About a year ago, I had–or started–an email exchange with Leonard Peikoff over the nature of libertarianism, and more specifically, over the moral justifiability of John Allison’s choice to become CEO of the Cato Institute. I’ve reprinted the exchange in the post below, prefaced by 2,000 words of background commentary. There’s actually a great deal more to say by way of background on the subject than 2,000 words, but I lack the time to say it all, so for now, I’ll just leave things at what I do say, and return to the topic when I can.
For decades, the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) had taken the position that libertarianism–or “Libertarianism,” as they then insisted on calling it–was an evil, nihilistic ideology on par with totalitarianism, and that all dealings with it (“trafficking”) were likewise evil. One fact concealed from view now is that this original position of theirs included, as an implication of their “theoretical” critique of libertarianism, an in-print condemnation of both the Cato Institute and Reason magazine The point of the original critique, made very explicit by them, was that libertarianism is a unified ideology with a single nihilistic essence, and that Cato and Reason were instances of this same nihilism (and “nihilism” was their word). The point was not a terminological one but a supposedly philosophical one. The point was that libertarianism qua libertarianism was nihilistic, and that any attempt to deal with it, reform it, talk to it, divide it into reasonable and unreasonable wings, or have any contact with it at all, was evil. Do it, and you were evil.
That, too, was the word they used—“evil”—over and over for years, in unmistakable condemnation of anyone who deviated even slightly from their party line. That was why they excommunicated David Kelley in 1989, and why they anathematized those of us—including yours truly—who made common cause with Kelley back in the 1990s. According to Leonard Peikoff, Peter Schwartz and their submissive followers, Kelley’s nihilistic/subjectivist immorality consisted in distinguishing between nihilistic and reasonable “wings” within libertarianism, and making common cause with the latter. In other words, Kelley’s immorality consisted in holding the very position that ARI now holds, but holding it in advance of ARI’s doing so. Apparently, prescience-via-a-correct-understanding-of-politics is evil, too.
To deny these undeniable facts—facts documented in Kelley’s book, and obvious to anyone who was engaged with libertarian politics over the past two decades—is to try to deceive the public with a straight face, while expecting that public to accept deception with a straight face. Put differently, it’s to make deception the sine qua non of a supposedly “moral” defense of a free society. The premise here seems to be: embrace capitalism by deceiving yourself and others about the intellectual history of the movement that aims to be the salvation of capitalism. If that is the premise on which today’s Objectivist “intellectual activism” rests, I’m proud to be a quietist. Let these loud “moralists” lie to one another and build freedom on the quicksands of deception. But count me out. Or rather, I gladly count myself out. There can, in the worst case, be a kind of dignity in obscurity and political irrelevance. There is no dignity in fraud.
To confirm what I’ve just said, feel free to take a look at The Intellectual Activist, Vol. 3, Numbers 19 & 20, May 10, 1985, p. 487, where you’ll find the explicit denunciation of both Cato and Reason by Peter Schwartz, whose views on libertarianism remain canonical at ARI, even if the man himself seems to have fallen off the map. Nowadays, of course, the CEO of Cato is an ex-ARI Board Member who professes to be bewildered by ideological disputes of this sort (as Gary Weiss documents in Ayn Rand Nation, he merely lent his name to them without understanding them), and the Executive Director of ARI feels free to talk to Reason without anyone on either side of the conversation’s batting an ideological eye. They do all this in a calm, self-assured, unapologetic way, as though nothing could conceivably be wrong with it. On this point, I think Kant got something right: it’s the very composure of a villain that not only makes him far more dangerous than usual, but also makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would otherwise have been.
ARI’s idea of a response to this is to produce an FAQ that invents the claim that libertarianism has changed, and that they’ve changed with it. They make no attempt to provide any evidence for the claim over and above asserting it. They make no attempt to explain how there can be evidence of a change in the essence of a doctrine, from nihilism to reasonability, over the space of twenty years. They make no attempt to explain how the supposed change in the meaning of a word has any bearing whatsoever on the essence of the doctrine that the word picked out. They don’t explain how their new position differs in any important way from the position taken by David Kelley at the time of the original dispute. They can’t even manage to figure out whether or not to capitalize the “l” in the word “libertarian.” They don’t capitalize it in the FAQ, but the FAQ endorses Schwartz’s essay which not only capitalizes it, but does so by systematically falsifying quotations (e.g., by works from Rothbard) which included the word “libertarian” without a capital L. The assumption here seems to be that when ARI offers gigantic, ad hoc socio-semantic generalizations in defense of its ideological stance, everyone is to take their word for it—and take out their checkbooks while they’re at it.
