Save Cato: Preserving a Voice in the Wilderness

[DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of any other contributor to this site]

I have been hesitant to use this space to weigh in on the ongoing dispute between Charles and David Koch and the Cato Institute.  My friend and co-blogger, Hans-Inge Lango, came up with the idea for this blog shortly after we met as interns in defense and foreign policy studies at Cato.  I have always wanted to maintain this space as a means to offer analysis and commentary on American foreign and defense policy, not a repository for my personal thoughts on various topics.  That being said, I am currently employed as a research assistant at Cato and cannot sit by while my friends and colleagues—such as Gene Healy, John Blanks, Jason Kuznicki, Justin Logan, and others—take no small professional risk to express their thoughts on this subject.  I have always taken great pride in working at Cato, but that pride has grown exponentially watching my co-workers step up to defend what they believe is right.  Beyond that personal pride, any takeover of Cato would have serious consequences for any number of policy areas—not the least of which would be the debate over the character of American foreign policy of which this blog considers itself a small part.

I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds on the legal battle itself.  It involves a convoluted shareholders agreement, the recent death of another shareholder, and an attempt to stack Cato’s board of directors with people affiliated with the Koch brothers and several Republican operatives.  Dave Weigel at Slate offers a pretty thorough explanation of the back-story here.  What is more important to me is the endgame if the Koch’s lawsuit succeeds:  a Cato Institute in name only—a think tank that no longer acts as an idea factory for libertarian policy but instead would become an intellectual “ammo shop” for Americans for Prosperity and GOP-affiliated political organizations.

Acting as a nonpartisan research institute for thirty-five years, Cato has been one of the few organizations to show consistent dedication to questioning the Washington foreign policy establishment—from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to defense spending to the size and composition of America’s nuclear arsenal.  Cato analysts have often been lonely voices in the wilderness warning against invading Iraq in late 2002 and early 2003 and speaking up against perpetually rising defense budgets and the dangers of promiscuous interventionism. Taking such positions often entails some risks—Cato lost at least one major donor, the Olin Foundation, because of its role as one of the few voices of opposition to Operation Desert Storm in 1991.  Few other organizations are willing to challenge the assumptions of both neoconservatives on the right and liberal interventionists on the left. I know of many people at other think tanks, in government, and in academia, who do not always agree with what Cato’s foreign policy analysts have to say, but always treat their arguments with the respect they deserve.  They know Cato scholars are arguing from principle backed by rigorous research and that these views should be treated in a serious manner.

So what does the future of defense and foreign policy at a post-Koch takeover Cato Institute look like?  Justin Logan, director of foreign policy studies at Cato, sums it up quite succinctly:

Given the Koch brothers’ stated desire to turn Cato into a research arm of Americans for Prosperity, Cato’s foreign policy would in the best case be abolished and in the worst case would be influenced by people like John Hinderaker, who was nominated to Cato’s board despite calling himself a “neocon” and describing George W. Bush as “a man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius.” Other neoconservative Republican partisans like Charles Krauthammer have served as keynote speakers at recent Koch confabs. To the extent Cato had foreign policy output at all, it would be used to ratify the foreign-policy decisions made by the Republican political elite. The quality of those decisions in recent decades has been terrible, and I, for one, could not act in such a role.

As Justin mentions, the recent additions—and attempted additions—the Koch brothers have made to Cato’s board of directors are very concerning in general, but in particular from a foreign policy standpoint.  The aforementioned John Hinderaker is only the tip of the iceberg.  One of the new board members the Kochs were successful in placing is Nancy Pfotenhauer—a longtime supporter of the Iraq war and a former spokeswoman for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.  McCain is about as clear a manifestation of the type politician who would oppose Cato’s foreign policy stance as one can imagine.

Another of the attempted additions to the board that was not approved, Tony Woodlief, has said that statements he made criticizing libertarianism have been taken out of context.  In that case, I will quote his views on libertarians and foreign policy at great length:

There is no gentle way of saying this:  libertarians sound like absolute fools when they talk about foreign policy. I have heard libertarian thinkers much smarter than me give brilliant, sophisticated, world-wise discourses on libertarian domestic policy, only to sound like naive sophomores when the talk turns to foreign affairs.

Libertarians like to pretend, for example, that the U.S. could have avoided World War II without consequence for liberty. At best they argue from historical accident rather than principal — the claim that Hitler would have lost by virtue of his failure in Russia, for example, or that Britain could have survived without the American Lend-Lease program.

Likewise comes the libertarian claim that American adventures in the Cold War were misguided. In this they display an ugly penchant for concerning themselves with the liberties of white Americans, which explains the view of many that the U.S. Civil War represents the earliest great infringement on liberty (as if the liberty of slaves doesn’t count in the balance).

These arguments against foreign intervention derive from the libertarian principle that coercion is wrong, which is really no fixed principle at all, because nearly all libertarians admit that a military financed through taxation is a necessity for the protection of liberty. Somewhere in their calculus, however, they conclude that this coercion shouldn’t extend to financing the liberation of non-Americans. Perhaps this is principled, but it is certainly not the only viable alternative for a true lover of liberty. To tell people languishing in states like China and the former Soviet bloc that our commitment to liberty prevents us from opposing their masters is the height of churlishness and foolishness.

