was confirmed in a St. Petersburg newspaper, this summer, in Smena [1996].

Q: Oh, really! They’re still thinking about you?

Belenko: Oh yes, and by one of their high ranking military people who discussed activities of foreign intelligence agents in Russia. They caught ten agents, the majority of them from Germany. When I read that article, it was in Russian, my conclusion was that as long as we have people like this General Alexander Rodeonov we will not have good relationship with the Russians. And he is part of the establishment, so we have to wait another decade until he and they retire or die.

Q: They said you died in this article?

Belenko: Oh yes, they confirmed my death in an automobile accident. I’m gonna frame this article. When my book is out, I’m going to use it, “A dead man is talking!”

Q: Did they say you died in Russia or the U.S.?

Belenko: The U.S.

Q: So people knew you took the jet and left?

Belenko: Oh, yes. But what the establishment did was spread rumors that I was killed in an automobile accident with the hint that they had arranged it.

Q: To make others afraid.

Belenko: Yes, and make them feel that the agency is very important.

Q: Since the “fall” of the Soviet Union do you think they’ve forgiven you or that they don’t care about you any more?

Belenko: Well, at present time I do not know. This is not my concern, because I’m U.S. citizen. They cannot at present time figure out their own name. If I did violate Soviet law there’s no more Soviet Union! I do not know their present position, but one thing I know is that they’re so busy with their own investigations of each other that there’s no room for them to worry about my case. And it’s not my concern.

By the way, for my business, (I have contacts in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Siberia) when I communicate with people I do not use my real name. I use another name so those people will not be jeopardized. And my mission is the practical application of this opportunity between two countries for different businesses; that’s it. I’m not interested in ideology. I know I’m not going to change all those chameleons from the Kremlin who change their name tags. They will die like that. But there is opportunity for us to do things which will be beneficial for both countries.

Q: Has there been any significant improvement in the people’s lives?

Belenko: Things are worse since 1976.

Q: Why?

Belenko: Because the old system is not dead yet. The new one cannot function on its own. So it’s a very difficult transitional period. You cannot just retire the old system or order them to die out. The nomenclatura (the military brass and the former KGB) are calling themselves not comrades but “gospoda.” It was a derogatory word after the revolution. People used to go to gulag for that word. Now they’re calling themselves gospoda. It means like master or sir. But answering the question, people’s lives got worse because they’re going through this period. They’re at loss. I compare them with someone who was born, grew up, matured and got old in jail and now the door is open-but that person is afraid to go outside because there is no roof, no schedule, no food. That’s the closest thing I can compare.

Q: Is there less lying by the State?

Belenko: There’s more openness. I do read their newspapers. There’s less lying, but still any time there is an opportunity for old guard to do something against U.S. they do.