Catogate Update–a Q&A

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?

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Objectivist Humor–No, Really

This being my one and only day off, I thought I’d take a break from the serious subject of the brewing John Allison-Cato Institute-Ayn Rand Institute scandal to marvel at the jaw-droppingly awesome podcasts of Ayn Rand Institute founder Leonard Peikoff.

The man will answer practically any question readers put to him. That openness may be commendable, but it also invites mischief makers and trolls. To see what I mean, here are a few of the questions that he answers:

Ayn Rand said that Objectivism is a philosophy for living on earth. If moon or Martian colonies are created what happens to her description?

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New News on Catogate

Slate‘s Dave Weigel (my friend, etc., etc.) has scooped me on two points on the John Allison-Cato Institute-Ayn Rand Institute story — one minor, one major. We’ll start with the major one first, his conclusion.

One of the big sticking points between Cato libertarians and Objectivists has to do with foreign policy. Cato’s foreign policy shop wants peace if possible and wars with sharply defined missions if necessary. Many Objectivists have more of a scorched Earth foreign policy.

After 9/11, Ayn Rand Institute founder Leonard Peikoff took out a pro-war advertorial in newspapers titled “End States Who Sponsor Terrorism.” He called for “mass death in the terrorist nations” and lamented, “the greatest obstacle to U.S. victory is not Iran and its allies, but our own intellectuals,” who weren’t so comfortable with sanctioning that mass death.

ARI board member and Cato president-to-be John Allison has publicly represented his views on foreign policy as being sympathetic to Cato’s. That may now be the case, but what did Allison think of Peikoff’s kill-them-all initiative at the time? Take it away Dave Weigel:

In 2001, after Peikoff published newspaper ads making the “end states” argument, he posted in a Randian message board about how it came together.

“I had a lot of help which I want to acknowledge,” wrote Peikoff. “John Allison was my primary inspiration and unfailing morale-booster; he suggested the ads in the first place, and then, with another donor, financed them.”

How about that?

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More From Deep Galt

Related to the ongoing John Allison-Ayn Rand Institute-Cato Institute controversy, my source close to ARI writes:

If you want to scare your old coworkers at Cato, refer them to a big dust-up from two years ago involving John McCaskey. He is an entrepreneur-turned-academic who created the Anthem Foundation, a very successful ARI-associated program that basically buys university positions for Objectivist scholars. As an academic, he raised some very persuasive factual objections to a new theory of induction that Leonard Peikoff has developed. So Peikoff threw a fit and had him kicked off the board of ARI and Anthem. It was exactly what the folks at Cato are afraid will happen to them.

John Allison and Yaron Brook were centrally involved in the McCaskey debacle, and they acted like politicians. [Read more...]

Complicity in Cato

In today’s installment of “John Allison, Show Us the Tape,” let me grab a posted comment and break it out for wider viewing.

The writer is Irfan Khawaja, an Objectivist scholar I quoted when I broke the story that Allison, president-to-be of the Cato Institute and long-time associate of the Ayn Rand Institute, may have plans in store for Cato that are troubling.

These plans may include turning it into a more Ayn Rand-centric place and changing its current pro-peace foreign policy. We’re still trying to get Allison to make public a Q&A that he did with a bunch of Objectivists in late June to get to the bottom of this.

Khawaja voiced a concern that got me curious in the first place. The Ayn Rand Institute is a redoubt of hardcore Objectivists who really, really don’t like libertarians.

In fact, they have anathematized another faction of Objectivists, including Objectivist philosopher David Kelley, for getting too close to libertarians.

Got all that?

Okay, here’s what Khawaja had to say in response to John Allison’s Thursday all-staff e-mail to employees of the Cato Institute to address reports of the still unreleased Q&A. He writes:

I’m going to assume that that email is authentic. If so, it’s a farce.

Let’s just clarify what the issue is. The issue is that since 1989, ARI has, as a matter of explicit, public policy anathematized libertarians as “evil,” and described “trafficking” with them as complicity in evil.

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Objectivism Shrugged?

“I think you’re on to an interesting story. The whole John Allison-Cato thing has the makings of an epic disaster.”

So begins the response of my source, Deep Galt, on the eminent appointment of the Ayn Rand Institute-affiliated Allison to head the Cato Institute.

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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.