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GALA 2022: Objectivism and Today’s Political Trends Panel

GALA 2022: Objectivism and Today’s Political Trends Panel

May 8, 2023

What are the biggest political trends of the day, and which ones are the most destructive? How can the principles of Objectivism help us change course? Atlas Society Senior Scholars Richard Saslman, Ph.D., and Jason Hill, Ph.D., join our founder David Kelley, Ph.D. to discuss these questions in an hour-long panel discussion with our CEO Jennifer Grossman during our 6th Annual Gala. We invite you to listen HERE or read the transcript below.

Line-up of Speakers (panelists): AF – Ana Freund, JAG – Jennifer Grossman, RS – Richard Salsman, JH – Jason Hill, DK – David Kelley

AF:    I'm Ana Freund. I'm the Development Director here at The Atlas Society, the one who has been sending you all the emails the last couple of weeks. Thank you all for being here. We are thrilled to have so many of our gala attendees join us this morning for these discussions. These three panels will provide an Objectivist perspective on politics and technology, and also explore the intersections between Objectivism and Bitcoin. Please keep in mind that there should be time at the end of each session for audience questions. Our first session focuses on Objectivism and political trends. Ayn Rand described Atlas Shrugged not as a prophecy of our unavoidable destruction, but a manifesto of our power to avoid it, if we choose to change our course.

Our panelists will explore what political trends are most destructive and how the principles of Objectivism might help us change course. Please welcome our moderator and The Atlas Society’s CEO, Jennifer Grossman, and our panelists, Atlas Society founder David Kelley. David did his Ph.D. studies at Princeton, taught at Vassar College and Brandeis University, and authored five books including Truth and Toleration: A Treatise on Objectivism. He's joined by two of our senior scholars, Jason Hill, a professor of Philosophy at DePaul University, and the author of five books, including What Do White Americans Owe Black People, and Richard Salsman, professor of Political Economy at Duke University, and also the author of five books, including Where Have All the Capitalists Gone, plus he authored our latest Pocket Guide to Capitalism, which you'll all be receiving a copy of tonight. Please let us welcome them to this panel.

Why price controls will not solve inflation

JAG:    All right, well, welcome everybody, and a very, very special welcome to tonight's honoree who's here with us today. Michael Saylor, who, also, we have to thank in part for this panel because he goaded us to step up our game and put this together. So, this is a really rare treat, and you know a lot of us follow politics very closely. Turn on the news and you'll hear from political pundits, from pollsters, from former campaign managers, but you never see a philosopher actually giving his take on what's going on and where we're going. So this is going to be really interesting.

JAG:    I want, also, to set the stage in terms of what we've been through. I always say, in order to be objective, you have to have perspective. So, getting a little bit of perspective on what's happened over the past couple of years. A lot of frustration, anger, bewilderment from a multiplicity of causes: inflation driving up food costs and gas prices, as well as a lot of built-up frustration over the destructive lockdown policies and mandates. And, parents also getting a peek into what is happening in terms of what's being taught to their kids, and parents had an opportunity to try out homeschooling. So, Richard, why don't we start with you. I think we're often inclined to use labels to say, well, you guys are populists; you guys are conservatives, libertarians. You now have the Democrats calling Republicans fascists, and the Republicans calling Democrats socialists, and they both might…

RS:    Be right.

JAG:    Or wrong. So, set us straight.

RS:    Well, I don't know if I'll set you straight, but I'll try. Thank you, JAG. And, Michael, thank you for having sponsored this. A couple of thoughts, and I have 10 minutes. So when the buzzer goes off, don't be alarmed. I don't want to get too much into the weeds of, you know, the midterm elections or Trumpism or that kind of thing. It's maybe too narrow for this group. But let me just make a broad point. Objectivism defends and extols capitalism, but capitalism as a system, you know, is not really widely loved, even on the right. I oftentimes will use the word, and on the right they'll say, don't use that word. It sounds like Marx, it sounds like capitalist cronyism, that kind of thing. But, Ayn Rand used that in her title Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

RS:    She equally provocatively spoke of the certain virtue of selfishness. So there's a certain reason we can discuss this for sticking with the right term. But the main point I want to make is we're going through, I believe, politically an authoritarian trend. A very bad authoritarian trend from all sides. And, we've had webinars at The Atlas Society talking about authoritarianism, its source, how to combat it. But I think the other thing to keep in mind is you can't just be anti-something. You can't just be anti-socialist or anti-liberal or anti-progressive or anti-any of these words people use. It's interesting to me that in 1995 when the Reagan-Thatcher revolution was sweeping through the West, Bill Clinton said, “the era of big government is over.” It kind of was then, but notice it was a defensive kind of statement. What about the era of smaller government? Are we going to get that?

