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Objectivism in Academia: Gregory Salmieri at UT-Austin

Gregory Salmieri talks about his new teaching and research position at the University of Texas at Austin.

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The progress of Objectivism in academia marked another step forward with the appointment of Gregory Salmieri as director of a new program on objectivity at the University of Texas at Austin. The following interview — conducted by Don Watkins, a former fellow at ARI and co-author of Equal Is Unfairis a highlight from the Ayn Rand Institute’s 2020 Annual Report.

Gregory Salmieri is co-editor of A Companion to Ayn Rand (2016) and Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy (2019), which brought together leading scholars to discuss Rand’s thought and its relationship to contemporary intellectual debates.

Dr. Salmieri is one of the most prominent scholars of Objectivism in academia today. He has been a frequent speaker at ARI’s Objectivist summer conferences and Ayn Rand Conferences, as well as a part-time instructor in the Objectivist Academic Center.

This year he joined the Salem Center for Policy at University of Texas at Austin as director of the new Program for Objectivity in Thought, Action, and Enterprise and holder of the Brigham Fellowship for the Study of Objectivism. The objectivity program and fellowship are supported by Bud Brigham and the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship (www.anthemfoundation.org).  

DON WATKINS: How did you become interested in Ayn Rand?

GREG SALMIERI: It came in two waves. Back in seventh grade, I was really interested in politics, and was reading many of the classics in the field, when an extended family member gave me a copy of [Ayn Rand’s] Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

The essay that stood out to me most was “‘Extremism,’ or The Art of Smearing.” It gave me the idea that part of what you need to think about and evaluate is the very language you’re using — that words could have assumptions built into them. That started me thinking in a new way.

So the book made a big impact on me, but I didn’t read much more by Rand at the time, and I wouldn’t have considered myself an Objectivist. I just thought of her as one of the authors I’d read who I got a lot out of. In retrospect, I think I got more than I’d realized at the time.

Eventually I became more interested in philosophy than in politics, and in my first term at The College of New Jersey, I became an active participant in the philosophy club — this is before I was taking philosophy classes. And a lot of the other students there kept telling me that I had a lot of interests in common with one of the professors — Allan Gotthelf. But, they warned, “He always wants to talk about Ayn Rand.” And I thought, “Well, I like her too!”

The next semester I started taking all philosophy classes, both from Allan and from other faculty there, and it’s at that time that I read everything by Rand, starting with her novels. I went on to get my PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. Since then, I’ve taught at different universities—the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Boston University, and most recently at Rutgers — and written on topics in ancient philosophy and related to Rand.

DON: Now you’ve joined the Salem Center in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. What do you do there?

Ideally what you have is philosophy giving you a broad perspective on value choices and the reasons behind the different value choices people make.
GREG: I’m the director of a new program on objectivity, and (for now) the program is just me. I have funding to support my research and to organize academic conferences and some public-facing events. For example, we just had a panel about Free Speech with Tara Smith, Steve Simpson, and me. Starting in the spring, I’ll also be teaching at the university in the philosophy department, and at the College of Undergraduate Studies (which runs a series of interdisciplinary seminars for incoming freshmen). Until then, I’ve been interfacing with students a little by running a discussion group about the upcoming election.

Finally, I’ll have the opportunity to work on some other projects aimed at the public, starting with a book project that you, Onkar Ghate [ARI’s chief philosophy officer], and I are collaborating on.

DON: Definitely say more about the book project, because I think it’s super-exciting.

GREG: This is the project I’m most immediately enthusiastic about. I’ve been talking to Onkar for a year or more about the possibility of making books based on some of the lectures we’ve given at the student conferences ARI has held (or co-sponsored) over the past five years. This is some of the best material I think we’ve produced. It’s at once very accessible and intellectually high-powered.

But it’s a big job to convert this material into books, and it’s a type of writing — for a popular audience—that neither of us has done much of. So there was a missing piece to the project. I’d been thinking about whether there was a way to use some of the Salem Center funds to hire someone to help us with this, but as I thought about it, it became clear that we’d need someone with a rare skill set as a writer and a thinker.

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I remember thinking, “I wish we could find someone like Don Watkins” — knowing that there wasn’t anyone like you in the relevant respects, and assuming you wouldn’t be available for this, because I knew you had a lot on your plate. So, when you mentioned you were looking for projects, I was thrilled. We’re starting with a book based on the 2017 lecture series Onkar and I gave on political philosophy [What Does It Mean to Be for Liberty? from the Ayn Rand Student Conference 2017]. If it goes as well as I’m expecting, there will be follow-up projects based on other lecture series.

