Yaron Brook grew up a socialist. What choice did he have?
His parents were "standard leftist intellectuals," he said, driven from their homeland of South Africa by the injustices of apartheid, and drawn to Israel by dreams of Zionism and kibbutz-living. A kibbutz, you know – one of those communal farm/socialist-type utopias where everything is shared, collectivism rules, and other people help bring up your kids.
Brook's dad was a doctor. The family spent time in England and Boston, and he fondly recalls arguing with his Western capitalist classmates over the blights of poverty and economic inequality that went hand-in-hand with the free market.
So honestly. How did Yaron Brook come to be one of the nation's – nay, the world's – leading spokesmen for "rational selfishness" and "laissez-faire capitalism"?
How did he come to conclude that making money is good – very good – and that life's highest moral purpose is achieving personal happiness and individual fulfillment, not necessarily helping the neighbor in need?
How did Yaron Brook come to be president of the Ayn Rand Institute?
He was 16. It was summer break. A friend lent him a copy of Rand's 1,000-plus page "Atlas Shrugged" (which was published 50 years ago today to mostly scathing reviews and is now hailed as one of the most influential business books ever written).
In "Atlas," the capitalist movers and shakers – "individuals of the mind" – go on strike to protest overbearing government regulation and forced income redistribution. They simply drop out, refusing to contribute to a corrupt social order that confiscates their profits and tries to dictate their actions. These folks are, Rand argues, the very glue that holds society together.
In Rand's view, selfishness is a virtue, not a vice. An individual is an end in himself. He should be motivated by rational self-interest and guided solely by reason. And making money is a sign of success, proof that you have created something of value. The government shouldn't take money away from you and give it to the unsuccessful hordes.
Whoa. "I fought the book," Brook says. "I didn't want to agree with it. It challenged everything I believed in." But, after "Atlas," there was no going back.
At age 18, Brook entered the Israeli army, where he met his wife, Revital. On their first date, he gave her a copy of Rand's "The Fountainhead." On their second date, he took her to a lecture.
Now, what does a young man afire with rational self-interest do with his life? Brook got his civil engineering degree from the Technicon — Israel Institute of Technology, but it didn't much agree with him. This backbone of civilization stuff – bridges, roads, sewer systems – had rather limited appeal. There wasn't a great deal of individual fulfillment involved. And the money wasn't so hot either.
"After you come to the conclusion that the purpose of life is to maximize your own well-being, then there is only one country in the world that allows you to do that," he said.
So, like Rand, Brook came to America.
He got his master of business administration from the University of Texas at Austin, and followed up with a doctorate in finance. In a delicious irony, he became an assistant professor at Santa Clara University in San Jose, a Jesuit Catholic university. He started several businesses, including an investment consulting firm and Lyceum International, which organized conferences on objectivism, Rand's philosophy.
It's through those conferences that Brook got to know the movers and shakers in the world of objectivism. Warm, smart and funny, he was eventually asked to head the Ayn Rand Institute, the largest of the think tanks devoted to Rand's work.
Its mission: "To spearhead a cultural renaissance that will reverse the anti-reason, anti-individualism, anti-freedom, anti-capitalist trends in today's culture," its Web site says. "The major battleground in this fight for reason and capitalism is the educational institutions – high schools and, above all, the universities, where students learn the ideas that shape their lives."
The institute began in 1985 with just two staffers in Marina del Rey. Brook agreed to take the job in 2000 on two conditions: that he get an Apple computer, and that the institute move from Marina del Rey to Orange County.
The institute devoted to the high priestess of profit is, well, a nonprofit. Brook proudly earned a total compensation in excess of $356,000 as president last year (he says he could make a lot more in finance).
When he took over in 2000, the institute's budget was less than $2 million. It just closed the books on the 2006-07 fiscal year at a stunning $6.7 million.
More of that money is going into programs, and less into fundraising and administration. In 2004, 57.8 percent of the institute's spending was on programs. Last year, that shot up to 80.6 percent, according to financial information filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
"I don't even know where I am anymore, it has grown so much," said Donna Montrezza, one of the institute's original employees. "Beyond my wildest dreams."
It gives away Rand's books to high schools (some 700,000 to date). Runs an essay contest that annually attracts some 20,000 high school students. Supports college objectivist clubs, writes op-ed pieces, comments regularly on Fox News and CNBC. Next year it will open an office in Washington, D.C., to educate those in the capital on what America is reallyabout.
And, as a special treat for locals, it holds public lectures in Orange County, delightfully poking its fingers in the eyes of conventional wisdom and the status quo.
On Nov. 7, a talk titled "Religion vs. Self-Esteem" will argue that religion undermines every essential precondition of self-esteem.
Brook has lectured on "The Morality of War," arguing that trying to spare civilian lives has prevented the U.S. from winning in Iraq. "If, once all the facts are rationally evaluated, it is found that directly bombing civilian populations or torturing POWs will save American lives, then it is moral – morally mandatory – to do so."
Brook isn't exactly an ideologue. He's fine with charity, for example, so long as it's done voluntarily and for personal fulfillment, rather than out of guilt or self-sacrifice. He lives in Trabuco, watches lots of movies with his wife and two sons, takes in the opera, loves to travel – Italy, Thailand, China, Japan. But, more than anything, he loves the intellectual joust.
Brook sits at his desk and smiles, clearly relishing his philosophical about-face. "My parents," he says, "are still waiting for me to grow out of it."
Register wire services and staff writers Peter Larsen and Frank Mickadeit contributed to this report.
Worth preserving, I think.