On Tuesday night I went to London's Hay Hill Gallery for what is listed as "Free Market Revolution: An Evening of Individualism" for a talk by Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute on "How Ayn Rand's Ideas Can End Big Government". Ayn Rand was primarily a novelist, who – through her writing – argued for "the virtue of selfishness", a philosophy that asserts that looking out for number one is the best thing a human being can possibly do, and that everyone else can be damned. Even though it seems clear that the capitalist world is run broadly along those lines, those who subscribe to the Randian worldview think we're living in a socialist nightmare. On Tuesday night, they were gathering in Baker Street to talk about how to end it.
The suited Randian men, and occasional woman, who made up the attendees see things like the welfare state, the mansion tax and Russell Brand as anathema to their cause. Brand called his latest book Revolution; the only revolution Randians are interested in is a free market one that would allow them to turn the equality gap into a canyon.
The event was accompanied by a showing of sculptures by Richard Minns, which are based on Rand's most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, a cautionary tale about a dystopian socialist United States. Minns, the 85-year old sculptor, led a small group of us past his work, explaining what they meant. "Atlas is really angry with all the freeloaders and he's smashing his way out of the world," he said. "And in this one," he added, gesturing to a figure holding a lassoed bronze globe, "he is free of freeloaders, and has created his perfect world."
There is nothing Randians hate more than a freeloader.
In a biography passed around on the evening, Minns is described as a former boxer, doctor, journalism professor, athlete and health spa owner. One detail that is notably omitted is that Minns, who has a notable Texan drawl, fled the US in the 1980s when his ex-lover Barbra Piotrowski was shot by hired men who failed to kill her but inflicted wounds that left her wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life. At one point, Piotrowski – who has since changed her name to Janni Smith – maintained that the men who were jailed were assassins hired by Minns. He was eventually arrested for multiple accounts of passport fraud and deported, though the damages claim was overturned on appeal.
When Minns was done talking, Yaron Brook barrelled into the centre of the room, explaining he'd done 18 events in seven countries in 20 days, but was here to talk to us about "something more positive: What will it take to reverse the course, to promote capitalism?"
"Capitalism has brought about a rapid decline in poverty but the left doesn't want you to know this," he continued. "Inequality is good because it raises everybody up. It raises everybody up. Isn't that a beautiful thing?"
A bloke in a blue jumper wasn't sure that was strictly the case and asked, "Given there's so much evidence that inequality is bad for society, globally – I've read Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's book The Spirit Level – how can we argue that Ayn Rand's idea that altruism is bad is correct?"
Brook got pretty worked up about this. "Your life is the most important thing you have! Why should I live for anyone except me?" he asked, spelling out his arsehole's charter. "There's no reason to live for anyone else... Any attempt to tinker with inequality is a crime," he continued, before ramming the point home, to the joy of those earnest young Randians who'd been rolling their eyes in contempt just a minute previously – "It. Is. A. Crime. I am offended LeBron James is a better basketball player than me. I am offended I can't shoot hoops on a par with LeBron James. I would have to cripple him for me to do that. For us to cripple him – that's what the advocates for equality require."
As someone who thinks equality is a good thing and who does spend her time attacking athletes, but who might question how much they're paid and how much I have to pay to watch them, I turned around at this point with my eyebrows raised, the way you do on the tube when someone's going off on one and you're looking for a stranger to exchange conciliatory glances until you reach your stop. I quickly realised that of course, there was no one: everyone was in agreement.
"What you should care about is you – not your neighbour," he continued. "He is producing values you are probably benefiting from. When I see a billionaire, I celebrate. What we have is a culture of envy. People saying, 'I hate him, he's a bastard.'" He then confusingly added, "Altruism breeds envy, whereas capitalism is a philosophy of love and benevolence and success."
Someone then pointed out the weakness of the likes of Brand and Thomas Piketty compared to, say, Marx. "So have we prevailed because Ayn Rand's ideas were stronger? Have we won the war?" he asked.
"For freedom to win, Ayn Rand has to win. Without the philosophical basis all this economic discussion will fizzle out," came the answer.
The Randians are currently winning on one very important level. While the ideas of the left are gaining some airtime, free market ideas are the ones that actually run things. How Randians plan to win their philosophical battle, I wasn't sure. While Brand may be obnoxious, he does at least seem to be better at engaging than these people. After the questions, people collected their free copy of Brook's book, Free Market Revolution (a sixth of its index is devoted to selfishness, with sub-sections) and set about eating and drinking complimentary vol au vents and glasses of sauvignon blanc like a bunch of Rand's hated freeloaders. But they didn't really talk – the awkwardness was palpable. I think I had expected full-throated advocates of individualism and selfishness to be gregarious and forthright rather than socially awkward, but maybe it makes more sense that they were loners. They stood about, thumbing through the contents page of the book, before rushing off to Baker Street. I wondered if they had become too completely individualistic to spread the Randian word to everyone else in society.