DON: I’m looking forward to working on the project because I had a similar thought. Namely, that those lectures were so amazing I wish I could help turn them into books. Circling back to the Salem Center opportunity, though, how did it come about?

GREG: For years, Yaron Brook [ARI’s chairman of the board and a board member of the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship] thought it would be wonderful — and possible — for a second Objectivist scholar to find a home at UT Austin in addition to Tara Smith, who has been doing excellent work there for many years. [Dr. Smith, the author of numerous books in philosophy, is the BB&T Chair for the Study of Objectivism and holds the Anthem Foundation Fellowship.] So Objectivism is well known at the university, and there’s an existing relationship between UT and the Anthem Foundation that has supported Tara’s work, and then a long-time donor to the Institute, Bud Brigham, is also an alumnus of UT and a big supporter of activities there.

So Yaron has had the idea of something at Austin in mind for quite a while. Not long ago, when giving a talk there he met Carlos Carvalho, the professor who was ramping up what would become the Salem Center, and Carlos told Yaron he was interested in adding an Objectivist perspective to the Center. That led to the Anthem Foundation and Bud making a gift to establish the Objectivity program and the Brigham Fellowship for the Study of Objectivism, and to Carlos and me hitting it off and my coming on board.

DON: What is Carlos’s background?

GREG: Carlos is an economist and a statistician. One of the things I think we agreed on is the need for discussions of policy to be more rational and less tribal. And both of us also agreed that, for many policy issues, there’s a real case for freedom that’s not being made.

Now, Carlos’s approach to policy is much more quantitative and statistical than mine. Part of what we discussed is that you can take a broader perspective on what it is to support a policy rationally.

To actually know in concrete terms what the right next policy steps are, you need to integrate both kinds of knowledge: the big picture perspective philosophy gives you and the “boots on the ground” knowledge policy experts have.
DON: I’d like you to expand on that, because people, especially in academia, tend to equate being rational and objective with being data driven. What does philosophy bring to the table in terms of thinking through policy issues rationally?

GREG: Quantitative science can help you answer questions like “What will the effects of this policy be?” You’re trying to get at the truth, and so your goal should be to follow the data wherever they lead you.

But often when people claim they’re using data, what they’re actually trying to do is find a way to use the data to rationalize, or sell to other people, or make seem respectable, opinions they have on other grounds.

Philosophy tells you why that’s wrong — why objectivity and truth matter. And it also helps you identify the actual reasons for your ideological orientation and assess whether those are good reasons. In particular, it articulates and justifies the value choices behind your ideological orientation

So, if you support freedom, why? Why do individual rights matter? Well, they don’t matter because of something you’re going to prove with graphs about the tax curve or something like that. They matter because of more broad and general facts about human life and what human beings need to survive and flourish. These broader facts and value choices are what philosophy deals with.

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Knowing these enables you to defend freedom for the reasons you actually support freedom, rather than counterfeiting your reasons. And it also makes you more sensitive to certain categories of facts that other people, who don’t know these reasons, might not be as sensitive to.

For example, it will make you more sensitive to the destruction that forcible government intrusion into the economy creates, and on the positive side, it will make you more sensitive to where production and values are coming from in society.

These categories of facts are easy to overlook by people with different ideological orientations, and so when they jump to using data, there are harms of anti-freedom policies they’ll fail to examine and solutions that won’t occur to them to study.

Ideally what you have is philosophy giving you a broad perspective on value choices and the reasons behind the different value choices people make. And then what economists and policy experts can do is study and measure and predict the impact of different policies in detail.

DON: So, I can see why both roles are important, but what you’re doing at the Salem Center sounds like an actual collaboration between philosophers and economists and policy experts. What does that look like?

GREG: When it comes to policy, you often see both philosophers and more policy-oriented people making similar errors. Philosophers sometimes think they can read off from broad abstractions what specific policies should be. In particular, free-market-oriented philosophers think they can deduce the right policy steps to take us from where we are today to a free society.

And I that kind of thinking can be detached from reality. It doesn’t take into account facts that experts in the field are aware of (even if they don’t know the relevant principles) and that they rightly see as relevant to determining how to act in the here and now. Sometimes this sort of philosophical thinking can be interesting as a concretization of principles, but unless it’s more empirically informed, it’s insufficient to guide action.

On the other hand, the people who are really in the weeds of a given discussion — the policy wonks on a given issue, or the people who are advisers to an administration or a congressperson — are very acutely aware of the particular problems that people in the field are trying to solve, and of many of the pertinent facts. But they tend not to be that philosophical, and they tend not to have real clarity on the values and principles involved or on how the specific steps they’re advocating relate to the large scale shifts they’d like to see in society.

