There are a lot of bloggers and political media people who have worked for/interned at/been paid by Cato, which explains in part why so much has already been written about the battle, but you should wish for an independent Cato Institute even if — maybe especially if — you’re a socialist statist tool (like me). Cato is mostly antiwar, decidedly anti-drug war, and sponsors a lot of good work on civil liberties. That … is basically what the Kochs don’t like about them, because white papers on decriminalization don’t help Republicans get elected. As Jonah Goldberg complains in a post that otherwise resolutely refuses to come to a conclusion or have a point, Cato has an annoying habit of not always seeing itself as a natural member of the glorious Republican coalition. (Current Cato headline: “It’s Not Obama’s Fault That Crude Oil Prices Have Increased.” Oh, man, don’t tell Americans for Prosperity that!)
Not that Cato is all good — Cato did already purge the true “liberaltarians” back in 2010, ridding itself of some voices that sought to find more common ground between the left and the libertarian movement — but it’s more honest than AEI or the other industry-funded think tanks/glorified front groups operating in the same intellectual space.
One mildly amusing side effect of all this has been a bunch of pro-Cato libertarians continuing to mock liberals for imagining the Kochs to be powerful and nefarious while … bemoaning their insidious plot to destroy Cato from the inside.
“I hereby tender my pre-resignation from Cato, effective if and when the Kochs take command.” - Julian Sanchez
For a lot of progressives, the Kochs now serve the same function as the Liberal Media does for conservatives: The shadowy elite cabal whose pernicious influence explains why your own common sense views aren’t universally embraced, as they otherwise would be by all right-thinking Americans. Obviously, I don’t buy that, and in any event, of all the ways wealthy people use money to influence politics, openly sponsoring ideological advocacy seems by far the least pernicious. So if this were ultimately just about an ego contest between the pretty-rich guy (Cato President Ed Crane) and the insanely rich guy (megabillionaire Charles Koch), I’d be content to keep my head down and scribble away without too much regard for what the nameplate on the top-floor corner office reads. Nothing personal, Ed.
Unfortunately, it’s fairly clear already that rather more than that is afoot. As my colleague Jerry Taylor lays out over at Volokh Conspiracy, after years of benign neglect, the Kochs have suddenly decided to use their existing shares in the Institute to attempt to pack the board with loyalists, several of whom are straight-up GOP operatives. To give you an idea: They apparently nominated necon blogger John “Hindrocket” Hindraker of PowerLine. There’s every indication that they (and their proxies on the board) think Cato would be more useful if it were integrated more tightly into the Koch portfolio of advocacy groups—FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, etc.—for which it could serve as a source of intellectual ammunition in the ongoing struggle to defeat Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. Indeed, they’ve said as much, more or less verbatim, to the chair of Cato’s board. I don’t think it’s the end of democracy if people want to throw money at that cause, but I doubt Cato’s the right place to do it, and I know it’s not what I signed up for.
At a purely practical level, I write a lot about civil liberties issues where I’m often in agreement with Democrats and progressives. In my time there, I’ve invited Sen. Ron Wyden in to speak about government location tracking, been invited to testify on the Patriot Act by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, and written pieces for venues like The Nation and The American Prospect. That sort of thing gets a lot harder if we’re perceived as an overtly partisan shop.
More importantly, I can’t imagine being able to what I do unless I’m confident my work is being judged on the quality of the arguments it makes, not its political utility—or even, ultimately, ideological purity. Obviously Cato has an institutional viewpoint, and I wouldn’t have been hired in the first place if my views on the topics I write about weren’t pretty reliably libertarian. But when it comes down to specific issues and controversies, nobody tells me what to write. If my honest appraisal of the evidence on a particular question leads me to a conclusion that’s not “helpful” in the current media cycle’s partisan squabble, or that differs from either the “official” libertarian line, or from the views of my colleagues, I can write it without worrying that I’ll be summoned to the top floor to explain why I’m “off message.” I can promise readers that what appears under my name—whether I get it right or wrong—represents my sincere best effort to figure out what would be good policy, not an attempt to supply an activist with a talking point. If I couldn’t make that promise, I’d have no right to expect people to take my work seriously.
As I said, I’m in no great hurry to leave a job I enjoy a lot—so I’m glad this will probably take a while to play out either way. But since I’m relatively young, and unencumbered by responsibility for a mortgage or kids, I figure I may as well say up front that if the Kochs win this one, I will. I’m not flattering myself that they’ll especially care; I’d just be saving their appointee the trouble of canning me down the road. But I suspect I wouldn’t be the only one looking for the door under the administration they seem to be envisioning, and my hope is that saying this publicly now might encourage someone in the Koch empire to reconsider whether they can win this particular prize without damaging it.
I’m not a big fan of Cato (to be honest the only reason I’ve visited the site is ti read Sanchez), but I’ve often been on the same side of civil liberties and privacy (especially internet policy) issues as Julian Sanchez. Good for him.
“Catoites,” wrote [cato president] Ed Crane, “You are all probably aware by now of the unfortunate development with Charles and David Koch. They are in the process of trying to take over the Cato Institute and, in my opinion, reduce it to a partisan adjunct to Americans for Prosperity, the activist GOP group they control.”
In early November, David Koch met with Bob Levy, chairman of Cato’s board of directors, at Dulles International Airport. They were joined by Richard Fink, Koch’s chief adviser, and Kevin Gentry, a vice president of Charles Koch’s charitable foundation who’d been put on Cato’s board of directors. (Former Americans for Prosperity President Nancy Pfotenhauer had joined the board after the same meeting.)
“They said that a principle goal was to defeat Barack Obama,” remembered Levy. “The way David [Koch] put it was, ‘We would like you to provide intellectual ammunition that we can then use at Americans for Prosperity and our allied organizations.’ AFP and others would apply Cato’s work to advance their electoral goals.”
Levy asked them: “What gives you the impression that [Cato isn’t] providing intellectual ammunition?” He says now: “I never got a satisfactory answer. The only answer that makes sense was that Cato needed to be more responsive to their needs. We would take closer marching orders. That’s totally contrary to what we perceive the function of Cato be.”