The Times Smiles and Sneers at Carl Barney, Ayn Rand, and Private Colleges - The Objective Standard

A recent New York Times article titled “An Ayn Rand Acolyte Selling Students a Self-Made Dream” discusses private-college mogul Carl Barney’s business successes and philanthropic ventures, and does so with less hostility than one might expect.

The article is worth reading for a few nuggets of wisdom from Mr. Barney, a peek at his principled approach to cultural change, some history about his hugely successful career, and an illustration of his positive attitude toward life. Here’s a taste:

In Mr. Barney’s view, both [political] parties are leading the country in the wrong direction. “Politics is not going to solve the problem,” he said, settling into the third-floor lounge of his Alpine-styled boutique hotel. That is why he directs his multimillion-dollar contributions not to political candidates or super PACs—but to spreading Ayn Rand’s thinking around the globe. . . . “I’m not an altruist, I’m not a do-gooder,” Mr. Barney said. “But I would like to have others experience the understanding and the benefits that I’ve had from philosophy.”

If rationality, hard work and self-interest are fundamental Randian values, so is the pursuit of happiness. And that is what led Mr. Barney to rise early that day—only to have to wait at the front of the ski lift line. Standing there, he mentions to the lift operator his intent to be first down the run.

“You look like you’re first in a lot of things,” the lift operator replies.

Soon enough, Mr. Barney is gliding down the mountain [on a trail named “Success”], listening on his earbuds to a favorite Broadway tune, “One Day More,” from “Les Misérables,” with its call to the masses to man the barricades.

I love that image.

However, other parts of the article cannot go without reproach. The author, Patricia Cohen, writes:

[Mr. Barney] credits Rand’s brand of antigovernment libertarianism [sic], hard-nosed rationality and unapologetic self-interest with helping him realize his own American dream—an achievement he sells to the students at his schools. But his inspiring story is not without contradictions.

Mr. Barney, who opposes government-backed loans and grants on principle, has made his fortune in a business that is almost wholly dependent on them. His students borrow heavily to pay for their studies in hope of replicating Mr. Barney’s up-by-the-bootstraps success, but often find themselves dropping out and burdened with loans. And while he invokes a rigorous Rand-inspired ethical code of fair dealing, he is in an industry with a history pockmarked by fraud and abuse.

Where to begin?

First, to criticize a private college for accepting students’ funds that come from government loans and grants is almost as absurd as criticizing a private supermarket for accepting customers’ funds that come from government welfare programs. And that, in turn, is almost as absurd as an anti-capitalist reporter using the fruits of capitalism—such as her computer, the Internet, and the fossil fuels that run them—while trying to make a principled capitalist look hypocritical. . . .

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