RS:    Or is it just that the era of big government is over? No more growth in government or–Donald Trump: “America will never become a socialist nation” (that was in a State of the Union as well, right? A couple years back). Okay? Again, somewhat defensive, right? We're not going to become socialist. Okay? What are we going to become? And I think the objectivist answer is unique because we're advocating something positive. We need a president who will stand up and say, we must become a capitalist nation. I mean, I actually can even imagine that there would be recoiling all over the place. And then here's what it means. Alright, just as a backdrop, I think the danger short term is on the right: nationalism, whether that's part of Trump or others, and whether it's really more patriotism, a kind of benign form of loving your nation.

RS:    But to the extent nationalism comes with fear of foreigners, fear of foreign trade, protectionism, that kind of thing, it's a bad thing. It's anti-capitalist. It's a collectivist type of movement. But then on the other side, you have socialists, you have the Bernie Sanders, the AOCs of the world. And if you know anything about Weimar Germany, pre-Hitler Germany, they had the same thing. They had one side nationalist, one side socialist. Hitler came along and said, you're both right. Let's have national socialism. That's what Nazi-ism is. It's a contraction of those two. So we have to alert people to that fact. And it's not difficult to tell either side: they're doing nationalism, they're doing socialism. We need an alternative. Because those two should not ever go together again. Okay. As to the parties, I want to say something I hear all the time that in academia is taught all the time, and I don't really believe it, polarization.

RS:    “We're so polarized. We're at each other's throats. We're at the extremes of the tail end of the distribution of normal opinion.” I don't think that's true at all. I think our problem is there's so much agreement among Democrats and Republicans as to the role of the state as to the authoritarian scope of the state. And we have to change the range of possibilities in people's minds and say, okay, a real polarized opposite would be capitalism versus statism, but statism in all its forms, not just capitalism versus socialism. I don't want to make any projections about future politics, but I am optimistic. And let me just give you a broad view of this over the last century, and then I'll stop. We've had four major victories, I think, and by we, I mean the West, America, the enlightened among us, and we're going through a fifth wave, or a fifth, I like your term, Jason, pathogens: idea pathogens.

RS:    So what idea pathogens have we already vanquished? If you go back a hundred years, the Kaiser World War I monarchy, brutal  monarchy, we defeated it. Next fascism: Mussolini; Nazism: Hitler; World War II, we defeated it. Now we defeated these things militarily. Did we truly defeat them? Ideologically that remains to be seen. Another one, Islam, I think people after 9/11 came to realize how brutal and Medievalist Islam is. But I think there was also a broader conception that there's something wrong with religion. There's something wrong. Now this is an extreme Ayn Rand once said, religion is a primitive form of philosophy. You could say Islam is a primitive form of religion, but I think it opened American's eyes to some extent, although the response was weak to the idea that this is a real assault on western values, on enlightenment, and we need to do something about that politically.

RS:    And I think one of the more interesting developments was what's called the new atheism. All of a sudden now, we don't agree with all these people, but a number of young thinkers started arguing for a secular argument for enlightenment. And since people like Steven Pinker at Harvard and elsewhere, whose Enlightenment Now, many books have come out in the last decade or so, extolling the kind of ideas we love, the enlightenment, industrial civilization, liberty, freedom of speech, and things like that. I think that's a very good trend. And I think part of it came out of the shock as to what was behind 9/11. Now, I think the biggest threat, and it's coming from all sides now, is this pathogen called environmentalism. So, environmentalism, if you know, from the seventies when it was called ecology seemed to just care about clean air and clean water.

RS:    No American is against clean air and clean water. Most Americans know that capitalism delivers clean air and clean water. But she [Rand] called it The New Left: the Anti-Industrial Revolution in her 1970 book, very prescient, who would've guessed that starting in the nineties, ecology would shift into environmentalism, which to me, and to most of my panelists, who I'm sure would agree, is really misanthropic. It's really anti-human. And so one way of thinking about the trend is that the Teutonic Kaiser, the Hitler Aryans, the Islamists at least had a view of, here's our view of ideal man, and let's extol that ideal man. But the environmentalists are against man, per se. It's a much more sweeping kind of ideological indictment. And in many ways, you could argue, since we've been through these prior pathogens, we should be able to detect this pretty easily. We should be able to, and we should be able to fight it because the environmentalists are using the tactics of the prior pathogens.

RS:    They're using the authoritarian, I would say even racist tactics, militaristic tactics of those prior four. But now in play against humans as such, now it’s as though we see a waning enlightenment, and my colleague Stephen Hicks has written on this in postmodernism, we do see a lot of that today, right? A denial of objectivity, a denial of even the idea of concepts. “What is a gender? What is even a recession?” <laugh> We can't define these things anymore. Concepts are– Ayn Rand once said that an objective theory of concepts is–crucial. You see that all the time now because people are fighting about words and the meaningless of words, and we can make up anything we want. So t my up-note to be that we should be able to hone in on environmentalism, see how and why it's anti-capitalism and authoritarian, but also draw upon the successes we've already had.

