Notes on the John Allison Story

1. Jeremy Lott’s Diary received a long response from someone close to the Ayn Rand Institute who has requested anonymity. I have decided to grant that and give my informant the codename Deep Galt — purely because the name amuses me.

2. The first communique from Deep Galt will be spooled out here over the next few days, starting in an hour or so.

3. Some folks assume I have an axe to grind with John Allison. Not so. Just read the first of two things I wrote about the man and you’ll see that I actually had a favorable impression of him. I simply want to know what he had to say to a roomful of Ayn Rand devotees, because the reports I have been able to find contradict what he had to say to the folks at Cato in ways that could lead to serious conflicts once he takes over as president.

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.

Remember, People Lie to Pollsters

Many years ago when I worked at the Cato Institute (more on that later) I managed to so offend friend and foreign policy guy Justin Logan that he backed slowly out of the lunchroom. You may wonder, what bigmouthed thing had I said? That America was right to invade Iraq? That torture is A-OK? That I was thinking of getting a Woodrow Wilson tat?

None of the above. We had been discussing a poll finding that something like a majority of Republicans believed large caches of Weapons of Mass Destruction had been found in Iraq, contrary to the evidence. I argued many of those Republicans did not, in fact, believe that WMDs had been discovered in Iraq.

Rather, I explained, Republicans knew how those polls were going to used polemically and so answered a different set of questions. What they heard was more like “Do you support President Bush and/or the boots already on the ground in Iraq?” So of course they had answered yes.

To his credit, Logan asked a few questions before quitting the field. I explained my belief that people lie to pollsters all the time for a whole number of reasons. These reasons range from social disapproval (“Do I really want to tell the complete stranger on the other end of the line that I’ll vote for Jesse Helms?”) to confusion (the wording of the question can be all-important) to a cynical sophistication (“If I answer x, it will be used to argue y. So, let’s go with -x.”).

At the time, Logan really didn’t know what to make of such high-proof skepticism. I wonder if that’s changed.


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