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New Republic - August 14, 2019

... Objectivists insist that their predilections are derived from a highly logical, uncompromising framework. But there were moments when it felt like we were engaging in a lot of ex post facto justification of Rand’s personal tastes. Jazz, we were later told, sucked. Rock and roll sucked. Gilbert and Sullivan sucked. Bach sucked. Modern art sucked. But surely an exception should be made for the Objectivist members of Rush, one concerned attendee wondered aloud at a different panel. The speaker’s answer was a perfect study in measured circumlocution: “We just don’t have the vocabulary to really talk about music.”

As I moved through the main halls of the conference, I was struck by the notable absence of any one who seemed under the age of 30. My young friends from the night before were nowhere to be seen. I was starting to worry that, despite the movie night, the subsidized admission, the promise of board games and picnics, young people really were turning their backs on capitalism after all. In the break between lectures, I browsed the merch table, getting schooled via pamphlets like “The Selfish Path to Romance” and “Health Care Is Not A Right” and books like “Equal is Unfair.”

But as I plowed on with my crash course in Objectivism, I found younger attendees turning out in greater numbers for the afternoon sessions. (Perhaps they’d been up late partying to Rush anthems?) The highly anticipated “The New Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” presentation drew a healthy contingent of the young. Outside the auditorium, Emily Bujold told a group of rapt listeners her own conversion story from misguided environmentalist to development enthusiast. The assembled crowd seemed to be divided on the question of whether one could properly speak of an environmental problem in the first place—but they definitely seconded Bujold’s view that, to the extent there may be one, capitalism is definitely the solution.

That, at any rate, was the message we heard from Alex Epstein, one of the featured speakers. A self-identified “intellectual entrepreneur,” Epstein converted to the Objectivist creed while a freshman at Duke, an identity that made him an outcast. After college, he went to work at the Ayn Rand Institute. He now runs the Center for Industrial Progress, a think tank (for-profit, of course) that caters to the oil industry. (He explained that, in contrast to nonprofit think tanks that often engage in tacit quid pro quo intellectual work for their corporate benefactors, he’s able to candidly provide companies with their preferred talking points and white papers as a straightforward market exchange.)

The moral case for fossil fuels, it turned out, was a Steven Pinker–esque tribute to the bright side of human progress. “The world is better than ever,” Epstein declared, thanks in no small part to energy derived from fossil fuels. Environmentalism is thus anti-humanist. “People are just looking for negatives about fossil fuels,” he lamented. “They’re not looking for positives.” He then drilled the crowd on some useful rhetorical flourishes that he has passed on to policy-makers. (“To paraphrase Atlas Shrugged,” he said, “I want them to have the words they need.”) When he pulled up the famous “hockey stick” graph showing a dramatic spike of atmospheric carbon levels after the industrial era, he told us that it actually charted a great saga of “human flourishing.”

An exuberant question-and-answer session followed. When someone noted that his peers were alarmed by a rapidly warming climate, Epstein took a dig at the Green New Deal championed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, saying, “I think she should be called Venezuela Ocasio-Cortez!”  When another audience member invited him to respond to accusations that his acceptance of fossil fuel industry dollars might preclude him from being objective, Epstein steamrolled the question with a John Galt–style show of brio: “I’m that superhero who’s coming to help this industry tell the truth.”

Epstein’s talk drove home the perverse incentives the Objectivist dogma offers to on-the-make intellectuals: Selling out to the highest bidder is not merely condoned; it’s deemed a positive moral virtue. It didn’t even matter if Epstein really believed his own advocacy; maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. What mattered above all is the belief in the sanctity of the transaction. “That was very interesting,” one of the young Objectivists murmured to me on the way out.

The Objectivist youth I eventually managed to ingratiate myself with were largely STEM majors, hailing from all over the world. Many were exiles from conservative movement groups like Turning Point USA, YA Liberty, and the Federalist Society, turned out, they said, for holding extreme views. They made jokes about initiating me into the “cult,” and ribbed me for lacking fluency in the Rand canon. ...
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