Cato Shrugged

The new president of the Cato Institute wants to remake the think tank in Ayn Rand’s image.

The Cato Institute
The Cato Institute

Photograph by Matthew G. Bisanz.

On the afternoon of July 3, in San Diego, the annual Objectivist Conference came to order. Followers of Ayn Rand paid up to $735 for the whole shebang. No media joined them. So, when the panel on the libertarian Cato Institute’s future began, people felt safe to talk straight.

John Allison took the stage, joined by Ayn Rand Institute President Yaron Brook. It had been only a few days since Cato ended a months-long conflict between Cato’s current management and the increasingly active mega-donors Charles and David Koch. The deal ousted Ed Crane, Cato’s president since its founding, in favor of Allison, the affable former CEO of BB&T. The détente, according to Cato brass, was partially engineered by Allison himself.

Brook wasn’t overly interested in the spat. He wanted Allison to explain where Cato was headed. Two unaffiliated Randians in the audience, Earl Pearson and Arthur Zey, opened their phones and live-tweeted the conversation. This is the only public record anyone has of Allison revealing how he’d remold Cato in the Ayn Rand image.

Time for a little Kremlinology. What’s the difference between a Cato Institute libertarian and an Ayn Rand objectivist? Cato’s libertarianism is a theory of government. Objectivism is a theory of life. Rand’s philosophy, as close watchers of the presidential race have started to learn, insists that “the pursuit of [man’s] own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”

The way this strikes in the real world—the way it separates objectivists from other libertarians—is in foreign policy. Since the war on terror broke out, Cato’s been a bunker for non-interventionists. Its foreign-policy shop is staffed with critics of the Iraq war.

Objectivists don’t see foreign policy that way. The Ayn Rand Institute, founded in 1985 by Rand’s intellectual/financial heir Leonard Peikoff, has spun off arguments for war rooted in a philosophy of self-preservation. Shortly after 9/11, the man who’d inherited a movement and $750,000 from Rand published “End States Who Sponsor Terrorism,” whose title summed it up. “The choice today is mass death in the United States or mass death in the terrorist nations,” wrote Peikoff. “The greatest obstacle to U.S. victory is not Iran and its allies, but our own intellectuals.”

After the occupation of Iraq turned sour, the Ayn Rand Institute’s Yaron Brook—sort of the successor to the successor—was arguing that the United States “embrace[d] compassion instead of the rational goal of victory, and that “such an immoral approach to war wantonly sacrifices the lives of soldiers and emboldens our enemies throughout the Middle East to mount further attacks against us.” This was pure Objectivism. “Eschewing self-interest in the name of compassion is immoral.”

And that was the context in San Diego, at the grilling of Cato’s new president. The Ayn Rand Institute has not made public any recording of the Q&A, though Jeremy Lott, who broke the story, has been asking after it for weeks. According to Pearson—one of the participants live-tweeting the event—Brook started the discussion with a reminder—the “old school” libertarians were “enemies of Objectivism.” Allison assured Brook that the Kochs were admirers of Rand.

What did that mean for Allison’s new think tank? According to Pearson’s paraphrase, Allison described Cato as “a mixed bag: healthcare policy research excellent; foreign policy bad; intellectual property mixed but not too bad.” Pearson summed up Allison’s goal: “to apply his Objectivist ideals at Cato. As w/his history of bank acquisitions expects good [people] to stay and bad to go.” Zey, the other live tweeter, wrote that Allison would “oust out elements in Cato that disrespect Rand and JA’s philosophy.” Pearson continued: Allison “expects challenges in the area of reforming foreign policy there but seems to look forward to the challenge.” This was followed by a direct quote from Allison, via Zey: “Cato will become a more Objectivist organization.”

None of this should have surprised Cato-ites. Allison had been involved with the Ayn Rand Institute for years, and starting in 2009, he’d stepped up his public schedule and given talks about how Atlas Shrugged was coming true in Obama’s America. He’d appeared in a documentary about this, and he’d written one of the introductions to a businessman’s-guide-to-Rand book by Ayn Rand Institute scholars.

But Paul Ryan shares a lot of the same sentiments, and he’s no objectivist. In his Q&A, Allison took every chance to get closer to Rand. Brook nudged him on a question that has sparked intra-objectivist feuds. Did he consider himself a libertarian? “I don’t have the energy to fight a label,” said Allison, according to Zey. “I’m not a libertarian.”

It took more than a month for these quotes to circulate. Once they did, it took no time at all for agita to break out inside the think tank. On Aug. 30, Allison sent an e-mail to Cato staff acknowledging the controversy: “Internet chatter based on ‘tweets’ from the Q and A.” He could explain. “I was being ‘grilled’ at the event and will not guarantee that my answers were the best. Also, I was still learning about Cato. However, in the many sessions I have had with employees at Cato my answers have been totally straightforward.”

The Cato-Koch deal had effectively ended the conflict between the think tankers and the funders. Why rip that up over some tweets? “Now that I have a deeper understanding about Cato,” wrote Allison. “I believe almost all the name calling between libertarians and objectivists is irrational. I have come to appreciate that all objectivists are libertarians, but not all libertarians are objectivists.”

And that’s all Allison’s said about the San Diego panel. “My e-mail was intended as a private communication to the Cato staff,” he wrote when I reached him last week. “I do not see any benefit in discussing it further at this time.” The Ayn Rand Institute’s  Brook is out of the country; the live-tweeters have kept their opus online but decided against saying more.

But what else should Allison, et al, say? He’s never tried to cover up his Objectivism. 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.”