(If you are not an Objectivist, please ignore this.)
The Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) is failing, and I have struggled over whether to make a statement about how and why it is failing. I understand things that Objectivists, and particularly major contributors to ARI, need to know and have a right to know. If ARI were succeeding, I would have nothing to say; but it is not. I can’t in good conscience keep silent. I think Ayn Rand would say, “You must speak up.”
Some will criticize me for making a public statement. They may ask why I didn’t settle this privately and with the Board. I presented the following thoughts to Yaron and the Board repeatedly while I was on the Board at ARI, and since I left, I’ve written to them about these issues extensively as well. All to no avail. So, I will lay out the facts for you. You can investigate, ask questions, think about it, and decide for yourself.
Ask yourself, after reading the facts below, would your integrity permit you to remain silent—especially after you have made attempts to correct ARI’s failing course?
ARI is seriously failing in its mission of promoting Ayn Rand and Objectivism. My goal is to encourage change at ARI. It is important, in my view, that ARI supporters know the painful truth about ARI’s recent past and its present in order to begin making ARI successful in the future.
Here’s some history: About five years ago, when Yaron asked me to give him more money (I was giving about $4 million per year), I said “yes” and asked him what the Institute was already doing with its money and what ARI would do with more. He offered to send me a strategic plan.
When I saw what ARI was doing, and its strategy, I realized that it was not producing meaningful results and that its influence was waning. Right away, and for the next several years, I struggled, discussed, wrote, and debated with Yaron to improve ARI’s strategy.
ARI was spending millions of dollars every year on developing nascent intellectuals with the goal of each of them writing a book. A few did write books, but they didn’t sell much—except to the extent that I funded purchases for distribution. (I mean no criticism of the intellectuals working at ARI.) Another part of this strategy was for Yaron to conduct lecture tours all over the world (I went with him on about four or five of them). These had some value, but as a central strategy, they were not effective. While giving talks has value, the most effective way to affect long-term change is to train people deeply in philosophic ideas.
As an alternative strategy, I advocated strongly for delivering courses, particularly Dr. Peikoff’s courses; promoting Ayn Rand’s and Leonard Peikoff’s books; developing and promoting ARI Campus; and building up a strong Academic Center with 1,000 students attending annually.
Eventually, I came to the painful conclusion that the leadership at ARI had a flawed and failing strategy for affecting meaningful intellectual and cultural change, and had no interest in developing a new strategy. Apart from the original essay contests (which I supported) and the free books program, their basic strategy (on which they were spending loads of time and millions of dollars) was to develop a few nascent intellectuals and to support Yaron’s travels and lectures around the world. ARI continued running the OAC, but very little has come from that despite enormous amounts of time and money.
But ARI didn’t want to change. Yaron declared bluntly: “I have my strategy and I’m not going to change it.”
How can we know if an organization is succeeding? Well, its revenues grow, its audience and influence increase; and it achieves its goals. ARI is not succeeding. It is fast becoming a failed organization. Ask yourself: Are more or fewer people reading Atlas Shrugged today than ten years ago? Are effective new intellectuals being developed? If so, where are they, and what are they doing? Is ARI attracting more or fewer young people to the Objectivist movement? How about Campus Clubs and STRIVE/Undercurrent? Given this course, where will ARI be in five years?
Here are the main criteria for measuring success or failure:
- Contributions/donations: ARI’s revenues have been trending down for about 10 years—even apart from the loss of my contributions. By contrast, consider the huge increases in revenues (sometimes double, or thrice, or quadrupled) for organizations such as the CATO Institute, Prager University, the Foundation for Economic Education, and even The Atlas Society—all of which have shown huge increases in revenues in recent years. If anything, given that we have a philosophy that is true and supportive of human life, we should be way ahead of them.
Major contributors to ARI (including at least three board members) have been withdrawing their funding or cutting back. They don’t want to pay for unproductive intellectuals, rants about politicians, and low-quality articles. That is not the return on investment contributors want.
- Objectivists: The number of people attending OCON has been flat to down beginning 10 years ago. If you take out the “paid-for attendance” (i.e., scholarships), attendance has actually declined. Attendance by now should be in the thousands! Where are all the new Objectivists, and where are the new intellectuals?
