“You know nothing of rights or politics. Your ramblings on such matters are of no benefit to anyone. Please—just stick with acting or directing.”
That’s often a legitimate reaction when someone in Hollywood pontificates about rights or politics. But when Mark Pellegrino talks, people would do well to listen. He backs his ideas with reason, historical facts, and objective moral principles.
Mark is widely known for his roles as Paul Bennett in Dexter, Jacob in Lost, Lucifer in Supernatural, Bishop in Being Human, Giff in Bad Turn Worse, Jack Winship in The Returned, Clayton Haas in Quantico, and many other roles. But he’s also an intellectual activist, an Objectivist, and a cofounder of the American Capitalist Party (ACP). His activism is the focus of the following interview.
I first met Mark on Twitter, where I found him arguing at length in support of Israel, sharing articles and videos from The Objective Standard and the Ayn Rand Institute, promoting Alex Epstein’s book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, and generally doing things that could get him evicted from Hollywood. Shortly thereafter, I heard his interview with Dave Rubin, which is one of the most eloquent discussions of Objectivism I’ve ever heard. I’m delighted to introduce readers of TOS to the philosophic side of this great actor. —CB
Craig Biddle: Thank you for making time to chat with me, Mark.
Mark Pellegrino: Thank you. This is quite an honor for me.
Biddle: You’ve been interviewed many times about your work as an actor, how you got into the business, and the various roles you’ve played, so I’m not going to repeat those questions here. People can easily find those interviews by searching your name.
What I’d like to focus on today is what makes you one of the most unusual actors in Hollywood—the fact that you’re an advocate of freedom, capitalism, and the moral and philosophical foundations on which they depend. How and when did you become interested in these ideas?
Pellegrino: It began in the late eighties and early nineties, with my first exposure to the art and craft of acting. The founder of the theater company where I studied had the distinction of being rabidly anti-Hollywood. Basically, he was a conservative. But unlike most conservatives in Hollywood, who are largely closeted for fear of being fired, he was openly political and defiantly anti-left. The era of political correctness was just beginning, so his classroom rants—including scene critiques that would swerve into long cultural commentaries—didn’t provoke lawsuits or massive public outcry, but they did make people mad.
I was then a leftist myself, but I hadn’t personalized my politics so much that I was closed to his arguments. I was actually intrigued by the things he was saying. He made me question my premises. As a result, I became curious about alternate ways of looking at the world. My curiosity led me first to talk radio and the likes of George Putnam, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Medved, and Dennis Prager. Listening to them prompted me to read their books. I also began reading conservative and right-leaning publications such as National Review, Reason, and The Conservative Chronicle. The latter turned me on to the likes of Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Charles Murray, and many other intellectuals toward the political right. Through some of these folks (mostly Sowell and Williams), I found that I had a soft spot for liberty and economics, but I still felt something was missing. I found that missing element when I exchanged some books with an actor at the theater company. I gave him five books that influenced my life (I only remember three of them), and he gave me two: The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. That was the mid-nineties. I’ve never recovered.
Biddle: Here’s hoping you never recover. Which three books do you recall giving to him?
Pellegrino: The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman, and Illusions by Richard Bach. Good books, all. But it wasn’t exactly an even trade.
Biddle: I’ll say. You made out like a bandit.
Among your liberty-oriented projects is the American Capitalist Party, which you cofounded. I understand it’s still in the early stages of development, but what can you tell us about the ACP at this point? In particular, what’s the purpose of the party? And what are its main positions in terms of domestic and foreign policy?
Pellegrino: Right now, it is only a platform of governing principles and rough political goals. Our purpose is twofold: First—and if we achieve only this, we’ve achieved a lot—we want to help people to think about politics in a way they haven’t before. In the main, people think of politics as two or more opposing sides clashing in debates over social problems, with the purpose of the debates being to achieve a compromise solution. This compromise is supposed to represent the “moderate” and thus “rational” approach to solving the problem. People familiar with Objectivism know that a compromise can take place only between parties who agree on essentials or ultimate goals. When the parties agree on essential aims, the haggling is merely over details or means of accomplishing those goals.