RS:    Frankly, we should be proud in the West, in America, in The Enlightenment world. We should be proud of these pathogens we've defeated in the past. This one, to me, is even more virulent. It hasn't expressed itself so militaristically, but it's like every institution in America now has this. Sometimes they call it woke. But really what it is, is capitalist civilization itself must be gotten rid of. And if that means depopulating, if that means depriving the machines of the world of the energy they need, which is fossil fuels, they'll do it. And it isn't surprising that they're looking at only energies that are pre-industrial. They only want wind and solar and biomass, because those were the energies of the pre-industrial pre-capitalist system. So, I'll stop there. I think it's an easy battle to win in a way, but a lot of education's required, and I think politically,  we're not going to lose our liberty politically in America. At least I think in our lifetimes, preventing us from getting some of these ideas implemented.

JAG:    Thank you, Richard. And a little preview, some of the themes that he just discussed are the subjects of our upcoming Draw My Life videos. We've got one, My Name is Oil, which is going to be very good. I just picked the voiceover for that. And My Name is Woman as well. And another one I think that Jason will like, My Name is Democracy, and how it can obviously be a wonderful tool for limited government and expressing the will of the people. But our democracy sometimes gets off his leash, which is the Constitution, and that can cause a lot of harm. So Jason, how do you see where we are, particularly from an objectivist perspective?

JH:    So this presentation has an epigraph before it, and it's from Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, and it's Elsworth Toohey: ”Don't set out to raise all the shrines. You'll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity and the shrines are raised.” So, a few days ago, and I'll get to JAG's question, a few days ago, a chemistry professor of 40 years at NYU, professor Maitland Jones was fired because a petition signed by thousands of students in classes that he had taught over the years found his class too difficult. And so he was fired by the university. And I think this is a paradigmatic example, a deputized stand-in for the utter rule of mediocrity in our society, whether it's a Coca-Cola capitulating to woke ideology and a woke supremacist mob by adopting a mission statement exhorting its employees to be less white, which means to be less punctual, to be less excellent, to be less certain, to be less confident, to be less arrogant, and as imperatives, to be more humble, to be better listeners.

JH:    Or Gillette, with its “anti-toxic masculinity” campaign, which were widely unpopular ads, the company actually lost money. But the c-suite executives, those idiots, said it was worth the financial cost because they were, quote, gaining virtue points and changing the sensibilities of a future generation. So I'm talking about a culture where the realm of art and literature and all the culture spheres, the free market, is based on reliability of the law. We're finding a situation where the free market is based on reliability of the low, the lowest common denominator in humanity, rather than aspirations of the high, where national obsessions like Kim Kardashian butt, gangster-thug rap, that now suffuse all aspects of life. Mediocre standards in education and lowering admission standards, proliferate our society. So the proliferation of diversity, equity, and inclusion that saturates every segment of our institutions has a leveling effect that, in cahoots with critical race theory, has rendered math, physics, and stem studies, racist and imperialist.

JH:    So without becoming something of a statistician of gutter trivia by engaging an endless journalistic minutia, we are at this point in history suffering from what I call, and I think this is one of the biggest problems that I see facing society today, hyper-democratization, where we have liberalism run completely amok, where everyone has been let into the future, in the name of some perverse commitment to egalitarianism, which promotes and promises equality to all -- when we are not all equal: we're not all equally intelligent, we're not all equally moral,  we don't have the same athletic prowess. We're not equal. We're possessed of equal intrinsic moral value, I think, but we're just not all equal in that way. So this egalitarianism has produced massive ethical relativism. And the crucial point to remember is that, yes, our culture is being destroyed by ethical relativism.

JH:    But here I want to say that it is not fundamentally, I believe, as a result of an assault against reason and logic. I think the commentariat and the professoriat are our enemies of reason to a large extent, but most Americans—speaking as a professor of 25 years—are probably unintellectual, but are not consciously enemies of reason or foes of reason. They're passionate believers. However, in egalitarianism, and if everyone is equal, which is a stupid idea, as I said, then everyone's truth claim has equal value. So truth under egalitarianism had to be democratized, right? Obtaining the truth is hard work and very few achieve it. So a few cognitive elites have managed to do this right? Sustaining its achievement over time is very, very difficult. And this is a monstrously intolerable state of affairs for most people to accept that the achievement of truth is the province of very, very few people in life.

JH:    Most of us strive to achieve truth, but very few, because of the rigorous and robust standards, and the criterion for adjudicating among truth claims, it's very difficult to achieve and sustain truth over a period of time. So this is a monstrously intolerable state of affairs for a collection of egalitarian village idiots who can, for example, institutionalize and codify certain lies, such as the idea that a biological man can become a woman and compete in athletic teams with biological females, even if enough people all themselves have been infected by pathogens and support this idea and corner the market place. No objection to the NCAA nominating, let's say Leah Thomas, a biological male and destroying women in the swim meets. And for whatever reason, it turns out that this monstrous idea becomes codified in public consciousness, we must consider a few things here.   

