Last year I heard Allison pump his book, The Financial Crisis and the Free Market Cure, on the Dennis Prager show. While Allison didn't say anything particularly new, striking or original, he nonetheless made a good impression. He was warm and friendly, and he tailored his message to Prager's audience, emphasizing points of agreement and skillfully avoiding anything that might arouse hostility. When Prager challenged him on Rand's atheism, he merely acknowledged that Rand didn't believe in God and left it at that, thereby avoiding a fight which would only have served to alienate his audience and entangle him in a debate with a skillful adversary.
I suspect that his years in business encouraged Alison to learn how to seek points of agreement with other people. That's how one succeeds in business and politics. That's not, however, how Objectivists have typical strived to succeed. Instead of finding points in common, Objectivists, following Rand's example, often seek for points of disagreement. Rand was the model for this sort of behavior. She was constantly ferreting out sources of disagreement, particularly among potential allies. She had a penchant for taking positions that alienated other free market advocates on the right. She antagonized and/or quarrelled with Leonard Read, Rose Wilder Lane, Ludwig von Mises, Whitaker Chambers, John Hospers and Murray Rothbard among others; and she maintained a lifelong contempt for Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, because neither were quite "pure" enough in their advocacy of the free market. Her shrill denouncements of libertarianism were much too broad, sweeping, and unfair. The consequence of this approach is that, while Rand's ideas remained broadly (if rather vaguely) influential, neither she nor her orthodox disciples have played a significant role in the development of the free market advocacy movement.
I suspect Allison would like to change that; and using the social skills developed from his southern upbringing and his decades in business, he is trying to make Objectivism the primary ideology for free market advocacy. Whether he succeeds at this is rather doubtful. It's likely what he's doing will have a greater effect on Objectivism, particularly of the orthodox variety, than on libertarianism or conservatism. In fact, we already have evidence of his effect on Objectivism. In June of 2012, he was hired to replace Ed Crane as CEO of CATO. Despite concerns that his foreign policy views, forged in the ARI furnace, might be way too aggressive and strident for Cato, Allison quickly moved to reassure everyone that, while he might be an Objectivist, he was also a small-c catholic "libertarian." Indeed, he was so charming and affable in some of his one-on-one meetings with Cato scholars that one of them later told blogger Jeremy Lott: “I think we have a winner.”
A month later Allison was singing a different tune at an ARI sponsored conference. In keeping with his "tell them what they want to hear" approach, Allison announced that he would stay at least a few years at CATO so he could "groom a good O[bjectiv]ist successor while bringing some positive change to the organization." He described CATO as a "mixed bag": excellent on health care policy, but bad on foreign policy. He also promised that “Cato will become a more Objectivist organization." Allison would later distance himself from these remarks, claiming they were “Internet chatter based on ‘tweets’ from the Q and A. 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.” And he added, even more curiously: “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.”
Wait a minute. How could an orthodox Objectivist, an ARI board member no less, say such a thing? And why hasn't Peter Schwartz stepped forward to cry anathema at such heresy?
It would appear that John Allison has succeeded where others have failed: he has forced ARI to reevaluate it's view on libertarianism. Since Allison took up as Cato's president, ARI has modified its position towards libertarianism, as explicated in the following prepared statement:
When this subjectivist approach to philosophy and politics dominated the libertarian movement in the ’70s and ’80s, ARI refused to cooperate with anyone belonging to it. Such cooperation would have constituted a sanction of the anti-ideology of libertarianism. However, today we see evidence to suggest that there is no longer a cohesive libertarian movement. The movement has become fragmented and leaderless (intellectually as well as organizationally), and the term “libertarian” is progressively losing its former meaning.
Thus when someone or some organization today calls itself, or is called by others, “libertarian,” one should not assume that this means the person or organization is part of the anti-philosophical libertarian movement. What matters, in evaluating these individuals and organizations, are the ideas they actually hold and advocate.
