Reply to Ed Powell re: ARI and the Political Spectrum

On my last post “Lessons from the Aristotle Adventure Applied to Objectivism,” Ed Powell invested the time to make a substantial comment which merits a substantial but quickish response.  In tone Powell’s comment related to ARI and the left-right political spectrum disagrees with my key points, but examining the concretes he provides evidence to support them. Let’s take a look at that.

First, Powell disagrees with my statement that ARI’s purpose “…is to spread the work and ideas of Ayn Rand, Objectivism…” which he identified as shilling, fleecing money from fans of Ayn Rand to give jobs to the staff of ARI.  In context of my post, I relate that statement of purpose with the hedgehog concept, which was part of Jim Collin’s finding in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t.  Following the link provided in my original post, for those unfamiliar with the hedgehog concept, we find that it describes “A simple, crystalline concept that flows from deep understanding about the intersection of three circles: 1) what you are deeply passionate about, 2) what you can be the best in the world at, and 3) what best drives your economic or resource engine.” The hedgehog concept becomes the standard by which an organization assesses its activities and programs, especially new ones and issues of diversification, to determine whether there is actually an alignment to the organization’s mission.  Given this, the concrete criticisms of ARI by Powell are not a correction of the purpose that I stated, but particulars to consider whether or not ARI is focused on the purpose that I stated.

In general, criticisms are very important and should be taken seriously. Eliyahu Goldratt, creator of the Theory of Constraints, discussed how planning engages objections through a process called trimming.  I don’t have inside information on ARI’s finances so it is up to them to consider while I could only do so generally.  Powell’s criticisms of ARI fall into three categories: fundraising, editing of unpublished works, and whether ARI’s work is primarily to benefit its staff.

On fundraising, Powell has two areas of concern: the alienation of long-time supporters in favor of large donors and the influence that large donors appear to have over issues ARI highlights for contemporary analysis.  From the outside, it appears that at some point in the past ARI engaged professional consultants to help them improve their fundraising; they have previously acknowledged doing so related to training for media appearances. As I see it, ARI has a robust fundraising strategy targeting large, small and mid-tier donors; in my experience, it is those mid-tier donors who have the most long-term fundraising potential. Contrary to Powell’s grifting assertion, perhaps ARI could invest more into donor relationship management to provide more incentives and engagement w/ the non-large donors but I would be concerned about ROI and a distraction from core focus if they were to invest in that direction.  Related to the influence of large donors on issues, Powell cited three specifics: defending Israel, expanding the H1-B visa program, and failure to criticize Carl Barney’s past related to Scientology & as the owner of for-profit post-secondary schools.  These concretes can be addressed with the simple question of “Would the intellectual content of ARI be any different on these issues if there were no big donors?” In my opinion, the answer to that question is no; however, big donors supporting a new project or initiative can impact the scale, scope, and broadcast of a particular initiative.

On editing previously unpublished work for publication, Powell is concerned that such editing has made the previously unpublished work more clear and consistent without sufficient disclosure of alterations.  As even Rand’s work published during her lifetime went through an editor at the publisher, such an objection amounts to “the footnotes are not good enough.” Despite disclosing the editor on the cover and including a statement from the editor about their method, perhaps the footnotes should have been more extensive to detail the original text and the reasoning for any alterations. Yet, that is an optional value and the works were published with reasonable editing & disclosure.

On Powell’s assertion of the ARI grift, there is a simple question: “Would the staff members of ARI make more money in a different line of work?” The answer is yes, so no grift. Part of Powell’s concern seems more related to ARI’s international work as opposed to being focused only in the US. In the context of Burgess Laughlin’s lessons to be learned from the first few generations after Aristotle, the development of an international footprint was essential to not only propagating but saving Aristotle’s work; further, foreign scholars played an essential part in “reading, copying, teaching, translating, writing, and valuing” Aristotle’s work.

In summary, Powell used the same standard to assess ARI and level criticism as I stated was ARI’s purpose. Identification of suspected deviations from my statement of ARI’s purpose was the crux of his concretes. ARI is not immune from criticism & should actively engage in self-criticism through a formal lessons learned review of initiatives and programs.  While it is not always correct or informed, freely offered criticism should not be ignored, but instead chewed, trimmed, and impact plans going forward.

