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More on the Fight over the Cato Institute

I just can’t help myself. It’s remarkable how little I care about the outcome of the Koch-Cato standoff. Yet, having spent about half my professional life in politics at heavily Koch-influenced institutions, and about half at Cato, I can’t stop thinking about this. All apologies to those of you for whom this is unintelligible insider baseball.

Based on the combination of my time spent with Koch operatives and time spent working under Ed Crane at Cato, my guess is that the Kochs want two things: (1) to replace Ed Crane and (2) make Cato’s work more relevant to the actual policy-making process.

My completely speculative thought is that the Kochs’ takeover attempt is a gambit to pressure the Crane-loyal board members into agreeing to defenestrate Ed, or, if it comes to it, to get a Koch-loyal majority on the board who will then vote to give Ed the heave-ho. I figure the Kochs think that the management of Cato under Crane has long fallen short of professional standards, and that Crane’s continued leadership hurts Cato’s mission.  Whether Crane is a liability to Cato is by no means unrelated to (2), but it’s largely a distinct issue. I further speculate that contention over Crane’s continuing tenure is a much bigger part of the conflict than has been reported. Crane is going to retire and/or die soon anyway. The question is what happens then? The Kochs are packing the board in part to force the issue, and are suing to deny that Bill Niskanen’s widow can inherit his shares in part to try to prevent Ed’s shares from passing on to an ally rather than reverting back to the board when he finally keels over. (I have no idea whatsoever about the merits of the lawsuit, by the way.)

I half suspect that the whole battle for majority control of the board might have been avoided had Crane been willing to step down, or had a couple of the Crane loyalists on the board been willing to vote him out and replace him with someone, probably a Kochtopus veteran, agreeable to both board factions. Cato might not have needed “saving” had Ed gone quietly and retired, but if he’s gonna go down, it seems that he intends to take the ship down with him, probably because he thinks the ship is his.

What I imagine to be the Kochs’ second aim, to increase Cato’s effectiveness in directly influencing policy, seems to pose a challenge to Cato’s current strategy for creating pro-liberty political change. When Bob Levy quotes David Koch saying that he’d like to see Cato producing more “intellectual ammunition” (Randian phrase, BTW) useful to Americans for Prosperity, Levy seems to make it out that DK was calling for Cato to bend its libertarian principles in order to be a better shill for the GOP. But it seems to me more plausible, given the history of the Libertarian Party’s first vice-presidential candidate, that DK thinks that the effective application of undisputed libertarian principles to policy and politics requires a greater integration with more politically-engaged, but nevertheless ideologically compatible institutions.

Why shouldn’t Cato work more closely with groups like AFP?

One argument is that AFP is perceived as partisan, and Cato has worked hard to gain a non-partisan reputation. This is a promising argument, but it needs to establish an additional claim to be really persuasive: Cato’s effectiveness will be damaged by harming its non-partisan reputation. But will it? I think this is the $64,000 question. Of course, one needs some baseline assumptions about just how effective Cato currently is, and what kind of reputation Cato currently has. If you think Cato’s not currently very effective, it is not unreasonable to think it could become more effective by better coordinating with actual players in the policymaking process. Perhaps it would gain more through improved coordination than it would lose through loss of nonpartisan reputation. If the reality is that Cato doesn’t currently enjoy all that impressive a reputation for partisan neutrality, the “cash-value” of this loss of reputation could be pretty small.

Anyway, a more practical bent need not involve changing anything about Cato’s ideological orientation. It simply requires a shift in attention and emphasis to certain issues on which it already has a clear position. And this needn’t be one-sided. Suppose Cato, without changing anything at all about its ideological orientation, were to focus more energy on some issues currently of interest to both groups like AFP and groups like, say, the ACLU or Amnesty International? I think there’s a plausible argument that this would lead Cato to deliver greater libertarian bang for its donors’ bucks, while possibly even improving its non-partisan reputation.

Now, I’m not sure I buy this argument. I tend to think that a greater focus on practical political relevance would tend to exert a subtle pressure on Cato’s analysts to take it relatively easy on perceived allies when they do and say things harmful to liberty. Indeed, this pressure already exists, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to increase it, since it’s already biased toward the right. The legacy of right-fusionism has been to desensitize many libertarians to the inherently liberty-limiting aspects of social conservativism, and to reduce many self-described libertarians to acting primarily as cheerleaders for the economic agenda of “free-market” reactionaries. I also happen to think the Tea Party has almost nothing to do with liberty and almost everything to do with reactionary identity politics, and no good can come from helping the Tea Party along. These beliefs, by the way, have something to do with why I did not fit in well at Cato. So I guess it’s not surprising that I think AFP’s role in organizing the Tea Party has been disastrous for the “liberty movement,” and that it would be a terrible idea to orient Cato toward the the issues AFP’s membership happen to be riled up about.