This, of course, is the lay of the political landscape right now: Two parties, in essential agreement about the proper functions of government, are haggling over how the government should achieve its ends. They agree that government should control the economy, control people’s lives, and make people and businesses give their “fair share” to society. They disagree only on matters of degree and on the particular means to these ends. They argue over whether individuals should be controlled by the federal or state governments—in the bedroom or the boardroom—in health care or investments. They disagree over how government should redistribute wealth—in the traditional ways, or in newfangled ways. And, agreeing on essentials, they come up with all sorts of ideas and programs for controlling people and redistributing wealth. They never question the premise that this is what government should do. That’s an unchallenged absolute. The only questions are how and to what extent should government interfere and redistribute.
But this allegedly proper purpose of government needs to be challenged—as does the idea that all compromise is good.
In point of fact, there are only two political alternatives, and no compromise can morally be brooked between them. The alternatives are statism or liberty—that is: government that initiates force against people—or government limited to using force only against those who initiate force. Any compromise between the two favors statism—and leads eventually to full statism. This is not just theoretical. It’s a demonstrable fact. As just one example, observe that from the time of the U.S. founding until the dawn of the Progressive Era—which was the advent of statism in America—the government spent 3 percent or less of the GDP. It now spends close to 40 percent and is increasing rapidly with no end in sight.
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The ACP challenges the status quo that our political alternatives are one form of statism or another. We recognize that the proper purpose of government is to protect individual rights and achieve full liberty. And our platform is all about how to move steadily in that direction.
When people see that the ACP’s platform is focused on establishing and maintaining liberty, and when they see how uncompromising it is toward this end, my hope is that they will begin to see politics less as an exercise in pragmatism and more as an application of moral principle. The main moral principle here is individual rights—the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, everyone is familiar with those terms. The problem is that although everyone has heard of these rights and nods about them, few people know what they actually mean or why we have them. And this leaves people ill-equipped to advocate or defend rights.
The ACP aims to educate Americans about the nature of capitalism and the source and meaning of individual rights so that people really understand these values. As more and more Americans come to understand them, they will see that statism does not have the moral high ground. Capitalism does. They’ll see that capitalism is the only moral system because it’s the only system that leaves people free from force so that they can think, produce, trade, and prosper.
So that’s our primary purpose: to educate people about the morality of capitalism.
Our second purpose is to encourage and support knowledgeable capitalists in taking that first step and running under the ACP banner for local, state, or national government. I’ve approached a number of people about this, and some have expressed interest. Some of them already have national prominence, and some are in the midst of acquiring it. Of course, there are several steps involved in getting onto ballots, and we’ll need money to move forward. But we’re ramping up for a fund drive, and I’m confident that there are enough willing capitalists out there to help us get this vital party off the ground. Then the hard work begins. Once we run candidates, we become a threat to a highly entrenched party duopoly, and power doesn’t release its grip without a fight.
Biddle: What are the ACP’s general positions regarding domestic and foreign policy?
Pellegrino: To put it concisely, I’d say that domestically we’re for individual rights and free markets—in a word, capitalism. And in foreign policy, we’re for rational self-interest, free trade across borders, and the protection of Americans’ rights.
To flesh that out, domestically we advocate a systematic phaseout of all government interference in the marketplace—interference such as corporate welfare and all other coercive wealth redistribution, wage controls, preferential laws, regulations, and government-run schools. We can’t get rid of these things overnight. But we can and should phase them out over time. Some can be done relatively quickly. Others will take more time. But the overarching goal is to steadily decrease government interference until it is eliminated and the marketplace is fully free.
In regard to foreign policy, the ACP calls for open and unrestrained trade with free or at least non-enemy nations, and a voluntary military strong enough to protect Americans’ rights from foreign aggressors. Protecting our rights does not mean projecting American ideals abroad. It means having a sufficiently powerful military that is prepared to use retaliatory force against foreign aggressors—and using it decisively when and as necessary to protect Americans’ rights. That’s it. No nation building. No foreign entanglements. Just protecting our rights.
Biddle: How does the ACP differ from the Libertarian Party?
