The Think-Tank Mentality

Recently by Skip Oliva: What Goes Around Comes Around

Several days into my coverage of the Koch vs. Cato litigation last month, I received an email from a Cato employee. He alleged — "off the record," of course — that employees at two other Koch-funded organizations had been ordered not to publicly support Cato. He said leaders at one organization specifically directed employees not to "like" the Save Cato page on Facebook established by supporters of Cato boss Ed Crane. I humored the self-interested tipster and made inquiries. Officials at both groups strongly denied the allegations, and I found nothing else to corroborate the Cato employee's claims.

Unfortunately for the Cato employee, I wasn't Jane Mayer. I didn't have an axe to grind against Charles and David Koch like Ed Crane did when he spoke "off the record" to Mayer for her famous 2010 article in the New Yorker. Cato may wrap itself in the cloak of anti-establishment libertarianism, but ultimately it's a Washington institution that plays by Washington rules. And the first rule is never do openly what you can do through anonymous leaks.

A few days after the Cato employee's email, I spoke to another person once affiliated with Cato. He was concerned by my criticism of Cato employees. He insisted this was really just about Ed Crane and his stubbornness, but in the end, it was still essential to keep Cato "independent" of the Kochs. Pressed for a reason, he said libertarianism needed a "spokesman" in Washington, and absent Cato, he wasn't sure any other group would rise to the occasion.

I don't doubt there's a genuine fear among Cato supporters that the institute's demise would leave libertarianism adrift in the nation's capitol. I just don't see why it matters. Libertarians don't need a spokesman. Libertarians need solid philosophical grounding and a commitment to local activism, as Gary North eloquently explained recently. Washington should be the furthest thing from their minds.

North noted, "A policy-making think tank that works in a dozen or more fields is a lost cause from day one — except for its employees, for which it is a career gravy train." To use a retail analogy, Cato is like a libertarian shopping mall. It's a centralized space designed to cater to multiple niche audiences. Cato isn't just a spokesman. It's a physical presence in Washington — Cato's headquarters building and underlying land is valued at over $17 million by the DC government. Crane and company just finished an expansion of the building as part of a $50 million capital campaign. That alone explains the ferocity of Cato's resistance to the Kochs.

But a fancy building in Washington does nothing to advance liberty. I have files going back a decade of hundreds of people who lost their entire livelihoods at the hands of state aggression. They lacked the resources to even mount a fight in their own defense. Cato was nowhere to be found. (And I personally spoke with Cato employees about many of these cases over the years, only to be ignored because, in all honestly, helping the peasants does little to help Ed Crane's fundraising.)

To extend my retail analogy, what libertarianism needs right now is not a $50 million shopping mall, but more farmers' markets. People need decentralized, informal organizations where they can obtain information and assistance in resisting the day-to-day injustices of Washington. They don't need a group of wannabe scholars holding briefing luncheons for Capitol Hill sycophants.

The funny thing is Charles and David Koch, whatever their faults, are doing the one thing you never see Washington groups do — stand their ground on principle. Almost every defense of Cato begins, "Yes, the Kochs may have the right to do what they're doing, but that doesn't mean they should." It's the same type of argument a prosecutor employs when demanding someone accept a plea bargain rather than assert their innocence at trial. It's the reason I spent a decade compiling all those files. People are conditioned to assert their rights only in the abstract, never in any concrete manner. Call it the think-tank mentality.