ARI is perfectly content to preside over a dialogue of the deaf in which one mindless dogmatist tries to outdo the others in producing “evidence” for claims for which no evidence has ever been adduced, and for which, frankly, none exists. This game, Brook et al know, can go on forever without threatening the monopoly ARI claims over Objectivism. Maybe some day, some fool will produce a “proof” of the claim that libertarianism really has changed in the required direction, thereby justifying or successfully rationalizing ARI’s new-found liaisons with Cato, Reason, and the like. Where two decades ago these organizations were emblems of “nihilism,” we’re now to believe that, by some inexplicable political alchemy, they constitute the infrastructure of a totally different, perfectly reasonable political movement. By the time that this hypothetical “proof” is written (if it ever is), published, argued over, and hailed as genius, ARI’s job will long since have been done: the reconciliation with libertarianism will be taken for granted, and the “proof” will simply seal the deal. No one will care whether or not it makes sense. After all, who cares whether ARI’s claims make sense right now? Here we are, a year after the John Allison controversy, and almost everyone in “the movement” has essentially acquiesced in the fraud that it involves.
Of course, most readers of this post will not even have access to back issues of The Intellectual Activist. So you won’t easily be able to check the facts I’ve just cited. As it happens, you can’t easily purchase back issues of TIA online or anywhere else, either. Nor, of course, have the relevant documents been posted online. Nor, I suspect, will they be in the foreseeable future. The copyright-holder of my copy of TIA, apparently impossible to contact (he hasn’t answered emails from IOS in six months’ time), very affirmatively asserts his copyright in back issues of TIA, and might well threaten to sue me were I to reproduce its contents here, which I’d really love to do. So, as much as I’d like to sit here and transcribe Peter Schwartz’s lost writings on libertarianism (or “Libertarianism”), the fear of expected aggression by these defenders of freedom prevents me from doing so. If I can get legal clearance, however, I will do it.
Ask yourself whether this situation can really be an accident. How is it that people who, left to their own devices, will put Ayn Rand’s marginalia and private journals on sale–who archive every scrap of paper she ever produced with a religious fervor that rivals the veneration of the saints in Catholicism and Sufi Islam–refuse to make available documents of this degree of historical relevance and significance? But “make available” is probably taking things too far. When was the last time you heard them mentioned?
I realize that the younger generation of Objectivists is excited by the progress that ARI appears to be making in its defense of Objectivism and capitalism through student activism, scholarship, and the like. I would even acknowledge that ARI’s programs are (at least to outward appearance) more dynamic and exciting than that of any of their competitors. ARI has the money, the personnel, and the infrastructure to make things happen, and they seem to have (and would like to appear to have) a monopoly on the knowledge and the scholarship that every Objectivist student wants. If you think that in this respect, ARI beats TAS, I sympathize with you. And I suppose that the difference between the two organizations is not just a matter of material resources but of attitude. ARI takes its student programs seriously. TAS clearly does not. IOS, as we say on our own website, is much too small and low-budget an operation directly to compete with either ARI or TAS. (We set it up to complement, not compete with, TAS.) So support for ARI seems a foregone conclusion.
But it shouldn’t be. Excitement about ARI really ought to be tempered by a sober knowledge of the price at which ARI’s apparent progress has come. And that involves some historical inquiry. You may be tempted to dismiss the need for such an inquiry on the grounds of a lack of interest in history itself, but resist that temptation. For one thing, 1989-90 wasn’t that long ago, unless you’d like to consign the falling of the Berlin Wall and the Rushdie threat to the dustbin of forgotten history as well. At any rate, how different is historico-volitional amnesia about ARI circa 1989-90 from the analogous attitude toward capitalism among statists? We’ve all met statists who think that the history of capitalism in the late nineteenth century “shows” conclusively that “capitalism doesn’t work.” Such people dogmatically refuse to revisit their understanding of history, and by implication, refuse to revise their conception of capitalism or freedom. The thing to say to them is that sometimes knowledge requires checking one’s premises, and sometimes premise-checking requires that one engage in what appears at first to be a boring historical inquiry. But that is the thing to say here, too.
