John Samples on the Cato vs. Koch Controversy

John Samples of the Cato Institute has an interesting recent piece on the conflict between Cato and the Kochs [via Gene Healy]:

The politically engaged have offered much commentary on the conflict over the future of the Cato Institute. Some prominent people on the left have spoken of their respect for the current Cato. In today’s polarized political world, an endorsement from the left often serves as a negative signal to conservatives. That reaction would be a mistake. Conservatives have something at stake in the continuation of Cato.

What is the issue here? Each reader will reach his or her own conclusions based on the evidence we have about the Kochs’ intentions in this takeover attempt. I would suggest that we look at the big picture about the recent development of think tanks. A few years ago a number of wealthy liberals including George Soros decided to contribute considerable sums to a new think tank. They deemed the old liberal think tanks (e.g. Brookings) ineffective and too removed from politics. They sought instead a think tank engaged with daily partisanship, grassroots mobilization, and electoral politics….

[T]he conservative will immediately recognize that the Kochs are proposing a “new model” think tank to replace the “old school” Cato. Of course, the conservative will not oppose all innovations though he will always insist on repair rather than reconstruction. But the conservative will ask, “What exactly needs repair here? What reasons counsel innovation at Cato?” Under Ed Crane, the Cato Institute has built a strong reputation for principled engagement in public policy….

[A] more partisan Cato wouldn’t necessarily further conservative ends of principled limits to government power. I am particularly concerned about an issue area I have worked in for over a decade: campaign finance regulation. It is true that the Republican party has supported the First Amendment by and large in these matters. However, partisanship sometimes requires divergence from principle. After all, the GOP is a party that seeks to win elections, a goal that might be served by restrictions on campaign finance. Indeed, the Republicans have supported a ban on political action committees and more recently, congressional Republicans tried to prohibit 527 committees when it served their electoral purposes….

The Koch brothers have done much to advance the cause of individual liberty and limited government. The “new model” they propose for Cato, however, is an innovation whose utility conservatives should doubt. The “old school” Cato has done much to raise doubt about Progressivism among Americans with an independent outlook. It has also contributed (and will contribute) to the valiant effort to preserve the core values of the American tradition. The conservative will wonder why such an institution should be cast aside in the pursuit of the latest political fad, an innovation fostered by none other than George Soros. On this matter at least, the conservative will judge the Kochs to be all too progressive.

I have myself commented on this issue several times, including here and here. I noted my various ties to the two sides in the dispute here.