Energetic. Engaging. Funny.
Not words one might imagine using to describe a lecture on a college campus. But Yaron Brook delivered all of this and more at a recent talk at Mercer University’s Atlanta campus.
It is worth mentioning that Dr. Brook is punctual. These days, we are so used to events — whether plays, concerts, or lectures — starting late. (C’mon, when was the last time you were at a rock concert and didn’t hear the crowd cheer for some roadie who appeared on stage to plug in an amp, in hopes that the main act was finally about to start the show?) Without excessive pleasantries, Dr. Brook dove into the topic of the night, “Capitalism Without Guilt: The Moral Case for Freedom.”
Dr. Brook began by talking about the housing boom and bust. Government incentives for Americans to take on debt to buy a home, with HUD insuring up to ninety percent of mortgages, were setting people up for failure. For every one dollar of equity, there were one thousand dollars of debt. This also contributed to an artificially low interest rate on mortgages. No private entity would lend money to such a losing enterprise, but the government readily supported the housing market and the inappropriate loans people were procuring.
He then pondered why it is that, whenever there is an economic downturn, people are so quick to blame the free market instead of government intervention. He briefly revisited the government snafus that helped to shape the Great Depression and prolong it, including myriad mistakes by the Federal Reserve.
Next he held up Hong Kong — which he characterized as a small rock surrounded by water, with few natural resources — as an example of a free market at work. Why is it that people are flocking there, sometimes even risking their lives to go there? With its tremendous prosperity, he said that it works “because freedom works. Capitalism works. Free markets work.”
In fact, Dr. Brook clarified, if Gates gave away everything he owned and moved into a hut on an island, we’d call him a great guy — even if he were nuts.
Holding up his iPhone, Dr. Brook explained to the audience
that trade, not sacrifice, is best.
Steve Jobs aims to make the best product possible, and owning the smartphone Brook
held in his hand is worth more to him than the $200 he paid for it.
For him, and other iPhone users, the cost of the phone was more than worth the price paid for it — that’s why they bought them. The consumer benefits from a product they enjoy, and that makes their lives easier, and the company benefits by making a profit on a good product. Such free trade is always a win-win, he told the crowd; and it is sacrifice, in contrast, that creates a lose-lose situation.
So, what about Bernie Madoff? Madoff, Dr. Brook explained, is not selfish but self-destructive. Selfish people “make their lives the best that they can be,” but Madoff put himself on a path that ruined his life. He postulated that Madoff was probably relieved when he finally got caught, because the scam was over. All of the lies, the deception, the fear of getting caught, had now vanished.
Addressing the subject of global warming and the environment more generally, Dr. Brook opined that, “We change our environment in order to live in it.” People live in skyscrapers, not caves. As animals, people are “pathetic” — we have no claws, sharp teeth, or strength. It is our minds that make our survival possible.
He further explained that the best way to protect, say, the spotted owl, was to allow protections for private property. If a person liked spotted owls and wanted them around, he could contribute to a spotted owl preserve. If people want their rivers clean, private property makes that possible, since it allows you to sue the person polluting your river. In other words, your property is protected by the rule of law and cannot be contaminated by others.
Coming to the close of his talk, Dr. Brook invited questions. A man stood up and humbly asked about books that better explain Objectivism. Dr. Brook’s suggestions included Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness and Tara Smith's Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist. (Tara Smith is the BB&T Chair for the Study of Objectivism at University of Texas at Austin.)
The next audience member questioned Dr. Brook’s claim that a the free market system is what made Hong Kong so affluent and successful, citing instead the more oppressive Singapore as the best example of economic prosperity. I have attended many lectures at campuses in the Southeast, with notables such as Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, Noam Chomsky, and Dennis Kucinich, to name a few. But I have never seen a speaker so graciously allow an audience member to make his point and then return with his answer without a trace of animosity — no anger at being challenged nor signs of being flustered by the question.
This confidence that exists when one is knowledgeable of the facts and open to intellectual discourse reminded me what Objectivism is all about. Dr. Brook acceded that Singapore was in fact a wealthy city-state, but also reminded the audience of the overly-strict social rules that its government enacts, including the much-publicized caning of an American citizen for vandalism in the Nineties. However, the government of Singapore allows their economy to run as a free-market — providing further evidence, Brook observed, that it is in fact free markets that bring prosperity.
If Dr. Brook comes to a university or lecture hall near you, I highly recommend going to see him speak. I left feeling reinvigorated and further confirmed in my own beliefs in the free market and the many virtues of enlightened self-interest.
Tara Overzat is a writer and a graduate student in Clinical Mental Health Counseling in Atlanta, Georgia. She blogs at Shy Extrovert and the American Counseling Association Blog.