While surfing the web for something last night, I accidentally stumbled on an archaeological find of interest to this blog, and couldn’t resist bringing it up here. It’s an interview, conducted in 1993, of David Kelley in the now-defunct newsletter Full Context, edited at the time by Karen Reedstrom, and later edited by Karen as well as Rick Minto. (Karen and Rick are married, so Karen Reedstrom became Karen Minto.) David Kelley and Rick Minto are, of course, Advisory Board members of the current IOS. The interview was conducted by Raymie Stata. Despite the passage of two decades since the interview, I can’t help thinking that as far as Objectivism is concerned, the interview proves the truth of that old French adage, plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose–“the more that things change, the more they stay the same.” For the most part, I don’t mean that in a good way. For clarity’s sake, I’ll mark all references to the old IOS organization as “IOS-1990.”
The interview begins with Stata’s asking Kelley about IOS-1990, and in particular about the Institute’s successes up to 1993. Kelley mentions some successes, but what’s interesting is his description of the problem that IOS-1990 was founded to solve:
One of the problems historically with Objectivism is that it is a broad, systematic philosophy but often does not address the kinds of very specific technical questions that are being discussed in philosophy or psychology or economics. Now, some of these questions are just invalid from a philosophic standpoint. But as a student you want to know: All right, what do you do then if you’re asked to write a paper about a topic? We try to counsel students on proper methodology in these cases. But also, some of these questions are perfectly valid and we try to show how to build a bridge from Objectivism’s basic principles to those specific issues. And there again I think we’ve been very successful.
To what extent has any of the “historical” problem described in Kelley’s first sentence changed in the intervening twenty years? Very little. Plus ca change…
Just a bit later in the interview, Stata asks Kelley about IOS-1990’s other successes. At this point, Kelley brings up IOS-1990’s attempted (and to some degree successful) rapproachement with libertarians, particularly those associated with the Cato Institute, Reason Foundation, Institute for Humane Studies, and Heartland Institute.
Now there’s been a gradual recognition in the classical liberal movement that you can’t win the debate on economic grounds alone. The Reagan years were a real lesson for people in that regard. For all the free-market rhetoric, almost nothing happened. There were some policy changes, but we certainly didn’t get back to laissez-faire. And so I think people like Ed Crane at the Cato Institute and Robert Poole at the Reason Foundation are very clear that there has to be a strong moral case for the free-market to complement the economic case.
So what I have done, and what the Institute  has done, is to build some bridges back to those people and to say, “We stand for Objectivism and we are not going to compromise those ideas, but let’s talk. We can work with you to provide some of the ethical foundations for the work you’re doing.” And so over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time talking with people like Ed Crane, Bob Poole, the Institute for Humane Studies, the Heartland Institute, a number of other places. And without exception, I have found that if you approach them in the spirit of working together, a willingness to debate and a willingness to sometimes agree to disagree—if you approach them in that spirit, I have found absolutely no trace of hostility towards Objectivism. And I think we have helped restore the good name of Objectivism to a broader segment of the liberal community.
I think Kelley’s comment here is somewhat naive. I don’t know how “clear” Kelley’s libertarian allies were about moral issues, and I think that he oversimplifies the task of providing “ethical foundations” for libertarian policy initiatives. As for “no trace of hostility toward Objectivism” from libertarians, I don’t think Kelley was looking hard enough: libertarian hostility for Objectivism was there in 1993 and remains there in 2013. But Kelley’s fundamental point in this passage is unquestionably correct: Objectivists and libertarians are natural allies, and the Ayn Rand Institute‘s erstwhile policy of denouncing libertarianism as nihilism was perverse and absurd. (Actually, in a remarkable absurdity, the policy is simultaneously “erstwhile” and “contemporary,” since ARI claims not to have changed its policies vis-a-vis libertarianism.)
In this case, then, we have a real change in the environment, not stasis. No one in 1993 could possibly have predicted the lay of the land in 2013. No one could have predicted that the Ayn Rand Institute, which had expelled Kelley for this very rapprochement with libertarians, would wait two decades, and then do its best to marginalize Kelley while forging an alliance of its own with libertarians. No one could have predicted that a former member of ARI’s Board would, without significant pushback by libertarians or Objectivists, take the helm of the libertarian Cato Institute, simply brushing aside as irrelevant the fact that he had for years belonged to an organization that condemned such behavior in others as a mortal sin. No one could have predicted that ARI-affiliated Objectivists would, after describing libertarians as “nihilists” for two decades, become a common sight at Cato and IHS events, and take for granted the value of Objectivist engagement with libertarians. Nor could anyone, even in his most cynical moments, have conceived of the tortured, preposterous rationalization that ARI has recently produced to justify this about-face. (Incidentally, I have an email from Leonard Peikoff in my inbox expressing explicit agreement with it, which I intend to make public on this blog.) Nor for that matter could one have expected libertarians to have gone as silent on the matter as they’ve ended up being. All of it is a cautionary tale about the intellectual immaturity of both movements, Objectivist and
libertarian. Movements committed to intellectual integrity would never have allowed a series of such events to have happened. Pathetic but true: it took a leftist journalist–Gary Weiss–to bring the issues to light. And even the left has failed to grasp the significance of the events that transpired, despite the propaganda victory it would thereby have achieved against two of its natural adversaries if the facts were more widely known and appreciated. Can an Objectivist organization that behaves as ARI has really disavow the age-old charge that Objectivism is a form of Machiavellianism? Can a libertarian organization incapable of handling its own problems of organizational succession really claim to offer credible advice about how to run a government? Isn’t it odd that I’m asking these questions, but leftists aren’t?