Pellegrino: On the surface there seem to be nothing but similarities. And many libertarians, including anarchists (the most consistent libertarians) have asked me to promote or endorse their work as if we were brothers in arms against a common enemy. But at the level of essentials, we couldn’t be more different.
The defining difference between the ACP and the Libertarian Party is our respective orientations toward liberty and government, which, in turn, are based on our respective views of human nature and morality. In short, the ACP views men as rational animals—beings who live and prosper by using their minds to understand the world, to produce values, and to trade by mutual consent to mutual advantage. We regard such activities as moral because they advance human life. And we see liberty as a necessary condition for exercising the faculty of reason because, in order to act on your rational judgment, you must be free to do so. This is the source of rights: People have a right to be free from force because such freedom is a requirement of life as a rational being.
Libertarians, on the other hand, view men as essentially economic animals—beings who are incentivized or disincentivized by market rewards and punishments. Libertarians don’t see rational thinking, rational action, and moral rights as absolute requirements of human life. Rather, they regard freedom from force—or the “nonaggression principle”—merely as a requirement of economic action and thus as politically good.
The difference between the ACP and the Libertarian Party is one of philosophic depth and moral grounding. The ACP has these; the LP doesn’t.
Because of its lack of depth and grounding, the LP is a big tent full of lots of people who have no common, reality-based understanding of what freedom is, why people should be free, or how anyone knows any of this. Most important, libertarians don’t have a common understanding of what reason is, how it operates, or why rational thought and action are the essential values that freedom protects and makes possible. If you don’t know what you want to protect and why, you’re not going to protect it well.
The LP treats economics as the starting point and the “nonaggression principle” as an absolute. But it has no moral or philosophic grounding for either.
Because the ACP sees reason as the basis for morality, for rights, and for a system that protects rights, when it comes to the question of how to deal with aggression, threats, and conflict resolution, we see the need of objective, morally correct laws—laws that recognize and protect the individual’s right to freedom from force so that he can act on his rational judgment. And we see the need of an institution to establish and enforce such laws and to serve as a final arbiter when people have rights-oriented disagreements. In other words, we see the need of a rights-protecting government.
The LP treats rights as merely political matters to be understood by reference to the “nonaggression principle.” It has no principled view of the difference between moral right and wrong. So, it has no understanding of the moral values that rights are intended to protect.
The big difference between the ACP and the Libertarian Party is that one is grounded in individual rights and deeper moral principles that support rights—and the other is based on the floating idea of the “nonaggression principle” and has no moral or philosophical foundation anchoring this idea to reality. That’s the big difference.
Biddle: Some people argue that a party such as the ACP will drain resources that would be more effectively put toward reforming the Republican Party or co-opting the Libertarian Party and infusing it with moral and philosophic principle. How do you respond to such claims?
Pellegrino: First off, I certainly hope we drain resources from those parties. The Republican Party is drenched in conservatism, faith, and altruism and thus is incompatible with capitalism. And the LP divorces liberty and capitalism from morality and reason and appears to be uninterested in changing on this count. An infusion of rational moral principles into either Party would be like an organ transplant that doesn’t take.
At its core, conservatism is a kind of traditionalism. Its guiding premise is, “If it’s been around for a long time, there’s likely a damn good reason for it, and we should probably leave well enough alone.”
Now, it just so happens that America’s traditions are a lot better than most, so we could do worse than to conserve certain aspects of our past. But even a return to our ideological roots is not enough to put America on a track for freedom, harmony, and prosperity. Mixed moral premises and corresponding confusions about what rights are, why we have them, and how we know it are the very things that have driven us to the precipice. For conservatism to be of any value, it would have to shift radically and embrace an idea that most conservatives fundamentally reject—individualism: the idea that the individual is the basic unit of moral and political concern, and that he has a moral right to act on his own judgment for his own sake, as long as he doesn’t violate the same rights of others.
Conservatives don’t regard the individual as the basic unit of morality. They regard the family or the community as the basic unit, and they regard God’s will as the standard of right and wrong. Until they come to understand that the basic unit of morality is the individual and that the standard of morality is the requirements of the individual’s life and happiness, conservatives will remain enemies of capitalism, not its advocates.