I think to actually know in concrete terms what the right next policy steps are, you need to integrate both kinds of knowledge: the big picture perspective philosophy gives you and the “boots on the ground” knowledge policy experts have.

One field I’ve been interested in for quite a while — and prior to this pandemic — is medicine and public health.
Even apart from my own program, by being at the center I’ll be interacting with the quantitative scientists and subject-matter experts on various policy issues, and I think these will be mutually beneficial intellectual relationships. In addition, as part of my program, I will organize events that bring together Objectivist philosophers with people who have a background in Objectivism and also have deep expertise in specific industries, so that we can work together to understand just how government force is paralyzing the mind in the industry, what the right first steps would be in the process of liberating the industry, and how we can fight for these steps.

DON: What would be an example of a field you’d like to tackle?

GREG: One that I’ve been interested in for quite a while — and prior to this pandemic — is medicine and public health.

My friend Amesh Adalja [a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, specializing in infectious disease] has been talking to me a lot about what he does. He’s long been in my mind the paradigm of an expert. He’s so knowledgeable about what the problems are in public health — things you would never think about from your armchair as a philosopher. And there are a number of other people I’ve met through the Objectivist community who are experts in different aspects of the medical industry.

Getting these people together with one another and with some of the philosophers, in the right way could yield real insights on the specific steps needed to free the minds of doctors and of everyone in the industry. What are the most important issues? What would be short-term policy goals we should be advocating in the near term that would bring us in the direction of the changes we want to see in the long term? And how can we understand and articulate those short-term goals in light of those longer-term goals?

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DON: This is so important. When I was studying the history of the American welfare state, one of the things that jumped out was how the early Progressives had this big picture view of the kind of society they wanted to create. But they also had dozens and dozens of specific policy proposals they used to inspire activists and influence policymakers. And what happened is that they would start winning these small victories that fueled larger victories and soon their opponents were compromising in their direction. Whereas if they had just said, “Oh, we’re for a welfare state,” they would have never succeeded—certainly not as quickly as they did.

GREG: Right, and today the only ideas you get as an alternative to socialized medicine in America are lame: they amount to “move to socialized medicine a little bit slower.”

Nearly two decades passed between Hillary Clinton’s attempt to socialize our medical system in 1993 and Obamacare. And even though “Hillarycare” was defeated roundly at the time, everyone agreed there were problems in the health care system that had to be addressed.

So what solutions did the Clintons’ opponents propose in those decades? The Heritage Foundation essentially concocted what became Obamacare, and President Bush dramatically expanded Medicare.

As a teacher, you’re helping equip students for life intellectually by helping them understand the options.
There was no serious talk about how to privatize health care in America. The debate was framed as “we don’t have socialized medicine now, and we don’t want to get it.” It should have been framed in a way that acknowledged the fact that American health care has been mostly socialized since Medicare and that demanded that we figure out how to liberate it from government control.

DON: I can think of a few proposals along those lines, but not many.

GREG: Right. And that’s a massive failure. And I think it’s primarily because of that that we’re moving toward socialized medicine. There’s no real alternative, except in kind of vague generalities and abstractions. There’s very little talk about what are the actual steps toward freeing health care in America.

Now, I’m not a policy wonk, and it’s not a problem I can solve by myself. But I think that I am someone who can identify and get some of the best people together within the kind of network of people who are knowledgeable about Objectivism, knowledgeable about medicine, and who are pro-liberty, and will help facilitate the cross-pollination that I think is needed to get the best answers to these questions. And that’s something I’m eager to do in the field of health care — and in some other fields as well.

DON: So let’s end with this. How do you think about the role of academia in influencing a culture with better ideas?

GREG: There are a few routes through which it happens. One — and the main one — is that it’s in college that people are taking the time to form the ideas that are going to guide them through the rest of their lives. And so, as an academic, you’re teaching people in this time period.

You’re not standing up on a pulpit and putting forth your ideas and expecting the students will become your acolytes. Instead, you’re treating them as people who are shopping for ideas in a situation where there are a lot of competing products. As a teacher, you’re helping equip students for life intellectually by helping them understand the options, including the ones you favor, and helping them reflect on those options.

The other route is that you’re interacting with all the other people who are or will be influencing students. You will have less influence on professors than you’ll have on students, since they have more formed and settled worldviews. But you can reach mutual clarity with them on points of agreement and disagreement. Among other benefits, that helps you do a better job teaching your own students.

The interview with Gregory Salmieri starts at page 31 of the
Ayn Rand Institute Annual Report for 2020:


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