Later in the interview, Kelley is asked about IOS-1990’s relationship to ARI, and about the “split” quite generally.
To my knowledge, no one has published any kind of response to Truth and Toleration or given a talk that was taped and made available. The last thing I know of on the subject were some remarks that Leonard Peikoff made at a Jefferson School conference, but that was before Truth and Toleration. So I guess the news is that there really isn’t any news: the two sides have gone their separate ways. There are a number of people who attend our events and their events and get what they can out of each side. I understand there has been some pressure on the student groups not to have any dealings with me or the Institute. But very little news, really. It’s been just a parting of the ways.
When we got started, it was very important for us to define our position in relationship to the movement that had been before. That’s why the first talk was my talk on Objectivism as a philosophy and a movement. At the time, we were contemplating having further lectures on this topic, but after my talk we all felt, “No, we’ve had our say, now let’s do our positive thing, let’s go about our business.” And so we haven’t thought much about what anyone else is doing these last three years, we’ve been so busy developing our own programs.
Much of this remains the same after twenty years: no one has published any kind of response to Truth and Toleration and no one has given a publicly available response to it in audio or video form. Partisans on both two sides continue to go “their separate ways.” Some people still try to attend both groups’ events and “get what they can out of each side.” There is still pressure on students affiliated with ARI not to have dealings with Kelley or his organization. One wonders, though, about the prudence of Kelley’s policy of “going about his business.” Can a business go about its business while ignoring the parties who want to put it out of business? I don’t think so. Perhaps history teaches us in this case that a more concerted campaign ought to have been mounted in defense of IOS-1990 when it was under attack.
Here is an amusing passage on a similar topic:
Q: Do you think that the Objectivist movement has been a victim of the same kind of desire to not think?
Kelley: Sure, there are people who basically have a cult-like mentality vis a vis Objectivism. Objectivism—or the pronouncements of Objectivism—become the content of their cult.
There was an example of a person—I can’t even remember the guy’s name so I don’t have to worry about not giving it—who said it was clear that I was not an Objectivist on the grounds that I said Objectivism is an open philosophy, subject to modification if someone provides evidence for it. He said that you can’t be an Objectivist and believe that. Why? He gave an analogy to a coach with ten rules; this is the coach’s philosophy, these ten rules. If someone comes along and says “I subscribe to coach’s philosophy but I don’t like rule six”, well then it’s not coach’s philosophy anymore. That’s the cult mentality—that Objectivism can even coherently be compared to a list of ten rules, you know, like the ten commandments.
The “guy” whose name Kelley has forgotten is John McCaskey, self-expelled founder of the Anthem Foundation, and currently a faculty member at Brown University. One wonders whether McCaskey has modified or re-thought his “Coach’s Ten Rules” conception of Objectivism. One likewise wonders what his Brown University colleagues would say if his role in Kelley’s excommunication were more widely known. McCaskey has written on many topics in the years since, but not
on that one. Nor has anyone asked him, publicly, to come clean on his views of twenty years ago–unless you count what I’m doing now. This lack of accountability and lack of transparency is a sign of intellectual corruption in a “movement.” But Objectivists have come to take such corruption pretty much for granted. Moral indifference and agnosticism are the “price” that some are willing to “pay” for “success.”
I admire an interviewer who asks tough questions, and Stata is by that standard an admirable interviewer. He asks Kelley the awkward question of why Objectivist scholars seem to have produced so little in the way of scholarship. I won’t reproduce Kelley’s response verbatim; I don’t at all find it plausible. First Kelley suggests that it’s “extremely difficult” to produce high quality work. That’s true, but non-Objectivist academics seem to have found a way of surmounting this problem. Then he suggests that “innovation has to some extent been discouraged in the Objectivist movement.” I agree that it has, and yet I don’t find that fact explanatory. Innovation has been discouraged, especially within the more dogmatic precincts of ARI, and yet it hasn’t been sufficiently discouraged to have prevented ARI-affiliated Objectivists from producing a fair bit of good scholarship. Kelley goes on to say that he intends to put a few volumes of Objectivist work together (which he did do), and ends by saying: “Actually, it’s kind of pathetic, but even three or four volumes will significantly expand the body of literature that’s out there.” I agree with that, and it remains true twenty years after he said it.
I don’t want to end on a sour note. There is something wonderful and refreshing about this interview, and it comes out best in some of the passages I haven’t quoted here. The interview is an archaeological document from a time before the Internet and interwebs, before social media and blogs–from a time, in other words, when there were far fewer independent opportunities for thought and expression than there now are. IOS-1990 did a remarkable job in that environment to put Objectivism on the intellectual radar screen. For years, it was the only voice of a sane form of Objectivism, and virtually the only voice of a scholarly one with interests in engaging a wider intellectual audience. The interview captures the phenomenology of IOS Objectivism ca. 1993–the excitement, the sense of novelty, the sense of liberation, the prospects for the future.
We now face a radically different milieu involving a 180 degree shift–one in which ARI has become the rising, mainstreamed public and scholarly face of Objectivism, and Kelley’s organization has become relatively marginalized, even with its erstwhile libertarian allies. It would take an intellectual historian with a strong stomach and powerful capacities of integration to explain how and why that happened. Having read some recent histories (or historical discussions) of Objectivism–Doherty, Burns, Heller, Weiss–I’m not holding my breath. If it took twenty years to get where we are, it could take twenty more years before historians come up with an explanation that does justice to the facts. I can’t hold my breath that long. I’ve held it long enough already.