JH:    The marketplace, which used to be the final, which was thought to be the final arbiter of truth, that is, it would serve as a corrector of irrationality. The marketplace of now has codified psychotic behavior that's become institutionalized and endorsed by enough people such that dissenters are labeled as transphobic and fired for their beliefs. And let's not talk about a better mousetrap, because for rational people to send their kids to a better school is just not possible because the idea pathogens have so suffused and saturated our institutions that they do not exist precisely because an overwhelming majority of people and companies have acquiesced to woke ideology. So I'm reminded of the old fallacious idea or canard, that capitalism will obliterate racism because the rational man will hire the most competent person. There were several studies done that showed that the metaphysical races, for example, would rather have died and suffered financial loss by hiring an incompetent white person than a far more competent black person. And we see this phenomenon occurring under the diversity, equity, and inclusion person, where far less competent people are being hired over competent persons, and corporations willing to incur financial losses in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion because they want to either virtue signal or, in the name of Gillette, who was very proud to say that we're incurring virtue points.

JH:    So what we see here is a case where moral values supersedes fiscal expediency. Hyper-democratization has dispensed with rational discrimination. Diversity, equity, and inclusion has seen to that. And it has led to all sorts of social ballasts inside the future that they themselves cannot sustain. And, this is destroying our society because what we have is what Rand would call a cult of mediocrity that is running roughshod. And where I have used the term, and I've defended it in The Atlas Society forum, a call for “rational elitism,” where, what I mean by that is Rand thought elitism was a non-concept. I think she was wrong. When I'm talking about elitism, I'm talking about a set of cultivated virtues of character, a set of cultivated skills that are developed through longevity of study, of grit, craftsmanship that then get leveraged into the society–and not an appeal to the lowest common denominator in people, which seems to be what's happening, and which seems to be what the market is ratifying and endorsing: an appeal to the lowest, most vulgar, most crass elements in our society.

JH:    And where the refined and the elegant, and the sophisticated, and most of all, the heroic and the excellent and the best get disqualified. So we thought in the old days, or some people still continue to think that the free market is, I call it free market fundamentalism, was always the panacea or the grand elixir that could remedy phenomena that were bad. But we see, especially since the radical adopting of diversity-equity-inclusion programs,  and Gillette's and Coca-Cola’s statements, that companies and individuals who run those companies are willing to forego profits. Right? Is that my bell? 

JAG:    That was it.

JH:    That was it. Well, I didn't get to the objectivists; maybe in the question and answer here, cuz I have a section that deals with how as objectivists, we can remedy this dilemma. So maybe you can ask me what my solutions are for that.

Honest Money Will Require Rediscovering America’s Founders

JAG:    So get your questions ready. We are gonna be able to save some time for questions. We've got about half an hour left to this panel. And Jason, I hadn't actually thought of the connection between egalitarianism and relativism, so that was a real insight for me. David is the man also behind many of my Instagram takeovers, as is Richard. If you guys are following The Atlas Society's Instagram, we do takeovers every week where we crowdsource questions from our 67 thousand followers, and, a lot of times, the biggest perk of my job is to be able to work with the best Objectivist philosopher in the business. So, David, how do you make sense of all of this? What would Ayn Rand think?

DK:    Thank you, JAG. I very much appreciate that. I want to talk at a more general level about what I see as a fundamental issue, and the way it has changed in the last several decades. Let me start with the welfare state, or let me start with the founders, actually go back before the welfare state, The founders, in their political writings and in the Constitution that they created, made liberty the main function, the main goal, the main value that a government was to pursue; democracy was a means to that end. And at the time, many people were skeptical that it would ever work. It was an experiment. And, as Jason says and pointed out, it may well have failed, but in our time and really through most of the 20th century, democracy which means equality, equality took precedence over liberty.

DK:    Democracy took precedence over individual rights. But it was not full blown. The welfare state was the biggest, one of the biggest domestic programs and changes in domestic government during the 20th century when, I think, it was partly a more or less benevolent reaction, at least in part a benevolent reaction, because thanks to the Industrial Revolution and capitalism, general wealth was rising. And so what used to be the human norm, that is, stark poverty, began to seem unusual, exceptional. How do we explain it? How can we fix it? And so that was the birth of both private and, ultimately, entirely public means through the welfare state.

DK:    When I wrote a book, back in the late nineties, it was called, A Life of One's Own: The Morality of the Welfare State, it still seemed to me that despite the emphasis on equality that had arisen, it was still mainly a kind of individualist backbone. The liberals who created the welfare state took the concept of rights, which originally meant just the right to act freely and owned property, and made what are called positive rights. That is, the right to a job, a right to healthcare, a right to food, shelter, and so forth. But still, these were rights that inhered in individuals and regarded that way. And so it was individuals helping individuals through the mechanism of the state. And one of the two main arguments for defending, morally defending, the welfare state was: “e don't want to see people dying in the streets. And, private charity can't do it alone. So we have to have the state involved.” That was using the framework of rights, rule of law, equal treatment of people while being sensitive to the relevant differences that they have.

