Koch v. Cato — The Views of Former Cato Staffers and Ezra Klein

The commentary on the Koch-Cato continues to multiply.  Three recent posts are particularly noteworthy.  The first are two former Cato staffers associated with so-called “liberaltarianism,” Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson.  Brink’s views, in particular, are quite close to my own.  In addition, noted progressive blogger Ezra Klein adds his voice to those wondering what the Kochs hope to accomplish by taking over the Cato Institute.  All three posts are excerpted after the jump.

In addition to these three posts, here some additional items of potential interest to those following this libertarian family feud:

  • Jeffrey Toobin profiles Cato Chairman Bob Levy;
  • Slate‘s Explainer explains what goes on at think tanks;
  • Jessica Flanagan addresses charges of libertarian hypocrisy;
  • Cato’s Jonathan Blanks proclaims “Just because we support legalized prostitution doesn’t mean we want to live it.”

Also, FWIW, I think Ilya outlines the sort of initiative that could resolve this conflict.  The question is whether either side is willing to set egos and personal interests aside to embrace such an outcome.

ANOTHER: In a series of posts, Brad Delong demonstrates that he doesn’t understand the concept of rights, or the idea that I may defend your right to do something even as I criticize or lament your choice to do it.

MORE LINKS: Some additional commentary.


The first of the three posts I’m excerpting comes from former Cato staffer Brink Lindsey, guest-posting at Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

It’s no secret that I’ve had strong differences over the years with some of my former colleagues at Cato. In some cases I’ve maintained positions that I now believe were wrong: it took the long occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq to disillusion the hawk out of me. On other fronts, I continue to hold views that are minority positions among Cato’s ranks.

But the existence of those differences in no way detracts from my admiration for Cato or my belief that it is an important force for good in American political life. Although many, perhaps most Americans have a libertarian streak of some kind that runs through their thinking, principled support of limited government across the domains of economics, personal life, civil liberties, and foreign affairs sadly remains a rarity. For 35 years and counting, the Cato Institute has been keeping the flame alive and ensuring that a principled libertarian perspective has a prominent place in the national policy debate. All of us who regard ourselves as libertarians, as well as all who have had their thinking challenged and sharpened by exposure to libertarian ideas, owe a debt of gratitude to Cato for this service.

Accordingly, I am deeply troubled by the Koch brothers’ recent lawsuit, which I regard as a threat to Cato’s ability to continue the fine and important work it has been doing for so many years. As to the merits of the case, I will say only that there is a serious dispute about the proper interpretation of the long dormant and distinctly curious shareholders’ agreement. When the Kochs argue that they are merely upholding the rule of law, they are therefore begging the question. Both sides claim the rule of law is on their side – which is why the case is now in court. . . .

Lindsey also takes time to respond to his former colleagues, Will Wilkinson’s first post on the subject.

[H]e makes the plausible-sounding point that other institutions, namely the Mercatus Center and the Institute for Humane Studies, have strong ties to the Kochs and nonetheless do good work and are clearly libertarian-oriented. True enough, but neither as far as I know has the same kind of shareholders’ agreement that Cato does, and thus neither is legally owned and controlled by the Kochs as Cato would be if the Kochs prevailed in this dispute. Indeed, Mercatus is associated with George Mason University and its director is appointed by the Provost of GMU; its independence from any particular donor is thus institutionally secured. As to IHS, its academic mission is so far removed from partisan politics that legitimate concerns that it is being made to serve some partisan agenda really can’t arise. Cato’s situation is thus clearly distinguishable from that of these other organizations. . . .

As Lindsey was composing his post, Wilkinson was composing a second post, expanding the reasons for his ambivalence about the suit, hypothesizing about the Kochs’ motivations, and suggesting Cato President Ed Crane bears some responsibility for the current conflict.

Based on the combination of my time spent with Koch operatives and time spent working under Ed Crane at Cato, my guess is that the Kochs want two things: (1) to replace Ed Crane and (2) make Cato’s work more relevant to the actual policy-making process.

My completely speculative thought is that the Kochs’ takeover attempt is a gambit to pressure the Crane-loyal board members into agreeing to defenestrate Ed, or, if it comes to it, to get a Koch-loyal majority on the board who will then vote to give Ed the heave-ho. I figure the Kochs think that the management of Cato under Crane has long fallen short of professional standards, and that Crane’s continued leadership hurts Cato’s mission.  Whether Crane is a liability to Cato is by no means unrelated to (2), but it’s largely a distinct issue. I further speculate that contention over Crane’s continuing tenure is a much bigger part of the conflict than has been reported. Crane is going to retire and/or die soon anyway. The question is what happens then? The Kochs are packing the board in part to force the issue, and are suing to deny that Bill Niskanen’s widow can inherit his shares in part to try to prevent Ed’s shares from passing on to an ally rather than reverting back to the board when he finally keels over. (I have no idea whatsoever about the merits of the lawsuit, by the way.)