Changing the subject from ARI to the left-right political spectrum, Powell asserts that my “characterization of left and right is ahistoric.” Yet, that is the definition that I learned 30+ years ago…is 30+ years ago no longer part of history? Again, while disagreeing with my core point, Powell provides concrete evidence to support that point, which is that on that spectrum “Left is for change, while right is for status quo and tradition.” To be more expansive than I was yesterday from left to right, the political spectrum is “Radical – Liberal – Moderate – Conservative – Reactionary.” As I took that to be well-known and canonical, I did not spell it out but it will be helpful to see in the context of Powell’s concretes.

According to Powell, “The left doesn’t want just change, it wants revolutionary change.” On the left-right political spectrum, that is called radical.  While Powell associates the entire left of the spectrum with the radicals, they are not the whole of the left [see all the liberal members of the Intellectual Dark Web].  Meanwhile, people including myself have been having trouble figuring out what to call this Intersectialist/SJW/Progressive/Postmodern/Marxist grouping as they keep changing their own name.  In the 1930s and 1960s, they would be described as radicals [per the  left-right political spectrum].  While I had been calling them Leftists as it was a term that was generally understood, it is actually about as clear as Libertarian vs. libertarian…which doesn’t really translate via audio.  As I consider this more, the term radical collectivists is probably a more accurate name when considered as distinct from radical capitalists.

While Powell acknowledges that “The right wants to maintain either the status quo or some traditional understanding of the status quo ante,” he adds that the right “are for *gradual* thoughtful change based on understanding the ramifications of the change on societal institutions.” Concretely, Powell’s observations can be found in politicking and legislative compromise. The right’s expressions depends on whether they are in political power, when out of power they campaign for reform that amounts to the restoration of traditional principles [balance the budget, reform wasteful spending], but when in power it is stay the course and at most trim some of the innovations previously made by the other side. Meanwhile, when the need for change is overwhelmingly expressed popularly, then the legislators on the right will seek some small changes as an appeasement to preserve the tradition from significant change.  In addition, Powell observes that specific individuals on the right may focus on different aspects of the status quo as most important for preservation; that is very true, but when these individuals aggregate into a political coalition, the unifying theme of their alliance is preserving the status quo across a broad range of issues.

Despite asinine assertions of RHINO, both of the main US parties are coalitions that contain elements of the left, right, and center based upon the question of change. Since the 80s, there has been a diminishing of this diversity within each party.  As Tim Pool has reported, this has been particularly true for the Democrats recently; meanwhile, President Trump has been trying to pull more from the left into the Republican Party as a continuation of Lee Atwater’s Big Tent strategy.  As I said in the prior post, while Objectivists are radicals for capitalism on the left in the long term, it is beneficial that in near term contemporary politics that there are Objectivists on the left, right, and center politically so that we can create and advocate integrated transformation plans that both change the system to better protect individual rights while preventing the system from shattering at the same time.  Based upon his own statement, Powell and I agree on the near- and long-term objectives in my last sentence.


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3 Responses to Reply to Ed Powell re: ARI and the Political Spectrum

  1. Ed Powell says:

    It seems there are a few disagreements of fact that we can’t entirely argue successfully online like this. I do appreciate a dialog, though, as dialog has been the essence of philosophy since Socrates made of pest of himself on the streets of Athens 24 centuries ago. Some corrections, though are in order concerning my comparison between the (I contend) very successful Mises Institute and the not very successful ARI. From the most recent Form 990s for both organizations (2017), ARI’s revenues were $9.6M while Mises were $4.3M. While Mises’s three employees were paid well ($200K, $170K, $97K), ARI lists no less than 12 employees compensated at $89K or more, up to Brook’s $313K. Half of ARI’s expenses are in the form of employee compensation, compared to just around 40% for Mises. Mises spends $6K per year on employee travel. ARI spends $384K on travel. While both organizations put on conferences and events, what’s notable about ARI is that in their one fundraising dinner in NYC they spend more than $45,000 on “cash prizes” (?!?) and $51,700 of food and beverages. For a single one-night event. This organization is a charity ostensibly devoted to education, yet they have little actual eductional work to show for their $9.6M, but they do have quite a lot of highly-paid employees (who do what, exactly?), an enormous amount of globe-spanning first-class travel, and an extremely expensive taste in hors d’oeuvres and booze. Additionally, after 35 years of operation, ARI has accumulated an endowment of roughly $700K (i.e., nothing), while in a similar time period the Mises Institute has accumulated an endowment of $21.2 million. Meanwhile, Mises provides free of charge on their web site electronic copies of every single written work by Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard, as well as a number of other libertarian and Austrian scholars. ARI’s web site provides some free material from Ayn Rand (and this has gotten better over the last few years) but it is still a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of material in existence. So I still maintain the primary purpose of ARI is jobs for the boys.

