I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Brown, the new chief executive officer of the Ayn Rand Institute, about his vision for the organization. Prior to joining ARI, Brown enjoyed a thirty-year career in finance—and, prior to that, he served in the U.S. Air Force as a pilot, flight instructor, flight commander, and squadron commander. He holds a bachelor of science in political science from the United States Air Force Academy, an MBA from Harvard Business School, and is a chartered financial analyst. —Craig Biddle
Craig Biddle: Thank you for taking time to chat with me, Jim. I know our readers are eager to hear about your new position as CEO of the Ayn Rand Institute and your plans for the organization.
Jim Brown: It’s great to see you, Craig. Fire away!
Biddle: ARI’s stated mission is to increase awareness, understanding, and acceptance of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. So let’s begin with how you came to discover and appreciate her ideas. When and how did you discover Rand, and what’s so important to you about her ideas that you’ve chosen to head an organization dedicated to spreading them?
Brown: I grew up in an Irish Catholic family with seven kids, and, in my teens, I was the family member who took religion most seriously. I think that’s because from a very young age I was interested in comprehensive explanations to questions about existence and morality. I don’t remember a time, even in my youth, when I didn’t have such a philosophical bent. So, as an adolescent, I became fascinated with Catholic theology, its structure, and its universal explanations. I even thought about becoming a priest. But I harbored doubts about various issues and contradictions in the Catholic system, and those kept me from moving in that direction.
I was also fascinated by airplanes and the prospect of flying. After high school, I entered the Air Force Academy with the goal of becoming an officer and pilot. On the first day of freshman English class, my professor, an air force officer, recommended to the class three books: Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and some other book I don’t remember. Although I didn’t get around to reading the books for several months, those titles stuck in my head.
A few weeks later, I had a bit of an awakening. At the time, my father—an air force fighter pilot who was (and still is) my hero—was stationed in Thailand, flying dangerous missions over North Vietnam. I would go to chapel every morning and pray for him. One morning, in mid-prayer, it occurred to me how ridiculous this was. I stood up, swore at myself for being so stupid as to think anyone was up there listening to my thoughts, and walked out. That day, in my own mind at least, I officially became an atheist and left the Church. As a cadet, I was required to continue attending chapel once a week. But I was over religion.
The following summer I read The Fountainhead, followed quickly by Atlas Shrugged. I was immediately hooked. I not only loved the stories and the novels as works of art, but I also connected deeply with the philosophy they presented. These ideas made sense. This was a rational philosophy—a philosophy for living in the real world.
So that’s how I discovered Ayn Rand.
In the following years—which included my pilot training, a flying career, and world travel—I read everything “Objectivist” I could get my hands on. In the mid-seventies, I took a break from the Air Force to attend Harvard Business School, and while there I teamed up with some MIT students to sponsor listening sessions of the taped lectures on Objectivism that were available at the time.
Initially, I viewed Objectivism as essentially a framework for making good, moral choices, choices consistent with my own rational self-interest. And, of course, the philosophy is that. But as I read more and matured, I came more fully to understand that Ayn Rand’s philosophy is deeper and richer than it initially seemed. It is a comprehensive, integrated system that provides a foundation for understanding the world and your relationship to it from the ground up—from the basic laws of existence, to how concepts are formed and validated, to the source and role of emotions, to the nature and importance of art. It is literally a philosophy for every aspect of life: intellectual, emotional, romantic, family relationships—you name it.
Anyway, I changed careers several times over the years. In addition to my initial air force career, I’ve been an airline pilot, a stockbroker, a bank trust investment officer, and, most recently, a partner in a large San Diego investment firm. In the mid-nineties, after I finally started making some money, I became a contributor to ARI because of the personal importance of Ayn Rand’s ideas in my life. I felt I had received so much value from the Institute that I wanted to support it.
I retired from the partnership in early 2016 to take a break and evaluate further career options. In late 2016, as I was considering various opportunities, the CEO position at ARI came open. After a number of conversations with close friends in the Objectivist community—including my wife and sweetheart, Kathy—I decided to throw my hat into the ring. . . .