DK:    And, indeed, about 20 years ago, we put on a conference called: “Individualism, the Once and Future Ideal.” And I was maybe way too optimistic in assigning that title because actually what I want to point out is that we've taken a really bad turn. The other argument is that  we want to provide a floor to people, and help those in genuine need. That was one of the main arguments. But there was also the argument, the egalitarian argument: “It's not fair for some people to be so rich and others to be so poor. We've got to equalize that.” And first, that was only financially, defined in monetary terms in the last 20, 30 years. It's become expanded to include other categories besides rich and poor: sex, race, nationality, and so forth.

DK:    And so now we have identity politics. We didn't have that in the major dominant form it takes today, we didn't have that certainly not 30 years ago. I would say maybe not until 20 years ago, as postmodernism, which is has a strong collectivist attitude. So when I wrote my book on the welfare state, I saw the main problem as altruism. It was being driven by altruism, enforced altruism on the part of the state. But now I think there's an even deeper issue we're transitioning from, or have been transitioning from an individualist, a core liberal individualist perspective on life, to an egalitarian one, with the consequences that Jason was outlining. I do think we need a positive ideal. And I'll just wrap here by saying that Ayn Rand provided it, in the 1940s. She was working out some ideas after finishing The Fountainhead, and she called her philosophy individualism. And, later she coined the term Objectivism. What she offered was a new kind of individualism that highlighted that the essence of the human person, the essence of human nature is reason, productivity, having lifetime goals.

DK:    It was an entire spiritual dimension, not religious, but spiritual, that she highlighted and really dramatized the character of Howard Roarke in The Fountainhead. So this, this is an ethic of individualism, and I agree with Richard, totally. We can't just fight collectivism. And we can't just defend individualism on historical grounds, although in America we have very strong historical grounds, but we should outline it. And this is the theme that I think many people might respond to, even if they're not going to delve into the systematic details of the Objectivist philosophy. I remember when I was working on the various attempts to make a movie out of Atlas Shrugged. Some of the Hollywood stars, this is before, I think, the aughts, and maybe a little earlier, scripts that never got made, but actresses were lined up and actors were lined up. And what they liked about the book was the idealism of it:Do your own thing. Be good at what you can, make the most of your life, make the most of yourself. They didn't go so much for the capitalist egoist elements. But it's easy to ignore those if you are reading selectively. So I think we have a battle to fight and I would say that the core issue is  individualism versus collectivism.

JAG:    All right, well, well this is great timing, guys. We've got half an hour or so for questions. So, do we have mics? Yes, we do. So, please raise your hand and don't begin your question till we bring the mic to you.

Question:    Somebody has to be first. So my question relates to the notion of today's America, Objectivism, and then the notion of free trade, and so onto international factors. So if you think of Atlas Shrugged, we had the valley, right? So they escape, they go to the valley. And if we imagine an Atlas Shrugged II, it might have been about trying to protect the valley from foreign invaders trying to destroy what was in the valley. So if we want to have objectivist principles, my question is where's the terrarium? Because we're not going to bring free markets or this sort of idea, say to China, but maybe we can bring it here. But to bring it here, we have to protect here. We have to protect the valley. So I get troubled by the notion of having to have, say, unrestricted free trade or other issues without protecting borders, and having some sense of nationalism because we have to define the valley. And I'm just wondering what the thoughts are. Because I know that contradicts some of the principles of Objectivism and free markets.

RS:    I’m going take that because it's a bit on free trade. And maybe the issue of open borders or closed borders. I think Ayn Rand and well as Weber, years ago, defined a state as that institution which has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in a given territory. So the territorial boundary thing is not an unimportant thing. I think, if you're alluding to this, I think it's a false choice to have open borders versus closed borders. I think that's a false choice, and people are pointing to each other and it's easy to refute each other. There should be managed borders. The government should process legitimate people coming over the border, meaning not criminals, not people with diseases, not terrorists, and it's called the Ellis Island model. And we had it when we were capitalist, and it lasted from, I don't know, I think 1880 to 1920.

RS:    So just look up Ellis Island: you process hundreds of thousands of people from abroad and it's wonderful and it shouldn't be a drain. Now that was also happening when we had no welfare state, so we had no magnet. But, I don't even believe that people coming over the border are largely running up to the welfare office, but it definitely should be managed. It's an inhumane thing down there.  On free trade, I'm an advocate of unilateral free trade. I don't know whether that's the Objectivist position or not, but free anything, free trade, free movement of people, goods and capital across borders, we should be extolling. So I was, although I like some of what Trump did, I was a big critic of his protectionism, and protectionism is no part of a capitalist policy mix. Unilateral free trade, by the way, means you don't negotiate trade agreements with other countries.

