Yesterday was a productive day for Libertarian Home topped off nicely with an evening lecture at the LSE by Dr Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute (hashtag #LSEcapitalism). As regular readers will know, I regard myself as an Objectivist (though some more dogmatic Objectivists would want to disown me) so this was quite special for me. I was also able to grab the speaker from his extensive extra Q&A in the corridor at LSE and take him over to the London Ayn Rand Meetup, which is a relatively new meetup that I would like to see grow. I think some of you would agree, which is presumably why I found you there.
Yaron received an impressively warm welcome, which is nice to see, the crowd at the LSE was more mixed. It’s important that we make VIP’s like Dr Brook feel welcome, and like there is an activist base in Europe they are able to work with. I do hope everyone had a great evening quizzing Yaron after I left.
Before continuing, I suggest you grab headphones or shut the door or whatever and start up the following audio. This is my quick scruffy badly encoded iPhone grab of the lecture. The official LSE podcast promises better.
Yaron’s basic argument is familiar to anyone that has looked him up on YouTube, and this recording promises little new. His delivery last night though was clear passionate and laced with engaging humour and semi-rhetorical questions. It was powerfully done. If you’d like to get the most of listening to his delivery, I would certainly suggest waiting for the superior audio. It does not come across especially well on my scruffy echoey version.
The argument is like this: history tell us that capitalism is bloody wonderful. It’s not exactly the best thing since sliced bread – it preceded sliced bread by 150 years and enabled it’s creation. It also enabled us to see at night, to be spared hours of repetitive labour, to really gain the majority of all the luxuries of today in a very very short period by historic standards. This is one reason to think that capitalism should be a really popular idea. It is not.
Economics tells us that capitalism is great and that planned economies are simply not possible. It tells us that it is stupid to flog that particular dead-horse, yet flogged it is, and the blood on the pavement is that of the poor vulnerable and sick that were not saved (this is my imagery, Dr Brook was not quite as graphic). It also explains why, as a solution to information gathering, communication and decision making problems capitalism works wonders (again not explored in any depth by Dr Brook). Rather than going to detail with the LSE audience he simply argued that the award winning economists on the side of free markets have good solid explainations for it’s success. Yet this is not that popular either. Despite all the libertarians coming to the movement via Mises and Hayek, the mainstream dismisses this.
Yaron argues that our objection to capitalism is based on a moral stance against self-interest. Because trade works on account of mutual self-interest, because it generates “win-win” outcomes, Yaron said we clearly identify traders as self-interested, and correctly so. Yet our moral code, taught to us by family and religion, is that selfless behaviour is a virtue. Yaron named some religions that do this, but I don’t think he meant to blame them exclusively since, in the corridor, he later spoke about the New Atheists in similar terms. The point is that the moral consensus is that selflessness is good and selfishness is bad. Though traders are really self-interested in the sense of seeking their private flourishing – something we all seek – Yaron argued that the package deal of that kind of self-development with “lying cheating S.O.Bs” is enough to cause society to distrust businessmen as a group, as if they were all crooks we are yet to catch.
Dr Brook ended the talk by describing two of the seven objectivist virtues. He argued that rationality was the source of all human value. We “suck as a species” when it comes to downing buffalo and taking on sabretooth tigers. All our achievements, from the time of savages with spears, to the computers of the information age, come from our minds, from observing reality and forming strategies to deal with it. This is how Yaron justified the second Objectivist virtue – honesty – because if your survival and flourishing has always been dependant on dealing with facts then dealing with lies is a foolish and wasteful strategy.
This focus on rationality is also the source of the one anti-value that Yaron described – force. He showed that force, be it a gun to the head or a Government regulation, negates reason and rationality. It denies us our autonomy and forces us to respect an authority, even if we think it is wrong. It is this that we ought to be extracting from society – coercion in all it’s forms – and instead we should focus on helping each other to be rational and learning how to apply that, because from rationality and self-interest all else follows.
UPDATE: The LSE podcast is now online, the Q&A (the official one) begins at 46:30