Q: Why dive back into the John Allison-Cato Insitute-Ayn Rand Institute story with a self Q&A? Isn’t that pompous?
A: Because 1) I’ve been putting a lot of little items together and 2) I’ve been busy. Could have peppered Jeremy Lott’s Diary with them as I went but then it would have turned into Jeremy Lott’s Obsessive Scribblings About a Former Employer. Don’t misunderstand: I think the story matters, but readers come here for other reasons, too.
Q: You keep teasing people with the promise of more words from your source close to the Ayn Rand Institute, “Deep Galt.” Are you going to cough those up now?
A: Yes. Deep Galt is of two minds on what former BB&T president and ARI guy Allison would mean for Cato and ARI. On one hand, Allison’s history at ARI would indicate that “he will go with the flow. Allison went along with [Leonard] Peikoff because he had to given Peikoff’s control over ARI. At Cato, he will go along with whoever has the real power — presumably David Koch.”
Q: Do you agree with that hand?
A: In his talk to Cato scholars, Allison stressed that though he respects the Kochs, he is his own man. Reports from his still unreleased ARI Q&A give us reason to doubt that. He said that he was offered the job of president of Cato and wasn’t going to take it until ARI’s Yaron Brook talked him into it.
Q: You continue to call for the release of that talk. How sure are you there’s a recording of it?
A: Reasonably certain. I talked with one person who attended about half of the conference, though not the Allison bit. He assured me it was wired for stage and sound. Everything the speakers had to say was videotaped and recorded. The only way that would not have been the case with Allison was that ARI decided in advance that what he had to say would be controversial and stopped the cameras.
Q: Why won’t Allison pull a Romney and ask for the video’s release?
A: There are a number of reasons why not. The chief of which, as he admitted in his letter to all Cato scholars (“I was being ‘grilled’ at the event and will not guarantee that my answers were the best.”), is that there was some embarrassing material in the answers.
Q: How embarrassing?
A: If the live reports on Twitter at the time are taken at face value, he several times directly contradicted what he’d just said to Cato Institute scholars about foreign policy and the relationship between libertarianism and Objectivism. He said he took the job at the behest of ARI’s Brook, promised to show scholars the door who disrespected Ayn Rand and pledged to groom a good Objectivist replacement.
Q: Are those live Tweats all we have to go on?
A: Not on foreign policy, certainly. Slate’s Dave Weigel found that Allison had encouraged and helped fund an advertorial after 9/11 calling for “mass death” in the Muslim world, including Iran — a nation that had nothing to do with the attacks.
Q: Who vetted this guy?
A: That’s a damn good question. Remember, the Koch brothers were suing over Cato’s weird non-profit shareholder agreement. So far as I can tell, in the mad scramble to hammer out a deal between the Kochs and the Cato Institute’s board, Allison emerged as a consensus candidate — somebody all parties might be able to live with to avoid protracted litigation — and nobody looked into him very deeply.
Q: Do you think his financing of the “mass death” advertorial should disqualify him as president of Cato?
A: If he had written it, maybe — and I stress the contingent nature of that judgment –, but no. It was 9/11. Most of us, at one point or another, had a kill-them-all moment. It’s only human. Unfortunately, some of those moments were forever recorded for posterity.
Q: What was Deep Galt’s “other hand”?
A: DG notes the “big ideological contradiction in having an orthodox ARI Objectivist at the head of Cato” and predicts “eventually something is going to have to give.” Now, will that be Allison realizing that the Cato Institute is too unruly to tame, ideologically? Will he try to Objectivize the place and trigger a mass departure? It’s hard to say and it depends to an extent on how deeply Cato’s president-to-be has drunk the Rand-Aid.
Q: Rand-Aid? Seriously?
A: In writing about this unfolding scandal, I have been justly chastened by some Objectivists for painting with too broad a brush. Not all people who are attracted to elements of the school of thought championed by Ayn Rand behave like cultists. But Ayn Rand Institute Objectivists certainly have in the past. I mean: the ideological name changes, the secretiveness, the excommunications for tainted associations with outsiders — these are not hallmarks of a sane secular movement. There are signs that ARI is looking to put some of these behaviors in its past, but Allison played at least a bit role in that past.
Q: Is it possible for Allison to emerge from this milieu and not be a cultist?
A: Yes, it’s possible. In the Allison chapter of Ayn Rand Nation, we learn that the future president of BB&T was drawn in not by Ayn Rand’s capitalist-mythologizing novels but by the collection of essays Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Author Gary Weiss remarks that Allison “Was the first Objectivist I’d met who was not initially swept into the fold by her novels.” This came as a great surprise to Weiss who thought the book had “all the charm and wit of an Army training manual.”
Q: This is going somewhere, right?
A: Getting there. Throughout the interview with Weiss, Allison comes off very much as a closet cafeteria Objectivist. His use of Objectivism as president of BB&T was selective and sparing. His beliefs about God might just barely rise to the level of atheism. On foreign policy, he mounts a perfunctory defense of what Weiss takes to be Ayn Rand’s foreign policy positions, but it seems to hold little interest for him.
Q: And this guy is a[n]
long-time* ARI board member?
A: Yes! And as Jeremy Lott’s Diary has noted in the past, Allison’s major criticism of liberal economic arguments has to do with their almost religious dogmatism. So it seemed extra strange to me when I ran across accounts of Allison telling a bunch of in-group Objectivists exactly what they wanted to hear.
Q: Any chance that talk will be released?
A: A very slim one. The strategy Allision and ARI have adopted is to refuse all comment to reporters and hope the story goes away.
* I phrased this wrong. The relevant points were that Allison a) was a board member of ARI and b) had a long history of involvement with the organization. Both are true, but it’s inaccurate to call him “a long-time ARI board member.”