Cato v Koch (from the sidelines)

If you were trolling the inter-webs the last few days you might have seen that the Koch Brothers (those vile super-capitalist villains/real American heroes/wealthy people who spend their money to influence policy/politics) are suing the Cato Institute with the intent of gaining majority status on the leadership board – whereby they would presumably change the focus of the most prominent Libertarian think-tank into something akin to Koch’s American’s for Prosperity and Freedom Works. For a one-stop read of how we got to this point, and where it might lead, check out Weigel’s piece:

[…] Charles and David Koch have been putting some of their hard-won oil wealth into libertarian causes since the 1970s. A lot of the money has gone to theoretical, academic research—Cato, the Mercatus Institute, internship programs for college students. Charles Koch had helped to found Cato in 1977, but in 1991, he bolted; the think tank wasn’t producing his kind of results. […]

[…] In early November, David Koch met with Bob Levy, chairman of Cato’s board of directors, at Dulles International Airport. They were joined by Richard Fink, Koch’s chief adviser, and Kevin Gentry, a vice president of Charles Koch’s charitable foundation who’d been put on Cato’s board of directors. (Former Americans for Prosperity President Nancy Pfotenhauer had joined the board after the same meeting.)

“They said that a principle goal was to defeat Barack Obama,” remembered Levy. “The way David [Koch] put it was, ‘We would like you to provide intellectual ammunition that we can then use at Americans for Prosperity and our allied organizations.’ AFP and others would apply Cato’s work to advance their electoral goals.”

Levy asked them: “What gives you the impression that [Cato isn’t] providing intellectual ammunition?” He says now: “I never got a satisfactory answer. The only answer that makes sense was that Cato needed to be more responsive to their needs. We would take closer marching orders. That’s totally contrary to what we perceive the function of Cato be.”

Cato’s leadership didn’t respond to this directive, nor did they change anything about the think tank. […]

The most interesting development today stems from a presignation letter from Cato fellow Julian Sanchez that says, among other things, that he will resign if the Koch’s gain control of Cato. Why would he do such a thing?

More importantly, I can’t imagine being able to what I do unless I’m confident my work is being judged on the quality of the arguments it makes, not its political utility—or even, ultimately, ideological purity. Obviously Cato has an institutional viewpoint, and I wouldn’t have been hired in the first place if my views on the topics I write about weren’t pretty reliably libertarian. But when it comes down to specific issues and controversies, nobody tells me what to write. If my honest appraisal of the evidence on a particular question leads me to a conclusion that’s not “helpful” in the current media cycle’s partisan squabble, or that differs from either the “official” libertarian line, or from the views of my colleagues, I can write it without worrying that I’ll be summoned to the top floor to explain why I’m “off message.” That’s the essential difference between an analyst and an activist: I can promise readers that what appears under my name—whether I get it right or wrong—represents my sincere best effort to figure out what would be good policy, not an attempt to supply a political actor with a talking point.  If I couldn’t make that promise, I’d have no right to expect people to take my work seriously.

One other part that caught my eye was this section about the perception of the Koch Brothers:

And I don’t generally subscribe to the popular caricature of the Kochs as supervillains.  For a lot of progressives, the Kochs now serve the same function as the Liberal Media does for conservatives: The shadowy elite cabal whose pernicious influence explains why your own common sense views aren’t universally embraced, as they otherwise would be by all right-thinking Americans. Obviously, I don’t buy that, and in any event, of all the ways wealthy people use money to influence politics, openly sponsoring ideological advocacy seems by far the least pernicious.


*Postscript – I’ve also noticed some gleeful cheering by those who are ideologically opposed to libertarianism by these developments – sometimes going so far as claiming this disproves one or more libertarian stances or principles. I think that’s a stretch, obviously. Regardless of your ideology, if you generally agree that the idealized structure of a think-tank should be one that exhibits independence from partisanship (included the partisanship of donors) then the Cato-Koch power struggle shouldn’t put a smile on your face.


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