John Stossel's first show on the Fox Business Network airs tomorrow at 8 p.m., and will be devoted to Ayn Rand and the novel Atlas Shrugged, according to Mr. Stossel's blog. One of the guests on the Stossel program will be C. Bradley Thompson, who is the BB&T research professor at Clemson University and the executive director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism. Before the Stossel show taped, FutureOfCapitalism.com's editor had lunch with Professor Thompson and interviewed him.
I begin by asking Professor Thompson for a simple, one-sentence definition of capitalism. The definition on the Clemson center's Web site is four paragraphs long. "Capitalism is the political and economic system that completely separates the economy from the state and has as its purpose the protection of individual rights," Professor Thompson replies.
"Completely separates?" I ask. Has that been tried anywhere?
Professor Thompson says it hadn't, but that America and Britain came pretty close between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I. The larger context of capitalism, he says, is what he called the "four pillars of a free society" – separation of "economy and state," "church and state," "school and state," and "culture and state."
Separate culture and state, I ask, does that mean you want to end the Kennedy Center Honors and shut down the Smithsonian Institution? Indeed, he says that he did want to stop government funding of those activities, complaining that the Smithsonian had used tax dollars for exhibits of left-wing political content.
Hmm, I say. What's it like for someone with these political views on a college campus these days? "As a graduate student holding these views at Brown and at Harvard, it was a very lonely experience," he says. "I was under assault." On the other hand, he said that he found the conservatives at Ashland University in Ohio, where he taught before Clemson, "just as hostile to the principles of a free society."
Clemson, by contrast, has been a "remarkably supportive and friendly place," he says.
Where does Ayn Rand fit in to all this?
Professor Thompson says that at Clemson, his students explore lots of justifications for capitalism and individual rights. They read John Locke, Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ludwig Von Mises. "In my view Ayn Rand makes the best moral argument for capitalism," Professor Thompson says. He says the others – Friedman, Mises, Hayek – offer at best a utilitarian argument for capitalism, that it "produces the most good for the greatest number."
In Atlas Shrugged, he says, Rand offers a defense of "rational self-interestedness" that allows capitalism to capture the "moral high ground." Professor Thompson says he's been an Objectivist – a believer in Rand's philosophy – since he first read Rand's Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead 30 years ago.
I ask if he finds any contradiction in defending capitalism and the profit motive from the platform of a non-profit (actually, state-funded) university and a center funded by contributions from donors. Not at all, he says; the donors are "selfishly acting to promote their values, which we represent." Students in his American Political Thought class read 1,100 pages of Atlas Shrugged, he says, and another group of students read Atlas Shrugged at the pace of a chapter a week over the course of a year and a half as part of a non-credit Friday afternoon study group. "Students absolutely love it," he says.
Professor Thompson can come across as a bit dour, and I ask whether he is frustrated that policymakers and politicians are expanding the role of government, in violation of what he believes. "It's beyond frustrating. It's incredibly depressing," he says. "We are not slouching toward Gomorrah, we are sprinting." He's particularly upset by neo-conservative intellectuals he views as inadequately supportive of capitalism, mentioning a Michael Novak speech in which the American Enterprise Institute scholar says, "My friend Irving Kristol calls his book Two Cheers for Capitalism. One cheer is quite enough."
Still, there's some optimism to be found in Professor Thompson's assessment, as well: "Most Americans agree with me," he said, on what he calls "the Founders' idea of the spirit of liberty."