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Yaron Brook’s Lord of Illusions

I told myself I was going to shut up about Yaron fucking Brook, but the son of a bitch decided to flat-out lie in the February 16th podcast.

There’s no purpose in quoting the entire Q&A. The questioner, dumb as a bag of hammers, suggested that American cities have a dearth of public parks (making the baffling statement, assuming Brook is directly quoting the question, that “there are no urban parks in America, with the exception of Central Park and maybe Golden Gate”), especially when compared to “socialist” countries in Europe. The questioner considers this “a clear failure of capitalist thinking.”

Admittedly, Brook has a habit of mangling questions in attempts to paraphrase them, but here it sounded a lot like he read the majority of the question verbatim; it’s just that the question doesn’t make sense. I’ve never been to Europe, but I have lived in two of the biggest cities in this country, and it’s hard not to find parks. The Chicago Park District lists 596 parks, which excludes beaches. Many of them probably aren’t more than a city block, but there’s still Grant Park, Lincoln Park (which is significantly larger than Central Park), Jackson Park, Burnham Park… Los Angeles, of course, has Griffith Park, which is over five times the size of Central Park. That’s not even getting into forest preserves, state parks, national parks, and the wide open spaces a stone’s throw away from every American city.

More importantly, city parks are a feature of urban planning. In other words: a function of government. Even if the claim that there “are no urban parks” was true, even if it was true that American cities have fewer parks and/or smaller parks than European cities (and it may be; I don’t care enough to research the comparison), how is it a failure of capitalist thinking when it’s not up to private enterprise to fund, build, and maintain parks?

That’s what leads to Brook’s lie. He latched onto the questioner’s mention of Central Park and makes the outrageous claim that “Central Park was established by local businessmen [not true]. It was a private park [not true], established by private people [not true], on private land [not true]. It wasn’t established through so-called ‘urban planning’ [not true].”

Why would he make claims so obviously untrue and so easily verifiable? To be really, really nice, I’ll entertain the notion that Brook’s pro-capitalist zeal led to this blunder. I don’t know what runs through his mind at any given time, so I can’t make an honest claim that he’s lying to win the argument, or lying to revise history, or just to see how many lies he could cram into three short sentences. So let’s leave it at zeal. But it’s still a lie. Or rather, a series of related lies.

I could imagine someone like Brook really, really wanting it to be true that the most well-known park in the world (or, at least, in this country), famed for its landscape design and architecture, was a product of private enterprise, rather than (blech!) that nasty old government. In the context of this question, he’s trying to prove that Central Park is a victory of capitalist thinking, because it’s a great park that, in his imagination, was originally privately owned and operated.

The closest he gets to the truth is that it was local businessmen who saw the need for the park. The problem is, they did exactly what Ayn Rand would have hated: they blustered that the city needed to set aside land for a park, and when they city wouldn’t, they blustered to the state and the newspapers until “public support” for the park was so high, the state created a planning commission to make sure the park happened. Even if you think (as I do) that the end result was worth it, this is an early but fine example of private-public circle-jerking. The impetus was impure: the aristocratic Old Money who had been living in New York since it was a colonial hub wanted to get rid of the growing number of freed slaves and European immigrants squatting in shantytowns on undeveloped land. The early result was equally impure: property theft/destruction (via “eminent domain”) leading to the displacement of (1) New York’s first community of free, property-owning, middle-class African-Americans; and (2) New York’s first college for women.

Because it’s easier to lie, Brook misses a golden opportunity to use Central Park as reinforcement for his later point that urban planning is a component of socialist thinking, not capitalist. Central Park would not have existed without three things he claims to hate: philanthropy, cronyism, and abuse of individual rights (especially private property rights!). I’ve already explained why he’s wrong about philanthropy, and here I would offer that any feints toward philanthropy just served to mask the racism behind the Central Park plot, but all of that is beside the point: Brook hates philanthropy. He should, therefore, hate the origins of Central Park instead of lying about them.

