Saturday, January 23, 2021

Is It Time to Boycott Niskanen? Why Jerry Taylor Must Resign

Will Wilkinson made a pretty good joke criticizing American politics. It was some of his best work at Niskanen to date. To review, a very large percentage of Republicans believe that Mike Pence is a traitor who sold out Donald Trump and betrayed America. Many of them want him arrested. Some of people who stormed the Capital intended to capture him. They tied up nooses outside the Capital. Remember that roughly half of Republicans approve of the Capitol attack, depending on which poll you look at.

In light of this--all of which is entirely common knowledge among basically everyone in the DC political scene--Wilkinson joked that Biden could rally people behind him by lynching Pence. Note that the choice of the word "lynching" is appropriate here precisely because of those aforementioned nooses hung during the Capitol attack. This was not a call to lynch Pence. It was a sharp and brutal critique of Republican hooliganism. It worked.

Wilkinson cannot be read by anyone familiar with the English language and familiar with these recent events as advocating that Pence be lynched. 

(For you pearl-clutching right-wingers who claim otherwise, frankly, I don't believe you. I think you are pretending to be offended because you want to portray the opposition as evil and unreasonable. Indeed, you can read my own work for summaries of research showing such behavior is common.)

Jerry promptly fired Will or told Will to resign. Will's presence was scrubbed from Niskanen's website that day. 

But, as I noted here simply by quoting Jerry, this is utterly hypocritical. While Will did not advocate violence, even in jest, Jerry did, and did so recently. Last summer, angry mobs (who I note were rightly angry) acted wrongly by destroying the property of innocent people and laying waste to city blocks. A group of protestors trespassed on a private street in front of a private residence owned by the McCloskeys. They may have broken down a gate to do so. The McCloskeys famously waved their guns at the protestors. One interpretation of this is that they are insensitive white racists who want to shoot protestors. Another is that they were reasonably scared that the protestors would invade and destroy their home, and they threatened them in rightful self-defense. Which interpretation--or other interpretation--is correct is reasonably contested. 

Jerry's position is unambiguous: 

Jerry would like to think that were he with the trespassing protestors, he would have attacked the McCloskeys and beat their brains in. He wouldn't apologize for it for one goddamn second. He did, however, delete this  tweet, just as Will deleted his own.

So, Jerry did condone violence and indeed seems to fantasize about beating people's brains in. Will did not.

Nevertheless, Will lost his job for condoning or seeming to condone violence, while Jerry did not.

This is of course unacceptable hypocrisy and straight up bad business ethics. You should not fire an employee for maybe sort of looking like maybe he did X, when the boss keeps his job despite straight up doing X. 

Accordingly, Jerry should step down. Any reason to remove Will is an even stronger reason to remove Jerry, both because Jerry did it more and worse, and because Jerry is the president of the organization. 

If he does not, it's time to boycott and cancel Niskanen. I hope my friends Matt Zwolinski and Kevin Vallier, among others, plus other legitimate scholars such as Jacob Levy, step away. 

If Will deserved to be fired, then Jerry deserves it even more. If Will did not deserve to be fired, then it's especially heinous, because Jerry did what he (by hypothesis) wrongly accused Will of doing, and got away with it. If Will makes Niskanen look bad, Jerry makes it look worse. 

Either way, they should take a stand against Jerry. Jerry's behavior is terrible and he has to go. If not a boycott or disassociation, then what?

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying Will should get his particular job back. I doubt Will is qualified to be the Vice President of Research of a think tank, even a small one. I recommend that Niskanen, under new leadership, hires him back in a new position for which he is better suited.  

I'll end this by commenting on my general opinion of the Niskanen Center. It's relevant because you (or at least, Henry Farrell) might wonder whether I have some hidden motive or agenda here. So I'll lay my cards on the table. 

A week ago, if you asked me about Niskanen, I would have said their senior leadership is a joke. Jerry Taylor  and Will Wilkinson's niche seems to be pandering to illiberal lefties by presenting themselves as ex-libertarians who somehow concluded that straw man caricatures of classical liberal and libertarian thought turned out to be correct. "A ha," donors gleefully think, "These apostates demonstrate my prejudices were right all along. Here's some money." Jerry and Will both spent too much time around too many smart people to actually believe these caricatures are correct. So I think the most plausible and charitable interpretation of their behavior is that they knowingly lie--or at best knowingly attack the weakest version of their old views--because that's where the money is for them. (On the other hand, if they are sincere, it is even more damning, as it indicates they spent much of their lives believing laughably stupid things for stupid reasons, and somehow failed to learn what classical liberals actually think and why.) 

Nevertheless, many of the full-time staffers at Niskanen do quality work and have intellectual integrity. Many of their affiliated and adjunct scholars are also world-class scholars who do great work. Jerry and Will's pandering, political hooliganism, and intellectual prostitution were the price we paid to get these people working and working together. Niskanen's senior leadership is and has been unworthy of its quality staff.

That's what I would have said a week ago. This week, things are worse.