The Koch-Cato Power Opera

The Libertarian Challenge to Charles Murray's Position on Property Rights and Homesteading

by Walter Block

Recently by Walter Block: Spike Lee and Incitement

Charles Murray's recent essay on the Cato-Koch Affair raises serious questions about his claim to be a libertarian and adds further weight to David Gordon's two previous examinations of this question. 

True to the libertarian tradition, Murray cites the importance of private property rights and the Lockean theory of homesteading as the avenue to acquire the right of ownership. However, he totally misconstrues Locke's perspective which applies only to unowned property.

The Cato Institute now is, and always has been, owned. Homesteading a la John Locke thus simply does not and cannot apply to this organization. There are of course disputes as to who actually owns the Cato Institute but no one claims it is now in a state of nature, a virgin territory so to speak. Murray shows a complete misunderstanding of libertarian private property rights theory when he claims that "Charles (Koch)'s Lockean property right to Cato ended when he stopped mixing his money with that ongoing, expanding project." If this statement were true, then squatting — not property titles — would be the determinant of ownership.

Suppose Charles Murray lends me or rents to me his house or his car for 30 years. I live in the one. I drive the other, both for three decades. Murray has nothing to do with either of these capital goods for all that time. At the end of this period he comes to me and says, "Please give me back my house and car. I need them now." Would I have a right to respond: "Your Lockean property right to that dwelling and automobile ended 30 years ago when you stopped mixing your labor with those two capital goods. Twas I, not you, who have been homesteading this house and car for lo these many years. So, take a hike; I'm now the legitimate owner." He'd have apoplexy, and rightly so.

Murray is not a libertarian.  Rather, he is a conservative with a few important libertarian leanings. In his many writings and lectures, throughout his long and successful career, Murray has done yeoman work in promoting liberty. I am a particular fan of his Losing Ground, and his co-authored with Richard Herrnstein book, Bell Curve. And Murray's chapter on the right to discriminate in What it means to be a libertarian was exquisitely good. But these excellent works do not make him a libertarian.  Promoting liberty is no monopoly of libertarians. Others have done it, superlatively. That doesn't make them libertarians, though.

And, while not a lawyer, I believe the Kochs are also legally right in the Cato-Koch dispute. The Chairman of the Board of Cato, Bob Levy stated: "Yes, the Kochs proposed a standstill agreement that Cato rejected because the status quo could not be maintained." Well, that gives away the entire game. Levy admits that the present institutional and legal arrangement is one that he opposes. But, that means that what he opposes exists. If this is not a total concession as to the legal aspects of the case are entirely on the Koch's side, then nothing is.

What about the charge that the Koch brothers are unwise in pursuing their rights regarding Cato? Those who hold that view say the Cato Institute will no longer be seen as an independent source of libertarian thought; rather, it will become a mere politicized appendage of the Republican Party. There are difficulties with both of these charges. First, the Kochs are not at all in thrall to the Republicans. When and if the Democrats engage in promoting liberty (unlikely as that sounds) I have no doubt these brothers will support those initiatives. As well, the present board of the Cato Institute is disproportionately overrepresented by Republican Party supporters. Talk about the pot getting into bed with the kettle, to mix metaphors.

Second, this charge assumes that the Cato Institute "walks on water" regarding the promotion of libertarian ideals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ed Crane with his "cosmopolitan" and "beltway" libertarianism, has been guilty of numerous deviations from the principles of the free society. He posits that birthright citizenship is at the core of this philosophy; it is no such thing. For the libertarian, the Federal Reserve System is anathema; a Sovietized central planning bureau for the all important monetary sector of our economy. And yet when Cato holds their seminars on this subject, guess who figures prominently? Yes, Fed spokesmen. Nor can we forget David Boaz, Executive Vice President of Cato, who so sorely missed the boat on the issue of the rights of free association in his 1997 book Libertarianism: A Primer. For many other deviations from libertarian principle committed by Crane and the Cato-ites, see here. Further, Cato sees F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman as two of its most important guiding lights. No one can deny that they have made important contributors to the free enterprise philosophy. But more principled libertarians see these two as altogether too compromising with our philosophy in all too many cases. On that, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Full disclosure. The Charles Koch Foundation generously donates substantial funds to my employer, Loyola University of New Orleans, which my colleagues and I use for promoting the study of liberty amongst our students (pizza, inviting in outside speakers). Further, both Charles and Ed in the 1970s bought me a sabbatical from teaching which I used to write articles that later become my book on privatizing roads and highways. I am very grateful for that support. (Here, in sharp contrast, is a Cato writer taking the very opposite point of view and supporting road socialism.)

Let me end with a personal recollection of Charles Koch that took place in the 1970s. He and I were in Scotland with our wives attending an Austro-libertarian conference. One evening we were all four standing on the sidewalk when along came a drunkard who in a loud and surly voice announced that the sidewalks were for walking not standing, and that we  should move out of the way so that he could pass us by. I was amazed at Charles' reaction: he didn't say a word, but got out in front of the three of us and assumed the boxing stance. The drunk walked around us.  A multi-billionaire who would do such a thing is not someone who is likely to give up his property rights. Even in the face of criticism and pressure, no one can deny that Charles Koch holds firm in defending his principles.