Perhaps the worst is the libertarian position on Israel, which amounts to a replay of Joe Kennedy’s see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to Hitler in the 1930’s. Sure, without American support every man, woman, and child among the Jews might have their throats slit by Muslim thugs, but it’s not like they got that country fairly in the first place, and really, it’s none of our business. That’s not a caricature, by the way. At an event in Washington I heard a prominent libertarian argue that we shouldn’t support Israel because what happens to them is their problem, not ours. And libertarians wonder why nobody takes their views on foreign policy seriously.

It is hard to know which libertarians Mr. Woodlief is referring to since he offers no links or citations to the views he describes, but I guess it is safe to assume that he thinks all, or at least most, libertarians view foreign policy the way he describes.  I have never heard Cato scholars—foreign policy or otherwise—take the positions he describes, but I think it is fair to say that Cato scholars believe a non-interventionist foreign policy is the correct strategy for a limited, constitutional government of the type the United States was designed to be.

Mr. Woodlief, I am sure, would disagree.  After reading more of his writings, I have a better opinion of him than I initially thought I would.  His views seem sincere if, in my mind, misguided, but he is no libertarian and his presence on Cato’s board would be detrimental to the institute as a whole and to defense and foreign policy studies in particular.  Essentially, he is saying that what libertarians should do to be taken seriously on foreign policy is not be libertarians at all—they should instead remake themselves as neoconservatives.  If Mr. Woodlief, Ms. Pfotenhauer, and Mr. Hindraker are indicative of the type of viewpoint the Koch brothers think should be represented on Cato’s board, it should not make one confident about the future for the institute’s current place in the foreign policy discussion.

But even if a Koch takeover does not lead to the changes many fear will take place, it will not matter.  Even if the defense and foreign policy studies, the Center for Representative Government, the Project on Criminal Justice, and any number of other departments and individual scholars were given free reign to conduct research without interference from any or all of the board of directors, a Koch takeover means the Cato Institute will cease to exist as an independent, non-partisan research institute.  It will instead become the Cato Institute: A Subsidiary of Koch Industries.  Whether that is the intention or not, that will surely be the result.  Jonathan Adler, writing at the Volokh Conspiracy not long after news of the lawsuit broke, expressed this very idea best and many others have echoed his view in the past week:

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.

No matter what the intentions of the Kochs may be—and no matter how undeserving they are of the scorn many progressives have heaped on them—their name will be attached to every blog post, op-ed, and policy paper in the minds of readers who might otherwise be persuaded by the arguments contained within.  Every speech, discussion, and interview by a Cato scholar will be taken as talking points for the Kochs’ business empire.  This is not fair, but it is true.  Daniel Foster at National Review Online questions my colleague Julian Sanchez when he says he will resign rather than remain at a Koch-dominated Cato.  Foster implores Julian to “wait-and-see” whether or not things will change if the Kochs do takeover.  But seeing whether or not things change is not the point.  The perception will always be that the work Cato scholars do on any issue is at the behest and for the benefit of billionaire brothers from Kansas—rendering it useless for anything other than ammunition in partisan political shooting matches.

The focus on foreign policy in this post fits with the purpose of this blog but is not meant to diminish the contributions and accomplishments of all departments and scholars at Cato.  The Cato Institute is an important organization that deserves to be defended.  Cato’s contributions to debates over defense and foreign policy—and policy areas ranging from the war on drugs to financial regulation to gay marriage—are immeasurable.  A Koch takeover would destroy the place I have come to know and replace it with a partisan hack shop dedicated solely to political point scoring—ignoring the vital purpose of developing and encouraging sound, libertarian policy ideas.  Such an occasion should be a sad day for libertarianism, and I hope that Charles and David Koch will realize that before it is too late.


8 comments to Save Cato: Preserving a Voice in the Wilderness

  • […] Fay, “Save Cato: Preserving a Voice in the Wilderness,” Hegemonic Obsessions (March 9, […]

  • FA Harris

    Not sure if this counters any parts of your post but seems to counter some of the concerns that have been voiced on civil issues.

    “In some ways, David Koch’s political views resemble those of the wealthy crowd with whom he socializes in New York. He thought the Iraq War was folly, and supports stem-cell research and gay marriage.” From 2010 NY Magazine interview —

    • Matt Fay

      My apologies for not replying to your comment earlier. You’re absolutely right to point out that David Koch, and his brother as well, have been excellent on a variety of issues. The point of this post was not impugn the reputations of the Koch brothers. I have always thought the left-wing narrative that portrayed the Kochs as nefarious, mustache-twirling, cartoon villains was a dumb as the right-wing narrative that portrayed George Soros in the same light. The Kochs have contributed to a number of political causes I believe in and wholeheartedly support–including providing the seed money to start the Cato Institute in the first place.

      But let’s face it, their name, for better or worse is toxic and that toxicity would taint all the work that the Cato Institute would produce were they to takeover. And that tainted reputation is the best case scenario. There is a variety of evidence showing that the Kochs would change the fundamental character of the institute in a way that would go far beyond reputation. The evidence points to a Koch-controlled Cato doing issue advocacy on behalf of right-wing groups like Americans for Prosperity. There’s nothing wrong with issue advocacy, but it’s different from policy analysis and that’s what Cato is supposed to be doing. Also, the closer Cato is brought to the Republican party, the more likely the range of issues it is able to work on will be narrowed–this would have profoundly negative consequences for a number of issue areas worked on at Cato, but in particular, foreign policy would suffer given the continued ascendancy of neoconservative policy ideas in the GOP mindset.

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