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

The Koch brothers


Reading Richard Cohen’s squalid column last week about Andrew Breitbart (“A Bombthrower Without Ideas”) somehow put me in the frame of mind to think about the . . . Koch-Cato feud. You’ll need to bear with my circuitous route for a moment to work this out.

Cohen, who is sometimes worth reading for his occasional departures from the liberal reservation, joined the Left in braying about Breitbart’s supposed shortcomings. Cohen writes that “a good deal of [Breitbart’s career was] revolting and some of it unethical or sloppy,” though the main example he cites of Breitbart’s sloppiness is inaccurate. But more egregious was Cohen’s precious comparison of Breitbart with James Q. Wilson, who died the day after Andrew.

“Wilson was my kind of conservative,” Cohen says, because Wilson was a genteel ideas man. (By the way, I can’t find any place where Cohen wrote about Wilson and his ideas before this, supporting my thesis that for a liberal, the only good conservative is a dead conservative.) But Breitbart, you see, wasn’t about ideas at all — he was about power and “winning.” Says Cohen in his wrap-up: “In Breitbart I can find nothing of value. He thought politics was like war. Wilson thought it was about ideas.”

Would that the world worked according to Cohen’s simplistic dichotomy. Breitbart understood something that Cohen either can’t or won’t perceive: Much of the Left, in fact, is motivated by power rather than ideas. If the Left were only and purely interested in ideas, then they could indeed be countered with extended seminars on Plato and John Locke and Friedrich Hayek. Conservatives are fond of Richard Weaver’s slogan that “ideas have consequences.” Indeed they do, but try that on a union goon prizing a checked ballot from an intimidated worker, or a faculty mob denying tenure to someone on ideological grounds — or a federal bureaucrat imposing an arbitrary and burdensome rule on a small business. If the political fight between Left and Right were only a contest of ideas, we could keep plugging away, our only obstacle being the stupidity of the Left. But that’s not the whole problem. To turn the phrase on its head, sometimes ideas don’t have consequences — that is, aren’t an adequate defense — at least not when those ideas are up against a pure will to power. Breitbart understood that the Left’s will to power meant that it had to be fought like a martial enemy.

Of course, the world of pure ideas and the world of political power don’t diverge as neatly and cleanly as Cohen supposes. In the real world of human institutions, one needs a certain amount of power to put ideas into practice. (Indeed, the “will to power” was itself elevated into an idea, nowhere more powerfully than by Nietzsche, but let’s leave that for another day.) The strong-arming union goon probably thinks he is advancing some notion of egalitarianism, if he thinks at all. Thinking on the relation of ideas to power in the real world brings up the problematic quality of ambition — a trait that can be unlovely in private life and positively ugly in politics. Yet in a democratic system in which only self-selecting people participate, it is impossible to function without ambition. Ambition is a central trait of all leading political figures, from Lincoln to Churchill, up through Reagan, who perhaps concealed it slightly better than others.

The relationship between ideas and power, along with the necessary ingredient of human ambition, may be the best way for outsiders to evaluate the public feud between the Kochs and the Cato Institute. It is impossible for outsiders to know all that has passed between the Koch brothers and Cato’s management over the years that contributes to the current impasse, let alone the legal issues of today’s litigation. As such, it is difficult to pass judgment on the legal and management issues that have surfaced. But that does not mean certain important institutional and ideological questions cannot be dilated.