Likewise, as mentioned earlier, the core of libertarianism is subjectivism and an effort to defend liberty while ignoring the moral and philosophic roots of liberty. That’s not a viable approach.
If we can drain resources away from the Republican and Libertarian Parties and put those resources toward a party that recognizes and upholds the ideas on which liberty and capitalism depend, that is exactly what we should do.
The ACP is genuinely a third way—a rationally grounded, rights-respecting, forward-looking way. I think that if and when our party begins getting substantial visibility and attention, it’ll start an exodus from both major parties and from the Libertarian Party. Once our positions and platform enter the national conversation, the choice will become clear for many people who have never seen it this way: either some form and degree of statism (à la the status quo), or genuine liberty grounded in rational moral principles and maintained by a government that is strictly limited to the protection of individual rights. I suspect that once this alternative is clear, classical liberals from all sides will join the ACP, and the other parties will justly shrink in size and power.
Biddle: A political party has to start somewhere, and a clear statement of its political ideas and philosophic principles is the first order of importance. Over time, though, the aim is to run candidates for local, state, congressional, and presidential offices—and, ultimately, to win elections and make direct political change. What are your plans for expanding the ACP toward these ends?
Pellegrino: Right now, our focus is on improving our social media presence and on producing content. We are doing this as a means of generating more widespread notoriety and interest. Since we are the newcomer on the political scene, and since people still conflate us with libertarians, an enhanced social media presence will help to distinguish the party from the rest of the field. Which reminds me—any Objectivist who wants to contribute good written content to our Facebook page can submit an article to me or Bradley Harmeyer at email@example.com.
As for candidates, we have a couple of grassroot strategies so far (barring a much-needed infusion of Koch capital). The first is to get an established politician to flip allegiances from one of the two major parties or the LP to ours. I’ve been working on this possibility with two prominent politicians and one current candidate for the Senate. And we’ll broaden this effort as funding permits.
The second strategy is to zero in on a few states where our platform would have a wide enough appeal to feasibly run someone. So far, we see Idaho, Montana, Alaska, Arizona, and Texas as potential first battleground states.
Part of the difficulty, of course, is finding a politician who embraces the ACP platform and sees a real possibility either to win an election or at least to move the needle substantially. But I think the time is ripe for this. And I think there’s real evidence to this effect.
As an indication, at the beginning of this journey, nearly two years ago, I approached an Objectivist who had some success running for office in Colorado as an independent. I thought he would make a great first candidate, but the experience of running headlong into the gauntlet of legal obstacles that the duopoly threw at him was overwhelming, and the experience convinced him that a new party candidate was an impossibility. He’s since changed his mind. If the Trump era has shown us anything, it’s that people are exasperated with the political class and are eager for an alternative.
Biddle: Yes, the Trump phenomenon has shown that people are willing to embrace big changes. The question remains whether they’re willing to embrace big morally principled change. Unfortunately, Trump’s popularity shows that many people are utterly disinterested in principles. We have our work cut out on this count—which points to why the ACP’s educational efforts are key.
Can people join the ACP? And in what other ways can they get involved and help to advance the Party’s mission?
Pellegrino: There is no formal way of joining the Party at the moment, other than to openly claim your affiliation, as many people have. For now, the way to advance the ideas is to spread them on social media at every opportunity. That not only means spreading the platform, but also actively engaging in productive and constructive debates with conservatives and libertarians over the ethical fundamentals of freedom. Help them to see the false alternative they’ve embraced: the unprovable conservative notion that objective morality and rights come from God—versus the floating libertarian notion that we don’t need objective morality or demonstrable rights, just the “nonaggression principle.” Show them that there is, in fact, a third way.
People can help by making this point regularly on social media. Social media, particularly Twitter, gets a bad rap for superficiality, but that’s more an effect of lack of conceptual economy than inherent flaws in the media itself. You’ll be surprised how much traction a cogent argument can have with an audience of active-minded but politically committed people. That said, once we launch a donation site and start regularly producing content, spreading information will be easier. Right now it all comes out of my pocket, and that is a limiting factor.
Biddle: In order to produce good content, people need a firm grasp of the principles that support capitalism, why they are true, and how to apply them. Toward that end, what books do you regard as essential reading? And what would you say are the three most important things that liberals—as in true liberals, classical liberals—can do to support and defend liberty?