This leads to another reason Brook might have lied. The philosophy of Objectivism supports capitalism as an economic system, inasmuch as free-market capitalism is the only system that reflects individual freedom. Because the late nineteenth century was the only period in which U.S. economic policy approached laissez-faire, Objectivists—particularly those associated with the Ayn Rand Institute—tend to deify nineteenth-century capitalists.

They shouldn’t. Objectivism is an atheistic philosophy, so there’s no purpose in anointing human beings to god-like status. Ayn Rand thought the virtuous qualities of man should be admired, not resented. What confuses Objectivists like Brook is when a person has virtuous qualities and negative qualities. Most people do. Ayn Rand understood this; her novels are filled with them. Yet, far too many Objectivists find “contradictions” in humanity baffling. Why? Don’t they realize most people in the world are not Objectivists, and even those who are may not always thinking or act philosophically? It can take years—decades—to reorient your brain into a different line of thinking; even children raised by Objectivists to be Objectivists have to do battle with the irrationality of the world in which they live. Instead of recognizing that, you have goofballs like Amy Peikoff acting like Steve Jobs’s drug experimentation and interest in Buddhism are the weirdest things she’s ever heard, impossible to reconcile with a person whose business dealings tended to reflect Objectivist-style heroics.

Why would he do that? Why would he need it? Why wouldn’t he be satisfied merely by pursuing his passion in business? Gee, Davey, maybe it’s because he has the entire world telling him it’s “selfish” and immoral to want to make money, and yet that was all he was interested in doing. Maybe he was seeking ways to feel good about himself instead of feeling like a monster for wanting things everyone around him was telling him he shouldn’t want. To put it in a context I would hope someone like Amy Peikoff or Yaron Brook could understand: maybe he was a Hank Rearden instead of a John Galt.

The true story of Central Park turns the businessmen and “philanthropists” urging the project forward into complicated human beings instead of intentionally exaggerated fictional characters. Considering it was the early 1850s, and we’re talking about white aristocrats of that time, there is a high likelihood that these people were Christian, racist, and hypocrites. You know, the sort of people whose Christian values told them it was only okay to be rich if they “gave back,” but who wouldn’t give back by building a park themselves. They were the sort who used the influence and power their money bought in order to pressure the state to pressure the city to steal the land from the people who owned it and build the park with taxpayer money. That sort of “giving back.” Not to mention the sort of people who hid behind an illusion of Christian charity in order to get what they wanted: the forcible removal of black people, European immigrants, and women from the sight lines of their well-appointed homes.

They might have been good capitalists, in the sense of thriving businessmen driven to continued success, but they weren’t Objectivists. Yaron Brook likes to trumpet that Ayn Rand was the one who defined capitalism as a moral system—the only moral system—so why would it surprise him or anyone else that the capitalists who predated her would not practice capitalism in a moral way? Hell, most still don’t practice it in moral ways, and often misquote Rand to justify it. Why wouldn’t they? The fearless leader of Objectivism has gone beyond his usual distortions of Rand’s work into flat-out lying about the history of this country, to create the illusion that capitalism is a flawless system.

It’s not flawless. Rand knew that, and she explored it in her work. Pure, free-market capitalism can do more good for people than any other system, but in an irrational world, people are still assholes. They can still fuck it up. Why does Brook imagine so much of the world is against capitalism? Because even in the late nineteenth century, human hypocrisy made it look bad. They exposed flaws in the system. Free-market capitalism, I’m sad to say, can’t be a perfect system unless and until we live in an Objectivist Utopia, where people deal with each other honestly and rationally. Lying about history won’t change that any more than deifying old-timey businessmen will. If Brook is sincere about his desire to promote Objectivism, a better solution is to be honest about this complexity and use it to ARI’s advantage. Everyone thinks Rockefeller was an asshole? Explain why that’s half-true, but not for the reasons they think. Make it clear that Ayn Rand thought through the flaws that made all of these people half-great and half-rotten, and that Objectivism can help people to scrape away the rotten portions and leave only the greatness.

The fact that the “philanthropists” of 1850s New York weren’t pure of heart and rational Objectivists doesn’t mean capitalism or Objectivism got it all wrong; it means that those guys were kind of assholes. That should be acknowledged and explored, not obscured with lies.

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