Test your own consistency, then. Does it make sense to say that you care about the true-but-forgotten history of capitalism in the 1890s, but not the true but half-forgotten Objectivist ideological disputes of the 1990s? Does it make sense to put so much of a premium on the need for a moral defense of capitalism–the distinctive feature of the Objectivist approach, they keep telling us–and then profess indifference to the morality of the supposed defenders? They themselves insist that the principle of sanction be at the center of any approach to politics. Does that principle not apply to them?
Can anyone really afford to adopt the attitude toward ARI’s history that Mr. Thompson adopts toward John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged–while invoking John Galt as the moral hero of the novel, and the novel itself as the key to mankind’s future? History doesn’t become unreal or unimportant by virtue of one’s failure to think about it. Orwell and Huxley ought to have taught us that by now, but so did Leonard Peikoff and Ayn Rand. Recall that it was Leonard Peikoff himself who taught us that you can’t dismiss the significance of facts whose significance you’ve never bothered to evaluate. Oh, the irony. Well, thanks, Dr. Peikoff. I’m grateful to have learned that lesson from you—and glad to have the chance to hoist you by the petard from it.
At any rate, here is the letter exchange I had with Peikoff, essentially verbatim, except to delete email addresses, and clean up a few typos. I justify the admittedly hostile tone of my opening letter by Peikoff’s behavior with me in an exchange that preceded the one I excerpt below (and to which I allude in the letter itself):
Sent: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 10:29 AM
Subject: Question from Website
A question has been submitted on Peikoff.com
Name: Irfan Khawaja
What is your moral assessment of the Ayn Rand Institute’s recent raapproachement with the libertarian movement, including John Allison’s becoming CEO of the Cato Institute?
I don’t mean this primarily as a question of practical politics. I mean it primarily as a moral issue. For two decades, your name has (justifiably) been associated with the view that libertarianism is evil, that “trafficking” with libertarianism is evil, and that trafficking with the traffickers is evil. Now the organization you founded, and in whose name you promulgated the preceding view, is contradicting your position as though it had never been articulated in the first place.
Most people are (justifiably) inclined to regard your silence on this issue as sanction of ARI’s current pro-libertarian policy. After all, you took the time to denounce Allan Gotthelf’s book On Ayn Rand in 2000. Surely the present issue is of greater importance than that, and yet you’ve said nothing about it. If a man takes the time publicly to denounce a 100 page book meant for undergraduates, but remains silent about a policy-decision involving the application of Objectivist principles to a multi-million dollar think tank, we can assume that he sanctions the latter policy. If you have indeed taken a public position, accept my apologies for my premature criticism, but I have looked, and cannot find any such position. If it exists, it has not been well advertised.
My real question therefore is: why are you sanctioning a policy that you have spent a good part of your career denouncing as evil? If you think that’s an illegitimate question, feel free to explain why, but I don’t think it is. Or answer the more neutral question with which I opened this note. They’re obviously related to each other.
Feel free to answer or not to answer my questions as you wish, but don’t misrepresent them, and don’t hand them off to Yaron Brook to answer as you did four years ago when I asked some similar questions of you. I’m asking the question of you, not him or anyone else. His idea of answering a question is to hand it off to Debi Ghate, whose idea of answering a question is to fabricate a question that wasn’t asked, and then give it a pointless and irrelevant answer. I’m not the kind of person who can be appeased by childish maneuevers of this kind. I’d like a straight answer, or none at all. I’ll know what to infer in either case.
To my surprise, Peikoff responded somewhat positively, if rather non-committally:
From: Leonard Peikoff
Sent: Tuesday, September 11, 2012 3:15 PM
To: Irfan Khawaja
Subject: Your questions
Let me say that your letter is well written and your question is valid and deserves an answer. Unfortunately, I cannot give you one at this time, because I am not yet clear about the nature of the events to which you refer. I am gathering information with a view to achieving such clarity.