I half suspect that the whole battle for majority control of the board might have been avoided had Crane been willing to step down, or had a couple of the Crane loyalists on the board been willing to vote him out and replace him with someone, probably a Kochtopus veteran, agreeable to both board factions. Cato might not have needed “saving” had Ed gone quietly and retired, but if he’s gonna go down, it seems that he intends to take the ship down with him, probably because he thinks the ship is his.

What I imagine to be the Kochs’ second aim, to increase Cato’s effectiveness in directly influencing policy, seems to pose a challenge to Cato’s current strategy for creating pro-liberty political change. . . .

. . .  a more practical bent need not involve changing anything about Cato’s ideological orientation. It simply requires a shift in attention and emphasis to certain issues on which it already has a clear position. And this needn’t be one-sided. Suppose Cato, without changing anything at all about its ideological orientation, were to focus more energy on some issues currently of interest to both groups like AFP and groups like, say, the ACLU or Amnesty International? I think there’s a plausible argument that this would lead Cato to deliver greater libertarian bang for its donors’ bucks, while possibly even improving its non-partisan reputation.

Now, I’m not sure I buy this argument. I tend to think that a greater focus on practical political relevance would tend to exert a subtle pressure on Cato’s analysts to take it relatively easy on perceived allies when they do and say things harmful to liberty. Indeed, this pressure already exists, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to increase it, since it’s already biased toward the right. The legacy of right-fusionism has been to desensitize many libertarians to the inherently liberty-limiting aspects of social conservativism, and to reduce many self-described libertarians to acting primarily as cheerleaders for the economic agenda of “free-market” reactionaries. . . .

I’d really like to see Cato establish a deserved reputation for partisan neutrality, since that’s something I worked hard for in my half-decade there, but nothing in my experience leads me to believe that either Crane or the Kochs are interested in that. If libertarians want an institution that is not right-fusionist, they need to build it. It’s not going to be Cato. Now, I do think Cato’s reputation for partisan independence, such as it is, would suffer under Koch rule, and that this would hurt a number of good friends at Cato, and for this reason I sincerely hope the Crane faction prevails. Yet I don’t think the Kochs are wrong to think Cato would be better off with a more effective and professional manager at the helm, if that is what they in fact think. I also suspect that Cato would be more effective, according to the right-fusionist standards I think both the Koch and Crane factions accept, if the Kochs had their way and integrated Cato more fully into their line-up of policy and politics non-profits. However, because I don’t think greater right-fusionist effectiveness is desirable, my sympathies again fall on the side of the Crane faction.

Finally (for now), noted progressive blogger Ezra Klein weighs in on what could be lost if the Kochs take over Cato.

It seems the effort by billionaires Charles and David Koch to take control of the libertarian Cato Institute is going poorly. “We are not acting in a partisan manner, we seek no ‘takeover’ and this is not a hostile action,” Charles Koch told Bloomberg News. When you are denying partisanship, takeover ambitions and hostile intentions in one sentence, you probably need to rethink your PR strategy. . .

Whether they can pull off this coup is for the courts to decide. (Alison Frankel has a good rundown of the relevant legal issueshere.) But the bigger question is: Why in the world would they want to? . . .

I am not exactly a libertarian. I’m a technocrat. I believe in the government’s ability, and occasionally its responsibility, to help solve problems that the market can’t or won’t resolve on its own. I find much of Cato’s hard-line libertarianism — to the point of purging Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsey, libertarians who explored making common cause with liberals on select issues — naive, callous and occasionally absurd. And yet, it’s among a handful of think tanks whose work I regularly read and trust.

That’s because Cato is, well, “the foremost advocate for small-government principles in American life.” It advocates those principles when Democrats are in power, and when Republicans are in power. When I read Cato’s take on a policy question, I can trust that it is informed by more than partisan convenience. The same can’t be said for other think tanks in town. . . .

What the Kochs have in Cato is an advocacy organization that matters in the years between elections, even when the Koch brothers’ preferred candidate doesn’t win, even to people who don’t share the brothers’ ideology. Cato is an organization that can have more than a marginal impact on elections. It can have a significant impact on policy and governance. That’s a level of influence even the Kochs can’t buy. When two of the right wing’s most influential funders don’t recognize that, it should cheer liberals immensely.