How Objectionable Is John Allison’s Objectivism?

How Objectionable Is John Allison’s Objectivism? August 27, 2012

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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