The term “libertarian” has been used increasingly over the last few years to mean a vague leaning toward liberty rather than government control…. [N]one of the three political terms—”liberal,” “conservative,” or “libertarian”—has a clearly defined meaning, because there exist no clearly defined ideologies. Consequently, the fact that today someone calls himself or is called by others a “libertarian” says virtually nothing about his political viewpoint.
What we see in the case of Allison is not so unusual when examining organizations based on rigid belief systems. Religion and ideology appeal, not to facts or "reason," but to sentiments and interests. They are non-rational in origin. Not infrequently they over-step important realities. Since most people have to live in the real world, rather than apart from it, conflicts will arise between ideological imperatives and practical common sense. At ARI the purists -- those who wish the ideology to remain true to Peikoff's interpretation of Rand, regardless of potential conflicts with practical common sense -- are mostly the old guard: people who, like Schwartz and Binswanger, were personally acquainted with Rand and who rely on ARI and Objectivism to pay the bills. Just as there are religious people who find the old-time religion too severe and unyielding, there are surely Objectivists at ARI who find the conformity to Peikoff's interpretation of Rand to be stifling and, at times, impractical. As the old guard begins to die off and lose influence, some Objectivists, particularly those with a stronger connection to the real world outside Objectivism, will find it increasingly difficult to honor the more absurd and impractical pieties of the old guard. With his background in business and the social world of North Carolina, John Allison found himself challenging the Peikoffian conviction that "libertarians are worse than communists." For a man accustomed to the gregarious social etiquette of the South and building connections with people in the business world, the reflexive hostility toward fellow travelers in the crusade for free markets must have seemed increasingly myopic and even insane. Hence Allison's declaration, unthinkable by any other ARI stalwart, "I believe almost all the name calling between libertarians and objectivists is irrational."
How did Allison get away with such a remark? Why didn't the old purists, led by Schwartz or Binswanger or Harriman or Mayhew, attempt to oust him? Allison probably succeeded at shifting the attitude of ARIians toward libertarianism for the same reason he succeeded in business and for the same reason he has gotten along with the scholars at the Cato institute, despite enormous differences on issues relating to foreign policy. Allison knows how to relate with people and get people to like him. He's a man of the world who knows how to build relationships with people.
It has also greatly helped Allison that he is rich and that he fits, as well as anyone over at ARI, the stereotype of the ideal businessman. For years, the intellectuals at ARI have fought ideological battles on behalf of the business class, without, however, getting much thanks in return. For Leonard Peikoff, John Allison must have been a dream come true: a businessman who believed in, and want to be a part of, ARI. The fact that Allison was affable, charming, tactful and likable only sealed the deal. Just as Rand cut slack for Greenspan back in the early days of Objectivism, so Peikoff, Brook, and the denizens at ARI have cut slack for John Allison. And so Allison has been the first orthodox Objectivist to not merely get away with challenging an Objectivist piety, but to actually have that piety altered and reformed.
Since becoming Cato's President, Allison has retired from the ARI board. While this does not, in all likelihood, indicate any sort of cooling between Allison and ARI, could it not portend a slow, ambiable drifting apart? Let's face it: ARI needs John Allison far more than Allison needs ARI. Allison's time at Cato should only make that more evident. At ARI, Allison still had to demonstrate due deference toward Leonard Peikoff and the old guard. That meant showing at least tacit agreement even with Peikoff's wildest lunacies. One wonders, for example, what Allison now thinks of the McCaskey scandal, wherein ARI forced out a major donor over some excessively mild criticisms of Harriman's shoddy scholarship. How was the fight for free markets promoted by that particular debacle? At the Cato institute, Allison merely has to get along with Koch brothers, who are reputed to be far less unreasonable than the Dr. Peikoff. Also keep in mind that the Cato institute is far better known, and is taken more seriously, than ARI. . Cato's research, although not widely influential, at least is given a respectful hearing by the cognoscenti. Could Allison end up concluding that Cato is a much better instrument for spreading the gospel of free markets than ARI ever was or ever can be?