I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Brown, the new chief executive officer of the Ayn Rand Institute, about his vision for the organization. Prior to joining ARI, Brown enjoyed a thirty-year career in finance—and, prior to that, he served in the U.S. Air Force as a pilot, flight instructor, flight commander, and squadron commander. He holds a bachelor of science in political science from the United States Air Force Academy, an MBA from Harvard Business School, and is a chartered financial analyst. —Craig Biddle
Craig Biddle: Thank you for taking time to chat with me, Jim. I know our readers are eager to hear about your new position as CEO of the Ayn Rand Institute and your plans for the organization.
Jim Brown: It’s great to see you, Craig. Fire away!
Biddle: ARI’s stated mission is to increase awareness, understanding, and acceptance of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. So let’s begin with how you came to discover and appreciate her ideas. When and how did you discover Rand, and what’s so important to you about her ideas that you’ve chosen to head an organization dedicated to spreading them?
Brown: I grew up in an Irish Catholic family with seven kids, and, in my teens, I was the family member who took religion most seriously. I think that’s because from a very young age I was interested in comprehensive explanations to questions about existence and morality. I don’t remember a time, even in my youth, when I didn’t have such a philosophical bent. So, as an adolescent, I became fascinated with Catholic theology, its structure, and its universal explanations. I even thought about becoming a priest. But I harbored doubts about various issues and contradictions in the Catholic system, and those kept me from moving in that direction.
I was also fascinated by airplanes and the prospect of flying. After high school, I entered the Air Force Academy with the goal of becoming an officer and pilot. On the first day of freshman English class, my professor, an air force officer, recommended to the class three books: Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and some other book I don’t remember. Although I didn’t get around to reading the books for several months, those titles stuck in my head.
A few weeks later, I had a bit of an awakening. At the time, my father—an air force fighter pilot who was (and still is) my hero—was stationed in Thailand, flying dangerous missions over North Vietnam. I would go to chapel every morning and pray for him. One morning, in mid-prayer, it occurred to me how ridiculous this was. I stood up, swore at myself for being so stupid as to think anyone was up there listening to my thoughts, and walked out. That day, in my own mind at least, I officially became an atheist and left the Church. As a cadet, I was required to continue attending chapel once a week. But I was over religion.
The following summer I read The Fountainhead, followed quickly by Atlas Shrugged. I was immediately hooked. I not only loved the stories and the novels as works of art, but I also connected deeply with the philosophy they presented. These ideas made sense. This was a rational philosophy—a philosophy for living in the real world.
So that’s how I discovered Ayn Rand.
In the following years—which included my pilot training, a flying career, and world travel—I read everything “Objectivist” I could get my hands on. In the mid-seventies, I took a break from the Air Force to attend Harvard Business School, and while there I teamed up with some MIT students to sponsor listening sessions of the taped lectures on Objectivism that were available at the time.
Initially, I viewed Objectivism as essentially a framework for making good, moral choices, choices consistent with my own rational self-interest. And, of course, the philosophy is that. But as I read more and matured, I came more fully to understand that Ayn Rand’s philosophy is deeper and richer than it initially seemed. It is a comprehensive, integrated system that provides a foundation for understanding the world and your relationship to it from the ground up—from the basic laws of existence, to how concepts are formed and validated, to the source and role of emotions, to the nature and importance of art. It is literally a philosophy for every aspect of life: intellectual, emotional, romantic, family relationships—you name it.
Anyway, I changed careers several times over the years. In addition to my initial air force career, I’ve been an airline pilot, a stockbroker, a bank trust investment officer, and, most recently, a partner in a large San Diego investment firm. In the mid-nineties, after I finally started making some money, I became a contributor to ARI because of the personal importance of Ayn Rand’s ideas in my life. I felt I had received so much value from the Institute that I wanted to support it.
I retired from the partnership in early 2016 to take a break and evaluate further career options. In late 2016, as I was considering various opportunities, the CEO position at ARI came open. After a number of conversations with close friends in the Objectivist community—including my wife and sweetheart, Kathy—I decided to throw my hat into the ring.
