Oceania Has Never Been at War With the Cato Institute

In the second excerpt of Deep Galt’s communique, my source schools me on how Ayn Rand Institute Objectivists, who had for years denounced libertarians, can suddenly do a 180 and send one of their top guys to run the Cato Institute.

“What you have to understand about the ‘orthodox’ Objectivist movement, the ARI wing of it,” wrote Deep Galt, “is that it is essentially authority-based. Something is true and consistent with Objectivism if the top authorities in the movement say so. Everyone down the line is expected to step in line.”

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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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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.

Ed Crane Has Left the Building

So it looks as though the Koch v. Cato struggle is drawing to an end. Ed Crane will be out as president of the Cato Institute at the the end of September. John Allison, former president of the megabank BB&T will take over the reins then, not as interim president but as the guy who will run the show indefinitely. Here’s the detailed Cato press release and here’s Dave Weigel making the case that this is a win for the Crane faction against the so-called Kochtopus.

Who is John Allison? Some people are whispering that “Who is John Galt?” is the better question. I first became aware of the man when he gave a suitably impressive speech at the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s annual dinner in 2009, but his main entre into the world of DC libertarianism was arranged by the Ayn Rand Institute.

(Though to be fair, we should also note the thing that started to catch people’s attention was BB&T’s heroic refusal under Allison to finance work on projects acquired through eminent domain takings.)

Allison is a dedicated Randian. When he was head of BB&T, he had his management read Atlas Shrugged and has donated a lot of money to Objectivist education efforts. This could present Cato with two different sets of problems.

The first set of problems has to do with foreign policy. Many Randians are intensely hawkish and Cato’s foreign policy is, to put it mildly, not hawkish. In his opening remarks to Cato scholars, Allison said that he did not want Cato’s foreign policy to be the Republican Party’s foreign policy. That’s all to the good but this bears watching because the foreign policy work Cato does is important.

During the Cold War, Cato’s non-interventionism was a non-starter but it really matters now. The Republican Party has become objectively pro-war and the Democratic Party is nearly indistinguishable, except that Democratic presidents are actually perversely more likely to pursue small wars that have nothing to do with concrete American interests (see Kosovo, Lebanon).

What’s needed is a whole new framework for how to think about these things. The radicalism of libertarian thinking on foreign policy could be a great help in creating this new framework — one that’s far less likely to upset the peace of nations. However, this sort of intellectual project is not easy even at a libertarian think tank. Indeed, there was a lot of debate within Cato over even Iraq.

Crane himself vacillated before finally siding with the foreign policy shop against their detractors. Will Allison do the same thing in the clutch? Right now, we don’t have enough information to say.

The second set of problems almost has to do with religion. For the two years I worked at Cato, I often found myself likening the place to the Catholic Church. You had Ed Crane as the pope; Executive VP David Boaz as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; other VPs as princes of the church; clergy in the form of its scholars; RAs as catechumens; and interns, Cato U attendees and other supporters as the ordinary faithful.

Crane wasn’t the worst leader for such an institution. He made some of the right big calls. But read this Washingtonian piece, I dare you, and then try to tell me that he doesn’t come across a bit as one of the corrupt popes who spurred the Reformation.

In raising a flag about Allison’s Objectivism, it’s necessary to make some rough distinctions. Crane and Boaz are, in their own way, Randians, but they are not associated with any of the at-times cultish organizations that serve as keepers of the flame.

Allison is. If he brings a mass of Randians with him into Cato, that could pose a problem for those who do not buy all of what the famous novelist espoused, or the stridency with which she espoused it.

That said, the incoming president of Cato seems a fairly normal guy with a positive, Southern disposition. Compared to the Crane I know, he’s Mary Sunshine.

In his CEI speech several years ago, Allison struck some interesting notes. The one I liked best, his chief criticism of the left, was that progressive economic beliefs amount to a kind of religious dogmatism at odds with the normal business of the American people. That he was so close to that business for so long — he started at BB&T in the early ’70s and retired at the end of 2008 — seems to me only to the good.