When I do, I will write to you and give you my answer.
I waited until February of the following year to write back. By that time, Peikoff had done a podcast with Yaron Brook on libertarianism, deferring entirely to Brook on the subject, letting Brook set the agenda and assert the ARI party line without a murmur of dissent, or even the saving grace of a single pointed or intelligent question. Listening to Peikoff, a man for whom I have a great deal of anger but also a fair bit of strictly intellectual respect, I found myself mortified and embarrassed for him.
I was for awhile at a loss about how to respond. I figured Peikoff would, as promised, write me back. He didn’t. I waited several months, then wrote this (for me) excruciating exercise in what people too casually call “civility”:
From: Irfan Khawaja
Sent: Sunday, February 03, 2013 8:44 PM
To: Leonard Peikoff
Subject: RE: Your questions
Dear Dr Peikoff,
I don’t mean to rush you, but I wonder if, ultimately, your answer to my question from September is any different from the answer that was in effect given to it on the website of ARI a few months back. I listened to the podcast you did with Yaron Brook on the subject of libertarianism this past fall, and didn’t discern a difference between the two of you on libertarianism. I take it that the essay below gives Brook’s answer. May I infer that you agree with it? Is your view substantially different from his?
On Thursday, February 7, 2013, at 2:13 pm, His Majesty Lord Peikoff, referring to me now rather distantly and formally as “Mr. Khawaja,” sent me his final, dismissive response:
Dear Mr. Khawaja,
I know of no difference between our views.
(Dictated but not read)
The sheer caution of the formulation is worth noting in this, the self-appointed monarch of moral certainty. My question: Do you agree with Yaron Brook? His answer: I know of no reason why I don’t. Well, dear Leonard, if you don’t, who would? Dictated but not read? Or dictated but not defended?
So this is the way Objectivist quarrels end–not with an honest resolution but with an evasive and agnostic whimper. Go back and read “Fact and Value” and ask yourself whether anything remains of the fire-breathing philosophical dragon who wrote it. What happened to claims like this?
A valuer, in her sense, is a man who evaluates extensively and intensively. That is: he judges every fact within his sphere of action—and he does it passionately, because his value-judgments, being objective, are integrated in his mind into a consistent whole, which to him has the feel, the power and the absolutism of a direct perception of reality. Any other approach to life comes from and pertains to another philosophy, not to Objectivism.
Savor the phrasing. “Evaluates extensively and intensively.” “Judges every fact within his sphere of action.” Judges “passionately,” in confirmation of “the absolutism of a direct perception of reality.”
Hold that moral jet-fuel in your mind. Now juxtapose it with the real import of Peikoff’s letter:
I have dictated but not read my answer to your admittedly well-written question, which I have not answered despite promising to answer it. I have done exactly what I implicitly promised not to do when I said that your question was well-written and that you had asked a valid question. I promised to look into the facts, but have given you no indication whatever of having done so. The two decades of strife and anathematizations on this subject that I initiated mean nothing to me now. They need no justification. They need no explanation. After all, I, Leonard Peikoff, am the author of the DIM Hypothesis. I free-wheel across the centuries with the agility and abandon of a Hegelian on cocaine. What reason would I have to take you seriously? I do not concern myself with prosaic happenings on planet Earth, even when they involve decades-long events that I myself set in motion. It’s sufficient to say that I have rented my mind to Yaron Brook, and have let him empty the contents of his mind into mine.
That is my answer to you, Mr. Khawaja. My answer is to point, with abject humility, at my tutor. Yaron Brook. He knows. I don’t. I am Ayn Rand’s intellectual heir. He is my intellectual heir. Intellectual inheritance is a transitive relation, and it ends wherever I say it does, diluting the knowledge that it transmits across itself from one dead dogma to the next. That is the great thing about being a dictator: I can presume the stature of majesty while acting the part of an infant. Good day.
“We never had to take it seriously, did we?” Dagny asks Galt when she reaches Galt’s Gulch. If only we didn’t.
Unfortunately, we don’t inhabit Galt’s Gulch. So we do.