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Michael A. Hiltzik GOLDEN STATE

At the Ready to Pass Ammunition to Execs Under Fire

February 06, 2003|Michael A. Hiltzik

There's a poetic circularity to how the headquarters of the Ayn Rand Institute, keeper of the laissez-faire flame, ended up in Orange County, where the libertarian owners of the local newspaper used to inveigh against "tax-supported" schools and other symbols of government oppression of the rugged individualist.

But if the Orange County Register's publisher, the Hoiles family, has tempered its political views over the years to keep up with the changing demographics of its newspaper market, the institute has scarcely yielded an inch of its namesake's uncompromising worldview. Rand used to identify business executives as the most persecuted and misunderstood minority in America and decrygovernment regulation as the historic enemy of capitalism. The institute today is busy exorcising the same demons, but doing so at a particularly fertile time.

Business owners and executives see the government's dead hand everywhere these days. Across California, for example, many are whining about the Paid Family Leave Act, minimum wage increases, workers' compensation costs and overtime rules. Meanwhile, the stock market plunge and relentless investigations of corporate crime have made businessmen into pariahs again.

Rand's disciples are here to help.

"Last summer the regulators got a green light to go after big business," the institute's executive director, Yaron Brook, was saying the other day at the group's new quarters in Irvine, not far from John Wayne Airport. The bustle of an extended moving day (the institute relocated from Marina del Rey this summer) penetrated his office from the hallway, where photographs of Rand, dark-eyed and exotic, glowered from the walls and racks of her books were being set up in the foyer. "Over the last year, businessmen really feel threatened," Brook said. "They're looking for moral support. We provide them with intellectual ammunition."

To many people, the name Ayn Rand may summon only distant memories of the early postwar era, when her novels "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" were in vogue. Born in 1905, Rand emigrated from Russia to the U.S. in 1926 and soon began producing her fiction, a unique composite of free-market pamphleteering, boardroom intrigue and sadomasochistic sexuality. Think Milton Friedman crossed with Anais Nin.

Her philosophy was absolutist: Anything created by a person exercising reason belonged to him or her to use as he or she saw fit, and society's attempts to appropriate it -- say, through taxation or regulation -- were immoral. She was certain that an analysis of human history would make it obvious to any unhypnotized observer that leaving each individual to the pursuit of his or her unremitting self-interest would end up benefiting all society, which is why she named her doctrine "objectivism."

Her method of argument was to muster reams of evidence from current affairs and history and place them at the service of brusque interpretation. Reading some of Rand's old work, one is hard-pressed to avoid the impression that she was trying deliberately to sound absurd. "Every ugly, brutal aspect of injustice toward racial or religious minorities is being practiced toward businessmen," she wrote in a piece titled "America's Persecuted Minority: Big Business." She would fit right in doing commentary on Fox News Channel.

Rand had a way of proposing solutions to social problems that avoided all the complexities, which is why much of her expository writing seems facile. If Third World nations "were taught to establish capitalism, with full protection of property rights, their problems would vanish," she wrote in this newspaper in 1962. Just like that? (She clearly never met anyone like Mobutu Sese Seko.) She attacked foreign aid, the Peace Corps and the United Nations as instruments of "altruism," which she abominated as the soft-minded sale of one's efforts on the cheap. Objectivists still pronounce the word "altruist" with all the disdain of George Bush the elder throwing "liberal" back at Michael Dukakis.

The institute's essays duplicate Rand's bullying style. One recent op-ed exalted the commercialism of Christmas. ("Christmas should celebrate reason, selfishness and capitalism.") Another defended GE ex-Chairman Jack Welch's extravagant retirement package -- or, rather, thrashed him for caving in to public criticism by forswearing it. ("What chance does the rest of the business community have when the best one of them lacks the moral courage to stand up for what is right?")

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