RS:    You just adopt free trade. And if they want to tax their own people with tariffs, if they want to tax their own people in subsidized exports to us, let them, it doesn't hurt us. But it's certainly not true to say that we are slapping tariffs on China, which Trump used to say all the time. Tariffs are paid by Americans, they're taxes on Americans who import things. So, together with David's point about you can't really have a welfare state, and it's hard to have a welfare state with open borders. So good. So on both lines, we should be arguing for a shrinkage of the welfare state, and then there's the more managed borders philosophy. But, I think with open free trade, you do have to designate certain countries as enemies or not. That's the job of the State Department. If, if some country is truly an enemy of America and you designate them such, and you have an objective reason for naming that, I think it is okay for a government therefore to say, don't trade with the enemy. But I don't consider either Russia or China, right now, enemies of the United States in that regard–in terms of being a military threat–an existential threat to us. They're not. That's my own view.

JAG:    Our chairman Jay Lapeyre:.

Question:    Yeah. Hey, Jason, you mentioned that the market had failed to deal with what I'll call liquidating excellence or mediocrity from excellence. And, the question is: Is it really the market or have politics corrupted what I'll call the culture, and corrupted ethics in a way so that what we're dealing with is the house is on fire as opposed to the market got us here. And I think to understand that it leads you, now, to what do you do about it? But it's not because the principles were wrong. And I'm interested in your view on that, given that politics is downstream from culture, which is downstream from ethics and downstream from reason.

JH:    Well, I would probably take the top-down effect, top down-effect response, and say that politics is just a mere consequence of cultural mandates that emanate from the universities. The trendsetters, the cultural trendsetters, start within the universities themselves and politics are just an iteration and a manifestation of the intellectual trends. I think Rand was right on that. They set the cultural trends. The professoriate, especially in the humanities and the social sciences are the phenomena really that set the cultural trends, the intellectual trends. They set the epistemological standards that then are bequeathed really to the other sciences. And there's a trickle-down effect. It trickles down into media, it trickles down into entertainment. We see the sort of wokism that suffuses Hollywood, and it also trickles down into politics.  

JH:    I mean, one example of that is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Where did this woman learn her socialism from? And she's not the cause, she's just a poor legatee or beneficiary of the indoctrination that she got from her college professors. So I wouldn't really blame it on politics. I would say politics really is just a consequence of what politicians themselves believe, including Marco Rubio. When he talks, when you hear him talk, I mean, he says, we need more janitors than more philosophers. But he is a ventriloquist quite often of what he has learned in the university system, probably more than any other politician that I've heard speak.

RS:    I just want to add something to that quickly. There is an argument that there's a bottom-up, not just a top-down influence. So those of us in the room who remembered three networks in the United States, CBS, NBC, and ABC. There's a great diversity of thought and robust debate. And the fact that The Atlas Society exists and that think tanks exist, it is true that the universities still have influence and power, but it might be a trailing one. So thankfully, the internet, various other things, many more voices can be heard and projected through digital than through the classroom. But on the other hand, I have to confess that the woke going into every institution to me showed the power of philosophy and the power of the philosophy departments. I mean, it began, as we know, in academia, then it was in Hollywood, then it was in the media. But now it's in the Pentagon and corporate suites, it's everywhere. When you see a cancer like that going into every institution, it usually means there's a deeper philosophic motive. But these more decentralized influences are important to remember, and capitalism and technology deliver that. So bottom-up also happens.

JAG:    Michael.

Question:    Thank you. So first I think we all want to hear the end of Jason's speech clip there. And then my question is—but I definitely want hear that—Marc  Andreessen, who is a billionaire, has said that we live here, that everything has gone wrong. So when billionaires kind of say, hey, we are living in Rome, what, 150 years before it's sacked and falls in 200 years plus a little more than 200, I'd like to get your opinions on are we at the sort of downturn of Rome here in California, but I want to hear what your end of your speech was first.

JH:    Okay, just so briefly; so my panacea for how Objectivists or thinking, rational people should really, really respond to the hyper-democratization, the cult of mediocrity, and the diversity, equity, and inclusion saturation of our culture, and the concomitant results is a form of rational elitism. That is, we should be imbuing ourselves with moral virtues that saturate our characters. We should be walking embodiments of virtue, that we suffuse the world with an original assemblage of who we are. So we stand as a corrective to the culture of vulgarity. I've lived in America for 37 years, and I've never seen such crass vulgarity permeating every culture sphere. America always had its moments of mediocrity and vulgarity, but there were pockets, there were spaces where you could find elegance, refinement, and excellence. Now it's like fighting lies in a vacuum. So I think we have a responsibility to cultivate what Aristotle would call our character with the virtues, and to practice them and to, yes, I'm going to use the word, we should colonize the world with our values. We should colonize the world with our values because they are better than what we find. Some of us are better people than other people. We're not all equal, right? And those of us who think not through fiat or through whim, but know that we are better than other people because we have objectivity and we can rationally, objectively demonstrate that.  We who think we are better and can show that we are better, should be colonizing the world with those values and stop apologizing for American exceptionalism or JAG exceptionalism.

