I am heading back to the United States after a brief trip to Hong Kong for the Hong Kong Students For Liberty Objectivism Seminar featuring Yaron Brook and Dr. Robert Graff who fielded 90 minutes of questions from the audience, only ending when the room’s reservation came to an end.
I had the opportunity to meet some incredible individuals. I had previously met Louis Lo, the founder of Hong Kong SFL when I visited Hong Kong over the holidays (more to come on that later), but this trip was a chance for us to talk in more detail about the future of Hong Kong SFL. It was also a chance for me to meet some of the other leaders of the group some incredible supporters of their work.
It was a reinvigorating trip that I left me with two profound take-aways.
The first is the bootstrapping attitude of the Hong Kong SFL’ers. I believe this has been key to their success so far and bodes well for their future. Here are three examples of what I mean:
(a) The team of students ran a professional seminar. They had a sign up sheet at the front of the room to track everyone who attended. There was a videographer and photographer documenting the entire event, with time set aside to get a group photo. They had books and pamphlets promoting both SFL and Objectivism available for everyone both at the front of the room and on seats. And, perhaps most importantly, there were signs for the event posted around the campus to promote it; they did not just create a Facebook event – they actively promoted it through old school tactics that take time and effort, but have a track record of success, something that one does not see nearly enough these days.
(b) For years, the possibility of SFL expanding into China has seemed to be nonexistent. However, SFL in Hong Kong can serve as a foothold to begin work in the mainland, as well. Events and resources from Hong Kong SFL can introduce the ideas to other Chinese students at first. Once we find the right students, the Hong Kong students I spoke with suggested that the Chinese government may even support the establishment of groups that promote free market ideas (political and social liberty would be more difficult). The positive reason is that the Chinese government is trying to learn about free markets and move the economy in that direction. A more sinister reason could be that the government would prefer formal organizations espousing free markets and liberty that are easier to monitor than underground activity. It is far from foregone that SFL can/will expand into China, but I am leaving Hong Kong with the belief that it is possible for the first time.
(c) Perhaps most impressive: When I met with Louis on my last trip, I asked him at the end, “What can SFL International do to help you more?” He had already launched groups at several campuses, produced a myriad of promotional materials like banners and shirts, and run his first seminar. His response was perfect: “I know I should ask for more money to help what we’re doing, but I don’t want us to rely solely on SFL International.” That is the kind of attitude that makes a great leader.
The second is a reflection of the role of Objectivism in the 21st century. I came to the liberty movement through Objectivism. I still consider myself to be an Objectivist today, although, admittedly, a heretical one. I openly criticize Rand and hold views that many think are antithetical to Objectivism, such as that selfishness is not an Objectivist virtue and that in spite of using him as a rhetorical foil, Rand heavily depends upon Immanuel Kant’s arguments and ideas. I often find myself being reminded of the strength of the general Objectivist worldview, though, and the value it holds for leading a moral and meaningful life. During the seminar, Yaron pointed out that all too often, the people who do the greatest good in the world, the people who create the greatest value, are lambasted for doing so in a way that does not sacrifice themselves to others. Bill Gates did more to benefit humanity through Microsoft than any nonprofit has ever accomplished in history, yet it wasn’t until he pledged to give away most of the money he made while doing so that he was heralded as a “moral” individual. While Millennials are more interested in pursuing business and entrepreneurship than any generation before, there is still the widespread belief that for-profit activity, i.e. making money, is fundamentally evil, for which businesspeople must atone. Yet, for-profit activity is the greatest source of good in the world. That business is a fundamentally moral venture is not espoused nearly enough. Rand may have gotten a number of important things wrong, but Objectivism can and does offer powerful insights for the 21st century.