Cato and the Power of Ideas
An outside look into the Koch–Cato feud and what it can teach us.

The Koch brothers


I once heard Milton Friedman say privately what he also said publicly (meaning his public statement was no mere polite flattery), that he was only wrong about one thing in his life: his prediction that the Cato Institute would “go native” in Washington, D.C., when it moved there from San Francisco in 1981. But perhaps we should consider the possibility that Milton Friedman was wrong after all — and that Cato did in fact go bad 30 years ago, and not lately over a shareholder agreement. There are some hard-shell libertarians — (cough, cough) Murray Rothbard — who argued that the Cato Institute’s libertarianism is not true or pure libertarianism. Stories of Rothbard being turfed out of the Cato world more than 30 years ago (and somehow having his founding shares stripped from him) are still the stuff of legend around libertarian bonfires. You can read a detailed account of it, including the Kochs’ role, in Brian Doherty’s fine history of libertarianism, Radicals for Capitalism. Rothbard went well beyond Cato’s stance with his critique, charging that Friedrich Hayek was not only not a true libertarian, but was actually evil because so many people considered him a leading libertarian thinker. And Rothbard found Milton Friedman “fundamentally and basically mistaken and wrongheaded.” Well now: The main auditorium at Cato is named for Hayek, and Cato gives a large prize in the name of Milton Friedman every two years. Splitters!

Perhaps I shouldn’t make light of the disputes over ideological rectitude; they are by no means unique to libertarians. (I ought to know, as a student of Harry Jaffa, who might be thought of as the Murray Rothbard of the Straussian world.) The libertarian intramural argument can be viewed as merely one example of the general argument over prudence — what kind of concessions to “reality” are necessary to be politically effective, or to achieve meaningful change? My own critique of libertarian political philosophy and political practice is precisely that it is too anti-political, that is, disdain for the conventionality of the two parties (but especially the Republican party) causes many libertarians to adopt a pose or attitude of disdain toward all political life itself. It is not unlike the pose of the soi-disant “beyondists” who eschew “labels” or ideology, but is more frivolous in the case of libertarians precisely because they do have serious things to say about how we ought to be governed.

The irony is that Ed Crane was a central part of the effort to elevate the Libertarian party into a serious practical political force back in the late 1970s, culminating in the 1980 presidential campaign of my old hometown neighbor Ed Clark and his running mate . . . David Koch. But the subsequent path of Crane and Cato represents a move away from direct political action — the quest for power — and toward the pure world of ideas and analysis, embracing the think-tank model of building long-term institutions and propagating a body of ideas in order to create political change. What has Cato (or any other broad-spectrum think tank, like my own AEI) accomplished for all this effort? If you measure the answer according to a narrow ideological yardstick, you’d be tempted to say “nothing.” If you understand politics and historical change as the never-ending contest for public opinion, the answer will be more positive, though you could never arrive at objective metrics that would satisfy everyone. Beneath this question is the riddle offered by Machiavelli: Who is the truly more ambitious person — the practical politician (the man of power and action), or the thinker whose ideas may lead to “new modes and orders”?

To their great credit, the Kochs have always been both, investing not only in Cato, but in other long-term purely intellectual initiatives such as the Institute for Humane Studies and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. (As is the custom these days, a disclosure: The Koch Foundation has provided some funding for academic ventures of mine.) They have also invested in action-oriented initiatives like Americans for Prosperity, which tussle on the cutting edge of current political controversies and electoral contests.

In recent years, it appears the Kochs have become more ambitious for near-term results, and who can blame them? I have been complaining for a while now that conservatives and libertarians became complacent in the 1990s and under President Bush, and did not perceive how, to borrow a March Madness analogy, we lost the “possession arrow” of public sympathy for “market liberalism” (as Cato likes to call it). And now, under Obama, we find matters at a crisis point on all fronts. Meanwhile, changes in the media world — the rise of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle — have changed the landscape for think tanks, as Hudson’s Tevi Troy has noted in a widely noted National Affairs article recently, and again in the Washington Post the other day. Where once upon a time a policy dispute between, say, Cato and the Center for American Progress would take several weeks to play out in letters to the editor and printed rebuttal papers, today’s insatiable, always-on internet and cable-news world means several rounds of an argument can be played out by noon. As such, even an academically inclined think tank with a long-term outlook has to take on some of the character of a campaign war room if it wishes to be heard in the growing din. It’s understandably compelling, and perhaps necessary, to become more like Breitbart and less like James Q. Wilson. There is no correct answer to this dilemma, in part because the distinction between politics and policy is incoherent and unsustainable in an era of total government like the one in which we live.

But the calculation of how to navigate these shoals ought to be up to the incumbent management of institutions, and their self-perpetuating boards, to decide. And it ought to be done directly, rather than through a proxy fight over corporate-governance structure.

One sad fact is clear: This modern-day reenactment of Bleak House looks likely to end in Cato losing its ability to balance the relation of ideas and power in a way that doesn’t bring discredit to otherwise noble ambition on both sides. That’s one thing Breitbart and Wilson would have seen eye-to-eye on.

Steven F. Hayward is the author of several books, including most recently The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents: From Wilson to Obama.


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