Biddle: Well, I think I speak for many people when I say I’m extremely happy you did. Now that you’re wearing that hat, what’s your vision for the Institute moving forward? And where do you see ARI in ten years, in terms of programs and reach?
Brown: I think we will grow modestly at first, and then rapidly. In ten years, I expect ARI to have at least doubled in size in terms of the people we reach and the support we receive. Perhaps more important than that, though, I expect the quality and effectiveness of our reach to improve.
Ten years ago, Ayn Rand’s name was fairly well known, and her books were quite popular—in part due to the efforts of ARI. But back then, she was only occasionally mentioned in connection with cultural and political issues of the day. Today, substantially due to the further efforts of ARI, her ideas and her novels are discussed all over the Internet and are regularly mentioned by writers and pundits. More often than not, though, her ideas are misrepresented by those who claim to present them. I want to do all we can at ARI to foster genuine understanding and accurate representation of Rand’s ideas in the culture at large. I’d like to see, a decade from now, that most people not only know who Ayn Rand is, but also have a reasonably correct view of her basic ideas. For instance, I’d like for it to be common knowledge that her view of self-interest does not involve callous indifference to others, but involves deep concern for those whom one loves and goodwill toward people in general (except, of course, the truly vicious).
I’d also like to see more Objectivists engage with each other toward this end and toward building a healthy and cohesive Objectivist community. By “community,” I mean a group of people bound by common values—values experienced not only intellectually, but also psychologically, emotionally, and existentially. We Objectivists have so much to offer each other and the world. We want to create a culture of reason and freedom, and we can be much more effective toward that end if we work together and spread these vital ideas in unison. I’d like to see Objectivists develop the same affinity toward each other that people in my hometown feel toward each other—an attitude of general goodwill and cooperation. If we can do this, then I think more people, especially young people, will feel more interested in crossing over from today’s dominant culture of skepticism and collectivism into our burgeoning community of reason and individualism.
So I think we have a lot of exciting work to do. And I’m glad to be involved with ARI at this level.
Biddle: Hear, hear. What do you regard as the main strengths of the organization—and how do you aim to tap into and augment these?
Brown: Well, first and foremost, we have a highly intelligent and dedicated staff. Everyone here could be engaged in a lucrative career elsewhere, but they are here at ARI because they are personally interested in improving the culture by spreading Ayn Rand’s ideas. So our main strength is our excellent people and their dedication to ARI’s mission. Among these, of course, is our world-class emissary, Yaron Brook, who is constantly on the road speaking to audiences worldwide, broadcasting his radio program, and working on various writing projects. But everyone at ARI is involved in making this organization tick and thus in contributing to its output.
Second, we have what I call a treasure trove of stored Objectivist “wealth.” In addition to the Ayn Rand archives, which are housed in our office and could supply an entire Ayn Rand museum, ARI’s intellectuals have written and are writing excellent books and articles on a wide variety of topics, from rational foreign policy to freedom of speech to defenses of inequality and finance. We also have ARI Campus, our online school offering various recorded lectures and courses about Objectivism; Voices for Reason, ARI’s blog; countless videos on YouTube; and much more. This stored wealth will continue growing and educating people—as our good people continue producing and disseminating it.
So, in short, I’d say ARI’s main strengths are its dedicated people and its educational content.
Biddle: Which aspects of the organization do you think could use some improvement, and how will you approach these opportunities?
Brown: I think we need to do a better job of establishing and marketing the Institute’s “brand” in order to distribute our content more effectively to people at the various centers of cultural and intellectual influence, large and small. We have had great success spreading Ayn Rand’s ideas through our books to teachers program and our essay contests. But I want to see more think tanks, journalists, educational organizations, teachers, and students tapping into and using our materials. That’s a big challenge. And I think it’s a crucial aspect of improving the culture.
I also think that to be truly effective in improving the culture at large, we need to improve the Objectivist culture. That will involve growing the social, community aspect of our movement. I want ARI to take the lead in this regard. I think this is a huge opportunity for us.
