SUNNI: Hi, sweetie! How are you these days?
CHRIS: Doing okay, Sunni! So good to be chatting with you again. Last time we did an official interview like this was probably Virtual Con 1!
SUNNI: That's right; and I hope you'll forgive me if some of my questions are reruns from then. You know, it's because of that -- largely you and a couple of others, whose interviews were so much fun -- that I decided to have an interview corner in my Salon. So ... is it credit or blame you deserve? [laughing]
CHRIS: Blame!! Of course! [laughing] Always blame! [laughing]
SUNNI: [laughing] Well, it appears to be the most popular feature of the Salon, so I'm going to be contrary and credit you anyway. But, either way, credit or blame, I'll start the inquisition with Jerome Tuccille, who asserted, It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand. Did it with you?
CHRIS: In a very profound sense, yes, it did. Anytime I've written about my emergence as a libertarian scholar (see How I Became a Libertarian and The Ayn Rand Centenary: Taking It Personally), I have always credited Rand with making a deep and lasting impact on my intellectual evolution.
I actually started out as more of a political conservative when I was in high school. I took very conservative positions on everything from the death penalty to foreign policy, and I was a rabid anti-communist, having read nearly all of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's books, which documented the horrors of the Soviet Gulag. But I was just never comfortable with Solzhenitsyn's religious convictions or any of the conservative positions that mixed religion with politics or social issues. I discovered Rand as a senior in high school, having read Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, which was actually the first Rand book I ever read. It made an irreversible impact on my politics, and, subsequently, on my philosophical understanding of the politics of freedom.
SUNNI: How interesting, that your first exposure to Rand was through her nonfiction ... and that you're a Solzhenitsyn fan; I am too, although I'm suspicious of the religious bits as well. Was it an interest in Russian culture that led you to Rand, or a different path?
CHRIS: Well, ironically, back then, it wasn't the Russian connection that interested me ... though that, of course, changed in later years. I came to Rand purely on the recommendations of my sister-in-law, who said she saw a similarity between my political positions and those of Rand. She recommended Atlas [Shrugged] to me at first, but when I saw the size of the book, I nearly collapsed. Too busy with school work, but in an advanced placement high school course on American History, I decided to pick up Capitalism purely on the strength of a back-page ad that appeared in Atlas. And the rest, as they say, is history ...
SUNNI: What's your favorite book written by Rand, and why?
CHRIS: I'd have to break this into the nonfiction and the fiction. Capitalism remains my favorite of her nonfiction, if only because of its impact on my formative libertarian education (I once logged the 12 books and articles that had the biggest influence on me, and Capitalism was tops among them. See 12 Books, 12 Articles). It provided the kind of moral defense of capitalism that I had never encountered before, and it remains an intellectual benchmark at the crossroads of ethics and politics.
SUNNI: Yeah, I'd have to agree with that, Chris. It's saddening, though, that so many people think of today's corporatism and consumerism as capitalism. At best, they have some elements of it, but they certainly don't span the realm of capitalistic possibility.
CHRIS: Indeed. To a certain extent, I can understand why some might be less enthusiastic about using the word "capitalism" to describe our ideal social system. I addressed some of these concerns some months ago in a blog entry that I titled Capitalism: The Known Reality, and a followup entitled Capitalism and Other Isms.
In any event, as for Rand's fiction, I'd have to say The Fountainhead. We the Living was a harrowing story that greatly moved me; Anthem was poetic beauty; and Atlas was remarkable for its depth and integration. But The Fountainhead was simply magnificent in its portrait of individual integrity and authenticity, and it spoke to me on a very personal level.
I once joked to Chronicle of Higher Education interviewer Jeff Sharlet -- see the page I made for the interview and resulting discussion -- that I had learned from Rand's work that I didn't have to be Howard Roark. In fact, I even stated in the interview: "I never wanted to be Howard Roark." Being Chris Matthew Sciabarra, I had told him, and applying the principles of Rand's ethical philosophy to the context of my own life, was challenging enough. But clearly those very principles that animated Roark's actions meant much to me, personally. That character still resonates with me, years later. I even wrote a piece about Roark for the New York Daily News as part of their "Big Town Characters" series.
SUNNI: Cool! I'll check that out. The Fountainhead is the first Rand I read, and my favorite of her fiction too -- and for the same reason as you just said: individual integrity and authenticity. You're one of the foremost Rand scholars of today, Chris, but if I'm remembering rightly, your education -- your PhD, anyway -- is poli sci, not philosophy. Not that there's no overlap there, but I'm wondering if you sort of fell into that niche, or if you planned to fill it.
CHRIS: You're right that I got my PhD in politics. NYU has always called it the Department of Politics, by the way, rather than the Department of Political Science. Maybe that's a statement about the social sciences! [laughing]
SUNNI: [laughing] If it isn't, it ought to be!
CHRIS: Tell me about it! In actuality, however, my area of specialization is political philosophy, theory, and methodology. So my formal philosophical training was more in the area of method and social theory, rather than philosophy proper. I actually did a triple major as an undergraduate. My primary major was history, specifically American history with much concentration in historiography. In addition to pursuing the degree in history (with honors), I also majored in politics and economics. Economics is something I definitely "fell into," precisely because NYU had a wonderful assortment of terrific Austrian school economists who were teaching in the Economics Department. Attending classes and weekly colloquia, I was exposed to people like Kirzner, Rizzo, O'Driscoll, Lachmann, Garrison, Littlechild, and colloquia with Rothbard, Lavoie, White, and many others. It was a wonderful experience. I ended up pursuing the study of politics, however, because I was most interested in analyzing society and social relations systematically. Focusing on political philosophy, theory, and methodology afforded me that opportunity.