The Objectivist Academic Center (OAC) under Onkar Ghate has produced little in the last 10 years; it lacks energy and impact. Auditors aside (who merely listen in), it has fewer actual students today than it did 10 years ago. Few graduates have made substantial contributions to the advancement of Objectivism. (I bet you can count on one hand graduates of the OAC who are advancing Objectivism.) This is a huge and tragic failure.
- Ayn Rand book sales: Book sales in America have been declining for about eight years (they’ve been growing internationally, in part because of activities funded by my Prometheus Foundation). This is perhaps the most damning statistic of all. ARI’s efforts are not increasing book sales, and they’re doing little directly or specifically to increase sales. It’s just not part of their strategy.
- Morale: ARI has not inspired the Objectivist community; it dispirits many people. The Objectivist community is sick of hearing ranting and raving about politics (Trump in particular), and so much hostility and negativity. They want an Objectivist movement that is vibrant and life-affirming. They want the kind of positivity and benevolence that Ayn Rand radiated and inspired. The want to see her ideas in action. And they want to see the Objectivist community working together to advance her vital ideas. Yet ARI promotes Yaron and Onkar and causes division among Objectivists. The Ayn Rand Institute should be uniting the Objectivist movement, not dividing it.
- ARI Campus: I planned and financed ARI Campus to reach hundreds of thousands of people and to have them take and complete courses on philosophy, particularly Objectivism. After spending $5 million on a software system and a video studio, it all collapsed. ARI has never promoted it or taken it seriously. To be an effective college, it had to be run like one and promoted as a serious educational program. It should offer high-end, real courses and charge people for taking them, thus attaching value to the courses and providing an incentive for students to complete them. (This is education-business 101.) But ARI didn’t do any of this. Instead, they released everything for free on YouTube, thus watering down the value of the courses by running them beside millions of free cat videos. Five to ten million dollars more was spent on Campus, yet it still produces only a trickle. And the number of people taking courses (rather than lectures) and completing them is very small. (Merely citing the numbers of hours viewed on a mobile app creates a false cumulative picture. Any first-year statistics student knows this.)
ARI squandered my multi-million-dollar investments. And in an effort to salvage the parts of the project that were supposed to become Ayn Rand University—and that could have become an actual university if I had contributed the additional $12 million they asked for—they instead created a mobile app and called it “Ayn Rand University.” (I’m glad Ayn Rand is not alive to see this. What could have been an actual Ayn Rand University is now an app.)
- Intellectual Standards: The quality of the intellectual work being done at ARI is not to the standard of 20 years ago. OCON has deteriorated. 20 years ago, we had substance—courses by Leonard Peikoff, Harry Binswanger, Peter Schwartz, John Ridpath, George Reisman, and, yes, Yaron Brook. No longer. The last in-person OCON was the worst—especially the lackluster and meandering discussion about aesthetics.
The writing coming from ARI has deteriorated, too. As one commenter wrote in an email to me: “Many of its [ARI’s] key figures have become increasingly negative over the last few years. The quality of their op-eds and articles has been awful. Poorly researched, full of silly assumptions and premature judgments and just generally sloppy.”
- Size: The number of staff at ARI is about half of what it was 10 years ago. Over the last two years there have been four layoffs. This is partly because I stopped contributing. But it is also because others have stopped as well. I’m not the only one who sees these problems (but I am speaking up; perhaps others will too). Contributions were down even before I stopped supporting ARI, and they’ve been falling more since I stopped.
These are the results of my contributing a total of about $40 million to ARI. I think this gives me a right to ask for an accounting and to urge for improvements.
The Institute is in the most serious decline I’ve seen since I made my first contribution in 1985. Some of this is a consequence of ARI’s broken agreements with me and Craig Biddle, which has cost them my money and support and the moral and financial support of many good people. And some of it is a consequence of ARI’s increasingly non-objective (and non-Objectivist) approach to ideas. One of the clearest examples of this is Yaron Brook’s dogmatic and strident pronouncement that if you support President Trump, you should not call yourself an Objectivist. His exact words were:
Those of you who are apologists for Donald Trump, please never use the word “Objectivism” to associate it with yourself. Because you cannot be Objectivists—you are not Objectivists… You’re the fifth-column within Objectivism. You all will destroy Objectivism. And it will ultimately be on you if America declines, if America disappears, if America succumbs to either the whackos of the left or the whackos of the right.
