How Objectionable Is John Allison’s Objectivism?

Well this is disturbing. In June I wrote a long and heavily trafficked blog post laying out some problems that the soon-to-be president of the Cato Institute, former BB&T president John Allison, might present to my employer of many moons ago. I have just uncovered new reasons to revisit those concerns.

Please bear with me once more because this one takes some explaining. Allison is an Objectivist, more popularly known as a Randian, associated with the Ayn Rand Institute. Following the example of their founder, Objectivists are at times sectarian and cultish. They break down into factions and excommunicate each other and many of them regard the broader libertarian movement with contempt. The Ayn Rand Institute is generally viewed as the more hardcore of the major keepers of the flame, so it seemed odd to me that an ARI guy should go to head Cato.

I started poking around Objectivist comment boards and noticed that I was not the only person with this concern. For instance, here is
Irfan Khawaja
, an Objectivist associated with what is considered to be a more moderate faction. He asked, “Does a member of the Ayn Rand Institute’s Board of Directors really have any business becoming the CEO of a libertarian think tank if there’s no indication that either he or ARI intend to repudiate ARI’s view of libertarianism as a form of nihilism?”

Indeed, if you poke around the Ayn Rand Institute’s website, you can find all kinds of nastygrams to libertarians (here and here for starters; and for a real fun time watch this video). The differences are cultural and philosophical or doctrinal, with serious policy implications. Hardcore Objectivists embrace greed (or “egoism”) and denounce altruism. They think that religion is awful and many of them are very, very pro-war, which sets them at odds with Cato’s pro-peace foreign policy shop.

Allison has tried to put away those concerns. When the deal was announced he told the assembled Catoistas that his foreign policy was not the Republican Party’s foreign policy and he stressed that though he personally is an Objectivist he’s also a more small-c catholic libertarian. He said this in interactions with scholars as well. One of them told me, “I think we have a winner.”

And I hope that assessment is true, but some of the stuff I’ve found as a result of these Objectivist comment boards is disturbing. One post pointed me to a conference that the Ayn Rand Institute held in San Diego in late June-early July. A session featured Q&A with ARI executive director Yaron Brook and John Allison.

That Q&A is not yet available online. I would urge ARI to make it so as soon as possible, because the reports of that session could be a problem.

One observer with the handle Atlas 51184, who was there, notes that Allison “said those disrespectful of Rand will change their attitudes or find other employment.” He claimed that he only took the job at the behest of Brook and in the years that Allison serves at Cato, “he will be grooming an Objectivist replacement.”

A guy named Earl Parson also live-tweeted the Q&A. His tweets show considerable overlap with what Atlas51184 had to say, but also add a few more bombshells. The two agree, for instance, on the succession bit:

A[llison]: I’ll stay a couple years at least and try to groom a good O[bjectiv]ist successor while bringing some positive change to the organization.

Here is how Allison characterized Cato’s strengths and weaknesses to a roomful of Objectivists:

They are a mixed bag: healthcare policy research excellent; foreign policy bad; intellectual property mixed but not too bad.

And foreign policy came up again:

JA expects challenges in the area of reforming foreign policy there but seems to look forward to the challenge.

And just for fun, Reason Magazine, the flagship libertarian journal, came up in one question:

Allison’s reaction to RM was clearly negative.

I would not ask for anything at this point other than that ARI release this Q&A so we can all stop playing telephone and figure out exactly what was said. It seems clear to me from the tweets that some of what Allison says he says to sell a bunch of Objectivists on the importance of working with libertarians.

But his comments also raise the possibility of a slow Objectivist takeover of the Cato Institute, and a muting of Cato’s distinctive foreign policy voice. Let’s see what he actually had to say on those subjects.

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  • Scott Connery

    While Objectivism is certainly different from some of Cato’s stances, I think that Objectivism provides a philosophical underpinning for liberty that the Libertarian movement is sorely lacking.

    • Aristides

      The Mises Institute provides a strong libertarian philosophical base. Although the primary focus of the Institute is Austrian School Economics, they have no shortage of information on political philosophy, history, and ethics. The website features countless hours of free video and audio lectures, numerous free eBooks, and tons of free audio books. You can spend years learning from the site.

  • Apollo

    I really hope this is true and Allison cleans up the Cato instittue of the “hippies of the right”.

  • Orson

    While there is historical merit to economic historian Robert Higgs arguments, echoing Randolph Bourne’s cri de coeur “War is the Health of the State” – Objectivists find the anti-Americanism of Libertarians offensive and, well, “hippy-ish.” But Libertarians, following Rothbard, see in it, crucial anti-statist consistency. And never the twain shall meet.

    But the Left uses the history of US military interventionism as a indictment of motives and reality of American capitalism. Opportunism! Taking interventionism off the table ought to improve the status of capitalism in the world. Can’t Objectivists accept this?

    Yet the fact is that this history of growing interventionism has been hugely pacific, as the 2006 UN Report in Human Security’s numbers clearly show. And doesn’t this “Peace Dividend” allow Objectivists to see merit in reducing military spending?

    • Tony

      Libertarians are not anti-American.
      They are anti-American *government* and most of all its warmongering foreign policy, as well as the domestic consequences of that (as we can see now more than ever in the Patriot Act and the TSA, to name but two).
      The difference is that unlike Objectivists, libertarians are not hypocrites who make excuses for forms of collectivism when it suits them, such as in support of war on the basis of so-called “national interests” (aka nationalism).

  • Tim

    I’m just trying to figure out how your consciousness relates to objective reality, man.

    • Jeremy Lott

      I think you meant to say Objectivist reality.

  • Lester Hunt

    I have always been on pretty good terms with ARI — in fact, I’ve physically been there, working in the archives — but I think trying to turn CATO into an Objectivistically correct organization would be a terrible idea. We already have such an organization after all — ARI! CATO’s voice is unique and very very much needed.

  • Robert L. Campbell

    The Ayn Rand Institute is playing a double game here.

    On the one hand, ARI’s top people (including Yaron Brook) have been given a dispensation to collaborate with or speak under the auspices of libertarian organizations.

    On the other, “Fact and Value” (Leonard Peikoff’s writ of excommunication against David Kelley, who allegedly was guilty of “the sanction of libertarianism”) remains officially in force. As does Peter Schwartz’s hatchet piece, “The Perversion of Liberty.” Peikoff’s writ is considered “part of Objectivism” at ARI—as though it were a significant work of philosophy, and as though Ayn Rand came back from the beyond to write it. In Robert Mayhew’s substantially rewritten version of Ayn Rand’s question and answer sessions, published in 2005 under Peikoff’s auspices, every slam that she directed at libertarians was included, while significant statements about other people or issues failed to make the cut.

    Unfortunately, no one outside of Rand-land seems to have noticed how hypocritical the Ayn Rand Institute has become.

  • Robert L. Campbell

    Speaking of Reason magazine, and John Allison’s allegedly low opinion of it…

    One of Reason’s recent interview subjects was Yaron Book.

  • Nancy Wood

    OK enough said, lets bring Ed back!

  • Irfan Khawaja

    Thanks to Jeremy Lott for drawing attention to my post on the Atlasphere, but I just wanted to clarify one thing: I’m not currently part of any Objectivist organization. I was active with David Kelley’s Institute for Objectivist Studies in the 1990s, and still agree with its orginal raison d’etre and with Kelley’s critique of Peikoff, Schwartz, and ARI. But I have no active or formal affiliation with Kelley’s current organization, or any other Objectivist organization.

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