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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

Leading the charge is Brook, 41, a sandy-haired Israeli who discovered the works of Ayn Rand at the same point in life as many of her readers, which is to say in high school. (Something about her iconoclastic and individualist heroes has a seductive appeal to people, especially males, who are experiencing their first gushing emotions of independence and invincibility.) After a stint running a Silicon Valley investment fund and teaching finance at Santa Clara University, he joined the institute full time.

He's an articulate defender of the faith who shares with his mentor the consolation of utter conviction. "I'm one who has never seen a tax cut he didn't like," he says. And: "I think the redistribution of wealth is an evil idea." And: "I don't think there should be a Federal Reserve."

After this last remark, he smiles and adds: "Alan Greenspan didn't see a need for it either when he was writing in the '60s."

This is an allusion to the Fed chairman's role in that era as a Rand acolyte. One wonders whether Greenspan wishes he could take back phrases like these, which appeared in an objectivist newsletter in 1963: "Regulation -- which is based on force and fear -- undermines the moral force of business dealings." Or, "Government regulations do not eliminate potentially dishonest individuals, but merely make their activities harder to detect or easier to hush up." (Greenspan's prose was rather more direct in those days than now.)

Blunt declarations like these are, of course, designed to end discussions, not open them. Up to a point, Rand's work amounts to a rational analysis of the conflict between market economics and bureaucratic intervention. But positing that supply and demand will reach a perfect equilibrium is an idea; imposing that idea on all human interactions turns it into an ideology.

Although it is possible that eventually this equilibrium will emerge, history suggests that empires can rise and fall and revolutions run their course in the meantime. And what, then, of society? George Soros, the financier and critic of laissez-faire capitalism, argued in a magazine article not long ago that leaving markets unregulated in the hope they will find their own equilibrium would simply allow wealth "to accumulate in the hands of its owners," and thence lead to intolerable economic inequity.

Soros' view has one virtue Rand's lacks: humility. Her expectation of the triumph of perfect reason presupposed that human beings can and will act with perfect rationality. That is perhaps a condition to strive for, but most philosophers, scientists, political leaders and pastors harbor at least a suspicion that it is a chimera.

We all know in our hearts that the current picture of the American businessman as greedy and amoral is a rank caricature, and if honest executives feel unfairly maligned they deserve to find solace where they can. But the world is becoming more complicated than it was in Ayn Rand's day, not less. Objectivists would undoubtedly say this is just what she predicted, given our predilection for messing with the natural order of things. But it may be that times have finally passed Ayn Rand by, notwithstanding her institute's fresh new Orange County digs.

Michael A. Hiltzik can be reached at golden.state@

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