Pellegrino: First off, since debates about economic and political systems ultimately boil down to debates about proper ethics, read and integrate materials that spell out the logical basis for rights and the moral case for capitalism. To my knowledge, the only people who have done that are Ayn Rand and the Objectivists who have followed in her footsteps. I highly recommend that people read Rand’s essays “Man’s Rights” and “The Nature of Government,” both of which are in her book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. I also recommend Andrew Bernstein’s book The Capitalist Manifesto, anything by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins, and anything by John Allison. All of George Reisman’s essays are excellent, as is his book Capitalism. And I think Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams are essential reading—Sowell, in particular, for his keen assessments of the intellectual class and of the nature and causes of inequality and discrimination.
As for what three things genuine liberals can do to support and defend liberty, the first thing may seem like a small, insignificant, or semantic adjustment, but it’s of vital importance because it sets the implicit moral high ground in every discussion. Take the term “liberal” away from the political left. “Liberal” (like “progressive”) implies a reasoned, forward-thinking approach to life. And it comes from the same root as “liberty.” It does not reflect political leftism. The term liberal should never be applied to an advocate of statism. If you’re an advocate of a truly free society secured by a rights-protecting government, then proudly embrace the label “liberal” for yourself, and, whenever possible, help people to understand the distinction between liberalism and leftism. Help your conservative friends to understand the difference, too, as they misapply the term more often than anyone.
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A related and even more important means of advancing liberty is to truly and deeply understand the moral arguments for capitalism. I mentioned some essays and books, and those are a good place to start. But I want to reemphasize here the importance of being able to speak intelligently and persuasively about the source and nature of rights, the moral foundations of a free society, and the historic evidence showing that freer societies are wealthier and more prosperous than less-free societies. This material is fascinating and powerful. So, read up!
Lastly, apply that knowledge to producing positive content and confronting statism wherever it rears its ugly head. Become a true liberal, pure capitalist, and morally grounded activist.
Biddle: Amen, brother.
On that emphatic note, let’s turn to some lighter matters. What does Mark Pellegrino do when he’s not acting or engaging in activism?
Pellegrino: I do a few things to relax. Some of them seem preparatory, like reading and writing, which I try to do every day. I also love to do Pilates and mindfulness meditation. I am never without the company of my dogs, if I can help it. My wife and I travel extensively. The travel is almost always for work, but we throw in extra days for pure fun, too. And I’m trying to catch up on all the good TV out there.
Biddle: What TV shows do you love or recommend?
Pellegrino: Some of my favorites are Fauda, which is about a secret Israeli intelligence unit that fights Palestinian terrorists. I’ve just gotten through the first season, and it’s great. Another, believe it or not, is The Punisher, which is refreshingly unapologetic and merciless in the protagonist’s pursuit and annihilation of evil. I started watching it because my friend is in the title role. But the show really is good. Stranger Things is awesome. The first season of Orphan Black is a tour de force from actress Tatiana Maslany. I like some episodes of The Black Mirror, even though I don’t buy in to the antitech hysteria. I could go on, but there’s a little slice of what I like.
Oh—also, the first season of Westworld! I really enjoyed that.
Biddle: The only one of those I’ve seen anything of is Westworld, which is not my cup of tea. Sarah enjoyed the first season, but I couldn’t get into it, which is odd, as we almost always enjoy the same art. We’ll check out the other shows you mentioned, though—especially Fauda and The Punisher. Thanks for the recommendations!
Now, where can people keep up with your intellectual activism and your various interests and projects?
Pellegrino: My personal instagram is Markrosspelle. My Twitter is @MarkRPellegrino. And my email for ACP business is firstname.lastname@example.org. Our platform and policies (which are in the midst of getting a facelift) can be found at TheAmericanCapitalistParty.com. The ACP has Instagram and Facebook pages, too, which can be found easily by searching “American Capitalist Party.”
Biddle: Thank you for your time, Mark—and for all you are doing to advance rational philosophy and political freedom.
Pellegrino: Thank you. Keep up the good work. Peace.