Patrick M. Byrne is the CEO of the Internet retailer Overstock.com. Byrne received his B.A. from Dartmouth, studied at Cambridge University as a Marshall Scholar, and earned a PhD in Philosophy from Stanford University. He co-founded Overstock.com in 1997 and became CEO in 1999. In 2005, Byrne initiated a controversial campaign against "naked short selling" in which he accused a "Sith Lord" and various financial firms of sabotaging Overstock's share price. Byrne also serves as head of First Class Education, an education lobbying group that seeks to require that 65% of all educational spending be spent "in the classroom." A strong proponent of school vouchers, Byrne spent almost four million dollars in advertising for a bill that would have given Utah residents who enroll their children in private schools taxpayer-supported subsidies. The bill lost, 62-38%.
Patrick Byrne: I sound awfully cynical. I think that humankind has been a history of boots – of powerful people stamping on people’s faces. I think that’s history. And there’s different sized boots, and different brands, and colors and such. But that’s basically history. Then the enlightenment comes along, and the enlightenment says . . . And you know it’s interesting if you read something like Machiavelli, whose . . . ...thoughts about Machiavelli. But you even have to understand that when they use the word “freedom”, they use it differently than we do. For them, a state was free in the sense of it was not a ...state. The prince was not a ... to some greater empire. It was just taken for granted though that, of course, the people existed as instruments of the leader’s end. And then this great watershed moment in humanity is the enlightenment – especially the Scottish enlightenment where people started realizing, wait, we have our own ends. We exist as ends in ourselves. And the state is just this compact we formed so we can pursue our own ends. Now of course the control freaks among us hated that and fought the enlightenment. Then when they couldn’t defeat it, they subverted it, and that’s the French enlightenment. That’s Rousseau. And they couldn’t actually stop the progress of the enlightenment, so they . . . what they did was they cheapened it. They said, “Yes, you’re right. This individual freedom is important; but we have to understand that individual freedom – it isn’t this silly, Scottish, English sense of a man deciding his own ends. It’s really this deeper sense of subjugating yourself to the right historical mission.” So you get Rousseau with his “...General” – the will of the . . . the general will, which maybe isn’t . . . It doesn’t mean the majority will. It’s maybe something that only one person knows. And when this Robespierre forces you to submit to him, he’s “forcing you to be free”, in Rousseau’s phrase. And that goes on through Hagel and Marks where the . . . you know it’s the .... And it’s Lennon where it’s the vanguard ... party; Hitler, where it’s the .... It’s the prerogative of . . . It’s the people . . . Real freedom is frowned, and subordinating yourself to the work of the people ..., as they said over in the concentration camp gates. And somewhere along the way, the intellectuals from the continent, I think, lost this sense of no freedom as this basic idea of people choosing their own ends in life. And it’s not . . . it’s . . . it’s a . . . it’s a . . . When I listen to people talk in politics, I go right back to this route. And it’s pretty easy to see that for most of them, they’ve just taken the wrong fork. They are, in one way or another, defining liberty and freedom as subordinating yourself to the ends that they . . . that someone else has chosen for you. And that . . . that’s valueless. So those . . . That is, to me, the main contention in the world of ideas and political thought. Does somebody get that freedom has to be a self-defined process in pursuit? Or is it . . . Are they all debating freedom as, well, we take it for granted that we get to subordinate individuals to our ends, and now we’re just going to debate the ends. That’s where most people are. That’s where most of the world is. And I think that’s a really pernicious concept. In fact Voltaire read a book by Rousseau where he . . . where when he read this stuff, he wrote Rousseau a letter where he said, “Dear Monsieur Rousseau, I’ve had the pleasure of reading your book against the human race.” Well he had it exactly right. This philosophy . . . this continental philosophy from Rousseau, Kant, Hagel, Meecha, you know, Marks, Lennon, of course – it’s anti-freedom. It’s . . . it’s philosophy against the human race.
Recorded on: 10/29/07