Audience:    Here, here. Here, here.

JAG:    And thanks for actually using my name, JAG <laugh>. All right, we have time. We have a couple people in the room I'd like to recognize. Speaking of politics, Grover Norquist came out from DC, so thank you. And, my counterpart at Young Americans for Liberty, Lauren Daugherty—if you don't know her organization, please make a point of checking them out. So, one or two more questions.

Question:    I love what you guys said, so thank you for being here. I'm very excited to be here. I'm actually from San Diego, and so speaking about California and the downfall of it really spoke to my heart because my mother's a teacher and she was told that she is not allowed to give students homework because it's not an equal opportunity. So now <laugh> I know it's crazy and she teaches second grade, mind you. So this isn't just happening at a university level, but it's happening in our elementary schools. And, second thing is our mayor, Todd Gloria, wow. He said that to get rid of the homeless issues, he is saying that there can't be any tents during the day, but as soon as it hits night, they're allowed to pop 'em up and be there. So again, it goes back to the homeless issue that you were talking about. Seeing this happen to my city that I was born and raised in is super sad because obviously they're just masking issues, they're not really changing anything. What do you think could happen on a very local level that would bring more Objectivist ideas to San Diego? If I start talking about it to my friends and my family that could start catching on so that they can see the stupidity <laugh> of the politics that are happening very locally?

DK:    That's a question I, and many of us, have been asking for about half a century. And, I still haven't, despite all the brilliant fire power, intellectual power, I don't have an answer, a clear answer to that. But I will say this, and I'm sure I'm partly biased as from my standpoint as a philosopher and in particular a philosopher specializing in knowledge epistemology, that I think the most important thing is getting people to think in principles, getting them to think coherently, logically, but with their concepts grounded in reality so they aren't just throwing words around and beyond that, you know, we've had pragmatist politics for a long time now, and I guess to some extent a bit of pragmatism is always bound up into politics, at least in an open democratic society.

DK:    But, pragmatism has been around for a long time. Ayn Rand wrote quite a bit about it, you know, as the mixed economy as gang warfare. Everyone jousting to get a piece of the pie that's sitting on the table. And one aspect of pragmatism is very much an epistemology and philosophy, if you go all the way down, that is against thinking and principles and against abstractions. And so, when it takes over a culture, it kind of compounds itself and people get shorter and shorter-range bandaid solutions without thinking what the long-term consequences will be. I don't think we're in the worst phase. I don't think we're in an Atlas Shrugged situation yet. But, we are headed that way and I think the fundamental solution is education and training, but there have to be teachers who can do that, parents who can do that.

JAG:    I add to that on the education side, especially for a seventh grade class, we have our graphic novels and we make them available. We can get your mother many copies of our Anthem graphic novel and our Red Pawn graphic novel. And I'd also say, just returning to concepts, we see a lot of new definitions being pushed to really manipulate the way that we think about issues. And homelessness is a perfect example. It's replaced a rich former vocabulary which used to allow for more specificity of meaning, whether it was vagrants or transients or beggars or bums or hobos or this or that. And, you know, obviously what we're seeing now are drug addicts. So, just refusing to use whether it's “homeless” or “unhoused” when it's not appropriate, and talking about things as they really are. So, okay. Yes.

Question:    So I have a question for Professor Salsman. You push for unabashed free trade, but how would you deal with countries that could potentially pose a threat to us in the United States, in the future? Notably, you believe that China is not an existential threat to the United States, but I believe that if China took Taiwan, they would stiff us of the semiconductors we need that are a prerequisite for the modern economy and military.

RS:    Yeah. I'll just be quick about this. I think you're talking about can you project whether a current state will become a future enemy. I think that's also part of the issue of designating them as friend or not. You should also be able to project, you know, whether they're likely to acquire the kind of weapons that could hurt us, but also have the kind of policy stance. I still would say Russia and China aren't in that category, that they're neither intending to existentially threaten us or have the capacity, I think even in the near term.

JAG:    John Lindl.

Question:    I just wanted to make a comment. I don't know whether I'm correctly reading this, but I hear a lot of pessimism about, you know, where we are. And I just wanted to harken back to 40 plus years ago. I've been in the Liberty movement for that long and 40 years ago there were essentially almost no institutions that were devoted to promoting the ideas of liberty and rationality. And now as a result of the internet and the communication revolution that has happened within the last 10 to 15 years, there's an explosion of organizations outside of the university that are capable of promoting ideas. And I believe that maybe the universities can be changed, but it's going to be an awfully hard job. I've thought for a long time that organizations outside of the universities were going to have to carry this message. So The Atlas Society, Young Americans for Liberty, Students for Liberty, all of these organizations are growing rapidly. I think it's a tremendously positive thing. And so I just wanted to make that comment that I think you can look at where we are now and there's a lot of horrible things, but you can also look at some of the trends that have been developing and see room for a very positive orientation or outcome for the future.

