Editor’s Note: Jay Lapeyre is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Atlas Society. A New Orleans native, he is President and CEO of the Louisiana-based Laitram, LLC, a diversified global manufacturer of industrial equipment, including food processing. Objectivist business ethics helped him overcome hurricane Katrina, the severe recession of 2008, gulf oil spills and more. Jay spoke to Senior Editor Marilyn Moore about his introductions to Ayn Rand and to The Atlas Society, and how Rand’s philosophy can help young people navigate a future in a time when “all the old rules are off.”
MM: How did you discover Ayn Rand?
JL: That's a great story. I was on the basketball team at UT Austin, and I was lucky enough to get a roommate who had read everything by Ayn Rand. He was just steeped in her ideas. At one point early on, as we were getting to know each other, I said, “Communism is good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” And he said, “Communism is the most immoral political system ever conceived.”
Six or seven hours later, the sun was coming up, and he was so angry he said, “We are never going to speak of these issues again until you've read these books. You are so ignorant and so stubborn, that I just can't communicate with you!”
So he gave me a number of books. Among them were Bastiat’s The Law, Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, and something by von Mises. But the book that just hammered the ideas home for me was Ayn Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
It was those articles, which I still remember, that persuaded me ––“Man's Rights,” “The Roots of War,” “The Nature of Government,” “What is Capitalism?” I was struck by the clarity and consistency of logic. It was a new beginning. So that was it.
MM: What philosophical and practical changes did you make as a result of reading Ayn Rand?
JL: My worldview was turned upside. What I knew to be true in the past, I now knew not to be true. It started me on a journey that was all about, How do I learn more?
I began to see the world politically in a much more win-win way. I developed the idea that I was responsible for my happiness. Those were earth-shattering changes. Objectivism just gives you a lens that helps you make sense of the world. The pieces that before didn't fit now started to fit. I am confident that reality integrates and that properly understood, the moral is the practical, and my independent judgment is the only one I can rely on.
MM: I like what you said about the win-win. A lot of people who haven't read Ayn Rand just assume that her philosophy is a cut-throat one that advocates winning at any cost, with an approach to life that says, “You’re an Atlas. You’re a god. Nobody else matters.”
JL: What came through to me loud and clear was what I'll call “the benevolent impact” of the great innovators, and the idea that the great achievers take a tiny fraction of the value they create and leave everyone in a better place. I don't think that was unique to Rand, but she was the one that allowed me to see it so clearly. She really helped me to recognize that capitalism and individualism are about liberty and allowing people the opportunity to create more, which in turn helps everyone.
MM: How did you get involved with The Atlas Society?
JL: I’m glad you asked. I had been reading everything that Leonard Peikoff wrote and saw him as a great teacher –– effective, clear, brilliant at every level. While attending an ARI event in Houston, probably during the mid-1990s, I brought up in conversation my admiration for Peikoff’s book Fact and Value, and someone asked if I’d read David Kelley’s response to it, Truth and Toleration in Objectivism: The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand.
I hadn’t, but the question was raised, and I read it. Then I read both books again and concluded that David was right: Debate and open discussion are necessary for determining truth. Objectivism can either be about the pursuit of truth or limited to interpreting Rand’s philosophical writings, but it can’t be both.
All these years later, I still hold that view.
MM: What is your favorite Ayn Rand work of fiction or nonfiction?
JL: As a character that I could relate to, I’d have to say Howard Roark from The Fountainhead. I love that scene where he clarifies selfishness. That is, selfishness means pursuing your own highest values and being true to them, being true to yourself. And it caused me to think a lot about independence. But, in terms of a riveting story that I couldn't put down, that would be Atlas Shrugged.
MM: You’ve been involved in a lot of crisis management over the years. And I’ll refer readers now to the interview you gave Stephen Hicks in 2012 to read more about that. Each time, however, the crisis interrupted work that was already in progress.
There are a lot of young people, who, because of coronavirus, the lockdowns, and now the civil unrest after the George Lloyd killing by a Minnesota police officer, have to defer their goals or are questioning whether they are still valid. This feels different to them, and the future seems unpredictable. What advice can you offer to young people faced with the current economy and job market?
JL: Well that’s an incredibly important question. This is impacting people at a time in their life when they have the least perspective. They are facing the new challenges of being independent right at a time when all the old rules are off.
This only elevates the critical importance of independent thinking and of character. Ask yourself, What are my values, that is, What is important to me? And, What do I need to do today to prepare myself to achieve those values in the future? And then, build your character. Cultivate moral ambition and a desire for self-improvement.
You’ll need to build marketable skills too. Objectivist values here would call for facing reality, for objectively assessing what is real or not, and then building on what you can control.
This isn’t going to be easy, but probably the worst approach would be the attitude, “Okay, I'm sticking to the path I was on even though success now seems highly unlikely, because that's what I am committed to do." What I’ve found about a lot of people is that they quickly learn to love and be proud of what they do well. So whatever you decide to do, do it well.
But young people today will need to be more entrepreneurial than any previous generation that I remember. This is a whole new ball game. Let’s hope that the regulatory state will be less of an obstacle. We are seeing some reduction in regulations. If that continues, it will be a good sign. So anyway, from a guy who isn't faced with that challenge, those are my thoughts.
MM: Well, thank you.
JL: Appreciate it.