Libertarianism in Crisis: Some Background to the Koch Assault on Cato.

I address an issue quite widely discussed in the libertarian web sphere, but include some points not addressed in recent discussion about past shenanigans at Cato.

The world’s most important libertarian (in the classical liberal free market small government sense) foundation the Cato Institute, based in Washington under siege from one of its founders Charles Koch (pronounced Coke).  Charles and David Koch are well known as funders of libertarian, libertarian-conservative and climate change denial groups.  They are billionaires with major investments in energy.  I should also add that most of the large amounts of  money they give away goes to what most would recognise as philanthropic non-partisan causes, and that one of the major libertarian organisations to which they donate, the Reason Foundation (maybe the second most important after Cato), is very much not in the climate change denial business.

Charles Koch has launched a legal case to take control of Cato’s board following the death of a board member.  I won’t attempt to go through this.  A brief explanation and series of relevant links provided by matt Welch of Reason can found here.  There is clearly a dispute between Charles Koch and Ed Crane going on here.  Koch’s contribution to the dispute is quite strange since whatever complains Koch might have about Crane, Crane has clearly has enormous success in turning Cato into one of the worlds’ most  effective political ideas foundations. A constant stream of high minded policy discussions, with a variety of voices across the political spectrum mixed with some libertarian attack dog blogging, has been highly successful in adding to policy debates in D.C. and getting a broader range of people to think about what libertarianism means and whether there is some version of it they might adopt, or at least use for ideas.  I don’t have a bias towards Crane, the core of Cato thinking under his directions is clearly an advocate of a pure minarchist approach in which the state only provides national defence together with internal policing and justice functions, mixed in with fervent advocacy of constitutional originalism.  I append some discussion of this at the bottom of the post, including  brief indications why I find it an unsatisfactory approach.  Here is an all out attack on Koch’s actions from the Classically Liberal blog.  (Hat tip to Jason Kuznicki at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen group blog).

I lack inside information and expertise of any kind on the struggle round control of Cato.  However, the attacks on Charles Koch ring very much true.  There is a rather pathetic line of attack on the Kochs coming from some left leaning commentators, who think every current of opinion they don’t like only exists and only has any influence because of manipulative subsidies from the Kochs, and who really do cast the Kochs as the closest thing to Bond villains outside the fantasy  world of the James Bond films.  Nevertheless, there is a manipulative element to the Kochs, and they have drifted closer to libertarian-conservative fusionist positions, in which they invite loud mouths of the paranoid right like Glenn Beck to their meetings.  They are going beyond merely taking their libertarianism in a more socially conservative direction, but are essentially mangling libertarianism by associating with the paranoid nation security, mega security state, America’s right and duty to police the world and intervene at will right.  Furthermore they have become extremely careless, to put it mildly, about distinguishing between their interests as people with investments in oil and their activities in the political sphere.  Though it is an obnoxious lie for some commentators to claim that every Koch funded group is climate change denialist, they are going too far in backing aggressive conspiracy theorists who claim that anthropocentric climate change is  conspiracy, a deliberate lie created by scientists and public bureaucrats.  Of course some people try to close down debate on climate change, using exaggeration and manipulation to try to impose anti-growth anti-captialist assumptions in the public sphere.  That does not excuse similarly hyperbolic, manipulative and Manichean attitudes from the other direction.

The important point with regard to the Cato crisis is that Charles Koch behaved in a manipulative way to exclude the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard from his original key role at Cato.  David Gordon presents Murray Rothbard’s version of events at  I am very much not an advocate of the kind of libertarianism advocated by Rothbard, Gordon and Rockwell, as I am not an anarchist and I am not a follower of the natural rights argument they use as a basis, for which Rothbard offered some very poor arguments anyway, and I am deeply antagonistic to their Neo-Confederate Lincoln bashing tendencies.  Also Rockwell and Rothbard appear to have authored some notorious newsletters in the name of Ron Paul in the past, which misguidedly try to advance libertarianism by stoking anxiety amongst social conservatives about African-Americans and gay rights.   Nevertheless, I have not seen any rebuttal to Gordon’s account, and as far as I can make out Rothbard and Gordon were are honest people in their personal conduct, whatever I might think about their version of libertarianism (sometimes known as Paleolibertarianism).  Ed Crane appears to have been at fault in the morality stretching behaviour of Charles Koch on this occasion.  However, that is no reason to think he deserves what he gets on this occasion, his original fault does not justify this destructive intervention, though I guess Rothbard’s followers at the Mises Institute may be tempted do so.  As far as I can see they have adopted a dignified silence, though Lew Rockwell’s own linked blog has briefly suggested that Rockwell is entitled to attend Cato board meetings, inheriting the right from Rothbard, and has also briefly suggested that he will not push the issue.

The other issue that leads me to suspect that Charles Koch, with more or less connivance from Crane, has been intervening in Cato in an unpleasant way is the purge of the ‘libertarians’.  That is the polite and unpublicised removal of two prominent Cato employees, Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsey.  Lindsey invented the term ‘liberaltarian’ to refer to libertarians who mix libertarian impulses with welfarism, and who strongly side with progressive liberals against conservatives on ‘culture war’ issues.  A position I very much share. Lindsey has politely explained in online places that his removal was the result of donor and board unhappiness with his position, particularly regarding scepticism towards the Tea Party (a distinctly libertarian-conservative alliance, parts of which receive funds from the Kochs) .  This explanation  has been confirmed by David Boaz, a vice-president of Cato, and its most prominent public representative.

In summary Charles Koch is guilty of vandalism.  Ed Crane has been guilty of working with Charles Koch to enforce a specific kind of libertarianism at Cato, not paleo but not liberaltarian either.  Nevertheless Crane has done such a great job, that he should be allowed to get on with it.  All libertarians should regret an end to his role at Cato, and everyone across the political sphere who cares about well informed policy debates and political thinking should share that sentiment.


Appendix on Cato attitudes to the Constitution

Constitutional originalism is a short hand way expressing two theses which do not always go together: the US Constitution should be interpreted from the point of view of the intentions of the framers as understood in public discourse at the time; the US Constitution should be understood from the point of a minimal government position.  Not only do these two positions sometimes conflict, neither are intellectually sustainable to my mind, as is confirmed by the tendency of Cato legal scholars, along with other groups of originalist, to ignore the likely original meanings of the Constitution when it conflicts with some libertarian instinct.  Two obvious examples are the tendency to extend the first speech protection of the First Amendment to pornography and free of speech for students in public schools.  It is beyond reasonable doubt that both are beyond the scope of the First Amendment as understood by those who wrote it, and promoted its passing. Still I share the Cato scholar’s inclination to extend free speech to cover those cases.  Mention of the First Amendment leads me to add that the original Constitution from this point of view means the original text, plus the Declaration of Independence, and then in accordance with the 10 first  Amendments contained in the Bill of Rights, and then the 14th Amendment adopted after the Civil War largely  to guarantee the legal rights of freed slaves.  However, it is this amendment which is often taken to be a departure from previous interpretations of the Bill of Rights and Constitution in relation to the direct applications of those rights within states.  Therefore it could be taken to conflict with the Cato approach to the Constitution in which the Federal Government only has the 13 powers enumerated in the Constitution.

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