    The one other topic I want to push back on is the bowdlerization of Ayn Rand’s written words in her posthumously published works. This is not a case of having insufficient footnotes. It’s a case of outright academic fraud. As Exhibit A, I refer you to “The Rewriting of Ayn Rand’s Spoken Answers” by Robert L. Campbell, JARS 11, no 1 (Issue 21, July 2011), pp. 81-151. (I’ll email it to you, if you want.) To quote briefly from the conclusion of this paper:

    My research has shown that Mayhew’s editing rarely left a whole sentence untouched. He rewrote nearly everything that Rand said. Many of Rand’s answers were sharply abridged, and not on account of obvious repetitiveness. Mayhew also divided long or multi-section answers into separate items; wrote a new question for a section of an answer that he chose to present on its own; and rearranged parts of an answer internally.

    Mayhew routinely substituted words or expressions that suited his personal taste for those that Rand was in the habit of employing. Where Rand liked to say “has to,” he overwhelmingly preferred “must.” In place of “Negro,” he put “black.” Readers of Ayn Rand Answers may come away with the impression that her productive vocabulary included “owing to,” “the agent,” “legalize,” “exit poll,” and “critique”—even though none of these are known to have figured in Rand’s speaking or writing.

    Mayhew’s broader insensitivity to verbal nuance is frequently on display: a country is “Red” instead of “wrecked,” “bother” is changed to “bother with,” “expand” morphs into “extend.” A device to which Mayhew turns again and again is putting emphasis on single words, unsupported by anything in Rand’s diction or intonation.

    An entirely different problem arose on a few occasions when Mayhew borrowed a bit of editing from another source—and failed to let his readers in on it. Unbeknownst to the reader, 14 of the 370 answers in Mayhew’s book were actually edited by Rand herself.

    Mayhew did not publicly reveal this fact until nearly 5 years after his book had gone on sale.
    Most seriously, Mayhew tampered with some answers. He removed references or allusions to persons who did not remain in good odor with Rand or, subsequently, with Peikoff; he cut out discussions of potentially embarrassing biographical issues, such as the morality of amphetamine use; he avoided expressions of opinion deemed inconsistent with Peikovian Objectivism, such as her comments about the TV show “Charlie’s Angels.”

    In addition, the editor cut up and rearranged Rand’s words, invented questions Rand was never asked, replaced Rand’s vocabulary with the editor’s own, changed the meaning of some of Rand’s answers, omitted some of Rand’s crucial wording, unnecessarily editorialized in his re-writing, and even rewrote some of her jokes. The only reason this tampering came to light is that, obviously, many of Ayn Rand’s answers are available in audio form and can be painstakingly compared to the written versions. I can only imagine what the real Ayn Rand would have thought of this vandalism of her own words. Unfortunately, this slim volume is not the only work that has been vandalized. Her journals were similarly altered, as were her works on writing fiction and non-fiction, as discovered by Jennifer Burns. There is a difference between correcting an obvious mistake (Rand saying she thought all schools should be “public” rather than the correct “private”), or making editorial decisions about what to include and what not to include (though if one’s motivation on this front is to conceal something of import, that is also academic fraud), and the wholesale re-writing of an author’s words for no particularly good reason other than the editor thought he knew better and was cleverer than Ayn Rand. All of these posthumous volumes will have to be tossed into the dustbin of history, and new, corrected volumes issued at some point to allow scholars to perform actual study of Ayn Rand the human being, the thinker, the author, the speaker, the person, rather than the Platonic form of the novelist-philosopher. ARI should be ashamed of themselves for this academic malfeasance. Especially compared to the extremely careful and scholarly attention paid to Mises and Rothbard’s work at the Mises Institute, and the openness of the Mises archives to any scholar who applies. It’s a shame I’m not a libertarian.


  2. Jim says:


    You are my friend. In the big picture, out of love I would be willing to kill for you to be right, but in this case you are not correct. Perhaps, it is an issue of me getting my health sorted so that we can have share a drink and work out these issues.

    In my post, I omitted my assessment of the Mises Institute. You attributed them to a Rothbardian libertarianism [aka dog shit on a stick], which I think is correct. Meanwhile, you did not credit them with correctly promoting the work of von Mises, which I learned from Capitalism Magazine and not the Mises Institute. Personally, when YouTube’s Philosophy Insights recommends a Mises Institute clip, I quickly become bored as it does relate to the protection of individual rights at least as far as Objectivists understand that term.

    In general, I hope with actual love that you correct you error.



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