Our biggest challenge, in my view, comes from a certain lack of perspective among some, and perhaps many, Objectivists. We all know our movement has been riven by disputes and conflicts for decades. Some of these involve genuinely profound philosophical differences that are irreconcilable, and such differences lead to necessary divisions. But many disputes are based on personal or nonphilosophical conflicts that should have been managed and resolved but instead were allowed to become malignant.
Unnecessary conflicts, especially among Objectivist intellectuals, are more than just distractions. They kill momentum, dampen confidence, and sap morale. They undermine collaborations and associations that otherwise would have helped to expand Objectivism’s influence. Here is where the lack of perspective comes in.
Compared to the great task before us, most of these disputes are penny change. How can we let them divide us when there is so much at stake? “Look at the world,” as Ayn Rand used to say. We cannot afford to allow personal quarrels to morph into lethal conflicts. Objectivists will never be, and should never be, tolerant of blatant irrationality or genuine immorality. But we need to understand the importance of emphasizing common ground and collaborating more whenever we can. We don’t have to be close friends with everyone in the movement, but we do need to learn to recognize and work with good people who share our general goals and values.
Most personality conflicts can be managed. That is what’s done in successful business organizations every day, all across the globe, and we need to learn the process. There is a lot more to say about this, but I think you will see us do more to promote a sense of community among Objectivists—and it will start within the walls of the Ayn Rand Institute.
Biddle: That’s great to hear. I couldn’t agree more about the need for perspective, recognizing common ground, and working together to advance this vital philosophy.
What do you regard as the main obstacles in the culture at large—outside of ARI and the Objectivist movement—to the spread and acceptance of Rand’s ideas? And how do you think Objectivists in general can work to dissolve those barriers?
Brown: It seems that, even as Objectivist influence has grown, there is an increasing level of emotionalism and an anti-reason trend in the culture. We see this trend in the arts, in science, in economics, and in politics. This is partially due to government involvement in education, so-called progressive education, and the low standards and poorly educated students who result therefrom. And it’s partly due to the fact that the culture is soaked in bad philosophy, which is rampant in the universities and infects everything it touches. So I’d say the biggest external challenge we face is an educationally and philosophically stunted general public—and the ideas and institutions that give rise to this.
Like I said, we have a lot of work to do. Fortunately, we have the right philosophy with which to do it.
Biddle: Indeed, we do.
If you could choose a one-sentence reminder that would show up on the personal to-do list of every Objectivist each day moving forward, what would it be?
Brown: I’ll give you my favorite and very well-known activist adage, which comes from Ayn Rand herself: “Anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today.” If you think about what that means, psychologically and existentially, it can be enormously motivating.
Biddle: That’s one of my favorites, too. And the future is a beautiful place to be.
What are the top three ways that people can help you and ARI to do your best work toward accomplishing your goals and spreading Rand’s ideas?
Brown: First, give us feedback. Call us, email us, talk to us at conferences and gatherings. Let us know what you think of our efforts and programs. Let us know whether you think we’re providing valuable content and resources. What are we doing that you think is effective? Where do you think we’re failing or falling short? What can we do to improve?
Second, if you think we have provided value to you—if we’ve earned your support—then contribute to ARI to the extent you think appropriate. Don’t worry if it is not very much. We want to earn your support and then maintain a relationship with you so we can hear what you think, and so we can measure, understand, and improve ARI’s impact.
Third—and very important—start or continue your own program of self-improvement and intellectual activism. ARI provides lots of ways to help you do that: books, online courses, daily blogs, podcasts, conferences, and direct conversations with our intellectuals and staff. We are here to help and to facilitate in any way we can, but it is your ideas and efforts that improve your life and can help change the culture.
It will take a whole generation of new intellectual activists to create the cultural Renaissance we all long for. We want to reach the day when the work currently done by the Ayn Rand Institute will no longer be necessary. We want ultimately to become the place that simply showcases the work of the philosopher whose ideas saved the world by teaching individuals to live fully rationally.
Biddle: I love that vision.
Thank you again for your time, Jim. And thank you for all that you’re doing toward creating a future of reason, egoism, and capitalism. I think Rand would be delighted to see you at the helm of the Institute that bears her name.
Brown: That’s a great compliment, and I promise to live up to it!