Saturday, March 3, 2012

Battle over a think tank

As I sometimes mention libertarian matters, because of Robert Anton Wilson's prominence in the "freedom movement," I will pass on the big news that is roiling the libertarian world: The Koch brothers have filed a lawsuit against the Cato Institute, seeking to gain enough shares in Cato to take it over.

Cato, if you aren't familiar with it, is the most prominent libertarian think tank, located in Washington, D.C., and the equivalent of the various liberal and conservative public policy think tanks. (Disclosure: I am generally a fan and I read their blogs, read their books, etc. Will Wilkinson, a writer I've mentioned at times on this blog, is a Cato alum who was forced out a couple of years ago, apparently for having suspicious progressive tendencies. Julian Sanchez, a current Cato employee, is a well-respected leader on Internet freedom issues. On political issues, I listen pretty carefully to them, along with Jesse Walker and Tyler Cowen and to non-libertarians such as Supergee.)

Jonathan Adler's commentary on the matter (at the Volokh conspiracy) seems on point to me. Excerpt:

Whatever the merits of the Kochs’ claim, I cannot understand how their actions can, in any way, advance the cause of individual liberty to which they’ve devoted substantial sums and personal efforts over the years. Even assuming their legal claim has merit, a legal victory will permanently injure the Cato Institute’s reputation.

Many libertarian-leaning organizations receive money from the Kochs and their foundations and are attacked on this basis. Such attacks can be deflected, as financial support is not the same thing as control. But if the Koch brothers themselves represent the controlling majority of an organization’s board, that organization is, by definition, a Koch-run enterprise. Progressive activists and journalists will have a field day with this. They will forevermore characterize the Cato Institute as “Koch-controlled” — and, as a legal matter, they will be correct. No efforts to re-establish the Institute’s credibility or independence will overcome this fact. 

The Koch brothers may well have legitimate concerns about how the Cato Institute is managed. I don’t know. They may have good ideas about how to make the Institute more effective. Again, I don’t know. From my perspective, it seems that Cato’s work nicely complements the efforts of more activist organizations the Kochs support, but I may not see the whole picture. That’s not the point. Even if one assumes that the Kochs have better ideas for how Cato should direct its resources, know more about how to advance individual liberty, and are correct that the Institute is too “ subject to the personal preferences of individual officers or directors,” any benefit from whatever changes they could make will be outweighed to the permanent damage to Cato’s reputation caused by turning it into a de facto Koch subsidiary. In short, they will have destroyed the Cato Institute to save it.

The Vokokh-conspiracy is a libertarian-leaning law blog and probably will be the place to go to follow details on the lawsuit.

A "save Cato" Facebook site already has been set up.

1 comment:

beowulf1723 said...

More from Prof. Adler.

I have been a long-time though modest supporter of CATO from several reasons, and a putsch by the Koch Bros would definitely end my support. The email from Jerry Taylor that Adler quotes in the above post shows exactly what is in store for CATO if the Koch Bros prevail.

My conspiracy theory on this:

CATO has been a vocal opponent of the DrugWar, and in the last 6 months or so has turned out a lot of anti-DrugWar articles. With polls showing a majority of Americans now favoring some kind of legalization of pot, the social conservatives have to attack, and this may be one such avenue, i.e. taking over a major source of anti-DrugWar propaganda and silencing or running off the DrugWar opponents.