An apologist is a person who offers an argument in defense of something controversial. Is it controversial to support Trump? Yes, to some. Is it controversial to say he is less bad than Biden? Perhaps, to some. Does holding one of these positions make you a sell-out who doesn’t deserve to call himself an Objectivist? Does it make you a fifth-column within Objectivism—an enemy of Objectivism? Yaron says, yes, it does.
Of course, seasoned Objectivists could and likely did dismiss Yaron’s offensive statement. But to new Objectivists, particularly young adults who are trying to understand Ayn Rand’s ideas, this was intimidating and disturbing. It’s not surprising that Leonard Peikoff responded as follows:
“The one [issue] that galls me the most is his [Yaron’s] statement on the radio that anyone who sympathizes or votes for Trump is not an Objectivist. So, he is implicitly declaring that my life work is not by an Objectivist, but his is.”
As we know, Ayn Rand was completely opposed to such dogma. One of her oft-repeated principles was that you must think for yourself. Make up your own mind. Yaron’s statement demonstrated contempt for the minds of his listeners.
His pronouncement insulted half of the Objectivist community and likely more than half of ARI donors. He told them not only that they should not call themselves Objectivists, but also that they are enemies, a “fifth-column within Objectivism”—an enemy within the ranks! I have to wonder how many good people left Objectivism, and how many said, “That’s it. I’m not donating anymore to ARI.” This insulting rant was extremely destructive to the reputation of Objectivism and ARI. Has Yaron apologized for this insult and egregious harm to ARI and Objectivism? No. Will he apologize?
Recently during his Zoom birthday party, Leonard declared:
“I am voting for Trump. That’s it… I heard somebody say: ‘No Objectivist would vote for Trump,’ and I’m still steaming over that. So I’m trying to publicize the fact that whoever said that is crazy.”
Whose thinking should you follow—Yaron’s or Leonard’s? Neither. You should think for yourself.
Some Objectivists (including Dr. Peikoff) tell me they do not and cannot listen to Yaron’s scoffing and strident blaming. This is not what Objectivism looks like in practice.
The world needs Objectivism more than ever. It needs a strong and visionary Ayn Rand Institute—an Institute that promotes Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff (not only or primarily Yaron Brook and Onkar Ghate).
It wouldn’t be right to criticize ARI if it were achieving its goals and succeeding, but ARI is not achieving its goals. They may say this article is “riddled with errors and distortions.” But much of what I’ve described here you have seen for yourself. And if you have questions about any of this, I encourage you to demand numbers and explanations from ARI.
ARI may try to blame me or Craig or say, “philosophy is hard.” It is up to you to weigh the facts and results and decide for yourself. And I do hope you will ask questions and decide for yourself.
To have a vibrant, successful Ayn Rand Institute, major contributors and senior Objectivists need to step up with courage and conviction and insist upon changes. ARI must have a new strategy.
There are many Objectivists of intelligence, vision, and decency—individuals whom I have long respected. I urge these Objectivists to step up and save ARI. I, perhaps more than anyone, have always wanted and still want ARI to thrive and prosper. I call on Mike Berliner, Peter Schwartz, Harry Binswanger (the original Board), John Allison, Lars Christensen, Jim Brown, Arturo Gamboa, Tim Blum, Alex Epstein, Lisa VanDamme, Andrew Bernstein, Richard Salsman, Brad Thompson, Eric Daniels, Annie Vinther Sanz, Greg Salmieri, Adam Mossoff, Rajshree Agarwal, Ellen Kenner, Ed Locke, Andrew Layman, Binh Dang, Jim Allard, Mark da Cunha, Michael Kauffman, and others to ask questions, ask for facts and clear answers, and speak up and save ARI before it is too late.
It is up to us to speak up and act. I am speaking up. I welcome your comments.