Free Speech: An Eternal Struggle

JAG:    Yes, I would just also add to that, as well, not just these outside organizations, but tremendous gains that are being made on the state level, seeing Grover’s here, he could talk later on about how much progress we're making towards flat taxes in the various states, and also this massive model bill in Arizona for school choice. So there are a lot of bright spots.

RS:    I wanted to say briefly also, I've a long history of working with various Objectivist groups and apropos your comment, John, one of the reasons I am so delighted to be with The Atlas Society the last few years is they are capable of talking to lovers of liberty. You know, without being rude and without being dismissive and really bridging and partnering. And, JAG is part of that, Jay is part of that. My colleagues here, Stephen, they've been doing it long before I got here. But it's a noticeable difference in how this Objectivist group is able to talk, to collaborate with, partner with, with lovers of liberty. Do we have a view that says there's a kind of unique way of defending capitalism and we're not eclectic yet? We are definitely not eclectic—Objectivists are not known for being eclectic. But I think we know that there's these other liberty groups, especially young students, and I see them at Duke as very important to partner with. And the ones I've worked with, SFL, YAL, others, thanks to you Turning Point USA, thanks to JAG who introduced me to all of them. I never worked with any of them until I met JAG, so it's a wonderful thing. And maybe apropos what you're talking about, John,

JH:    I just want to make one quick comment. One thing that Objectivists can do or any rational, reasonable person can do  is to encourage more people not to go to universities, unless you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or something, or to get into the law or, or to be a doctor. But, if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, as I tell many of my students who are especially men who like to fix things—men are built to fix things and to solve problems—is to apprentice yourself to a trade, and to shut down, to advocate shutting down our government universities and those universities that are private, but are the recipients of government funding, to shut down the K through 12 schools, to abolish the teachers’ unions to really start a revolution by supporting independent academies as new learning institutions and abolished these bastions of indoctrination, these indoctrination centers, really.

JAG:    And a plug for Saylor Academy as well. You know, technology has been making wonderful opportunities available for education outside of the institutions. So, Raymie, and we’ve got four minutes to this panel, so keep that in mind folks.

Question:    Yeah. So I think liberal societies are ultimately democratic in the sense that any pushback against, you know, abuse of checks and balances ultimately is going to come from public sentiment. So if there's not enough public sentiment to push back against those abuses, I think it's inevitable that it'll happen. And therefore we have to accept that there's kind of a fundamental democratic kind of, we have to bring people along to, to get the society we want. So that's point number one. Point number two, with respect to pragmatism. You know, most people are pragmatic, not in any deep philosophical sense, but it's just, they got things to do, right? And it's like, hey, that sounds like a good idea, good enough. Like they, they just don't have time to be anything other than deeply, well, kind of casually pragmatic with respect to politics. And finally, I think change happens because crises hit and that mass sentiment says, oh, we’ve got to do something.

Question:    Now that gets to the question, I mean, it feels like we've kind of hit a crisis, right? I mean, I think this woke stuff is out of control and most people feel like it's out of control. We've got this crazy inflation, we've got all kinds of problems. The opposition has completely melted down, right? The GOP has disintegrated in terms of any kind of principled, oppositional stance, and to be the people who say, here's an alternative, right? What happened? How did that melt down? How can we fix it? Because I think some kind of oppositional stance that when the crisis hits can push people back and say, wait a minute, you know, the pragmatic thing is to get government out of  here and to get rid of this woke stuff, which is killing our profit margins -- it doesn't exist. So, I don’t know, what happened to the GOP, and how can we rebuild an opposition?

DK:    I would just jump in briefly. One of the things that I have heard a lot in my time in the Objectivist movement is let things go to hell. And then we can say, see, I told you so!  It never works. It never works. Things go from terrible to worse.

Question:    I would say in the seventies, disaster; and in the eighties, people waking up; eighties were better.

DK:    Yes, it was. And then it passed, and we got Clinton and then Obama, but more to the point, postmodernism took off. And, identity politics rose. People talk about, and I sometimes define our job as changing the culture, but in certain ways that's megalomania because a culture is at least as complex, probably more complex than an economy. And we all, we all know from economics that you cannot plan an economy. Well, I don't think you can plan a culture either, but you can be an input to it, and the better the input, the more likely it'll spread. And, you know, the culture we're living in today is the result of individuals.

JAG:    We're going to have an opportunity to continue this conversation through our breaks, and we're going take a short one now. 

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