However, it’s important to note that this isn’t even close to Ed Crane’s view. It’s a view that antagonizes Ed Crane, because he adores the Tea Party. Crane, who also co-founded the Libertarian Party, has an abiding faith (evidence be damned!) that Americans are in their heart of hearts libertarian, and he seems to believe that the Tea Party amounts to a popular upsurge of nascent libertarian sentiment. Listen to his love letter to the Tea Party at the beginning of this Cato forum last month on the book, Tea Party Patriots. Given Crane’s enthusiasm for the Tea Party (that congress of Gingrich and Santorum enthusiasts!), it’s not at all clear to me what his objection might be to working more closely with AFP, other than that the Kochs want him to.

Which brings us back to the question of Cato’s reputation for neutrality. It’s real, and it’s really worth something. My friend Ezra Klein, the very model of an establishment DC liberal, says “When I read Cato’s take on a policy question, I can trust that it is informed by more than partisan convenience. The same can’t be said for other think tanks in town.” I don’t think he’s mistaken. This is important. At the same time, I think Ezra trusts Michael Cannon and Gene Healy and Julian Sanchez largely because he knows them personally and has seen for himself that they’re stand-up guys of unimpeachable intellectual integrity who care more about principle than politics.

For folks outside the Beltway, for whom the Cato staff are complete strangers, Cato looks like part of the right, if an odd one. There’s a reason David Boaz is always complaining about newspapers identifying Cato as a “conservative” think tank, and it’s not just that David Boaz likes to complain. Just ask yourself how Cato’s work could have been more congenial to the GOP during George W. Bush’s failed attempt to reform Social Security, or during the failed attempt to block Obamacare? Cato obviously already is in the politically-relevant intellectual ammo business. And in actual large-stakes political fights in Washington, Cato is generally on the Republican side. It would not be strange to spot a Catoite at Grover Norquist’s infamous Wednesday morning meetings. Because Cato functions as part of the right.

It’s tempting to think that Cato almost never does anything to help the Democrats largely because it’s just too far to the left of the Democratic Party on foreign policy and civil liberties. Yet Cato is equally far to the “right” of the Republican Party on economic policy, welfare policy, education policy, and lots more. Social Security privatization is a forced savings program. School vouchers and/or education tax credits are taxpayer-funded education. Lower income-tax rates concede the income tax. Again and again Cato finds a way to settle on non-ideal, “second-best” economic, welfare, and education policies, and argue for them in away that provides “ammo” to the right. But it very rarely develops compromising second-best policies on foreign policy or civil liberties that would be of any practical use to dovish or civil-libertarian Democrats. Why not? Why was coming out in favor of gay marriage more controversial at Cato (the state shouldn’t be involved in marriage at all!) than coming out in favor of school vouchers (the state shouldn’t be involved in education at all!)? Why not a bigger institutional push for medical marijuana as a second-best, nose-under-the-tent alternative to outright legalization? The fact is that Cato has so deeply internalized the ethos of the venerable right-fusionist alliance that there is almost no hope of it functioning on the whole in a truly non-partisan way. I think its status-quo reputation reflects that.

Cato staff tend to use their principled intransigence on certain “left” issues as proof of their partisan neutrality. We’re the furthest thing from conservative! We want to legalize drugs and prostitution! We’re anti-war! I spent years saying this sort of thing. But now it strikes me that it is precisely this hesitancy to seriously commit to non-ideal, second-best policymaking on “left” issues — in the realms of foreign policy and civil and personal liberties — that makes Cato a de facto institution of the right. The issues on which you’re prepared to compromise and politic are the ones about which you’re most anxious to see the world move in your direction. Over the years, some at Cato have argued explicitly for recognizing the distorting effects of right-fusionism and for developing more fully natural alliances with the  left, but in the end those people have not tended to find themselves really at home at Cato.

I’d really like to see Cato establish a deserved reputation for partisan neutrality, since that’s something I worked hard for in my half-decade there, but nothing in my experience leads me to believe that either Crane or the Kochs are interested in that. If libertarians want an institution that is not right-fusionist, they need to build it. It’s not going to be Cato. Now, I do think Cato’s reputation for partisan independence, such as it is, would suffer under Koch rule, and that this would hurt a number of good friends at Cato, and for this reason I sincerely hope the Crane faction prevails. Yet I don’t think the Kochs are wrong to think Cato would be better off with a more effective and professional manager at the helm, if that is what they in fact think. I also suspect that Cato would be more effective, according to the right-fusionist standards I think both the Koch and Crane factions accept, if the Kochs had their way and integrated Cato more fully into their line-up of policy and politics non-profits. However, because I don’t think greater right-fusionist effectiveness is desirable, my sympathies again fall on the side of the Crane faction.


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