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Will the Kochs Coax Cato Folks?

Updated on March 17, 2012
The Cato Institute conducts forums on issues ranging from civil liberties to pension reform.
The Cato Institute conducts forums on issues ranging from civil liberties to pension reform.

Many of the essays and articles I write have at least one or two links to scholarly articles put out by the Cato Institute. This libertarian-leaning, Washington-based think tank has provided rigorous policy analysis since 1977, and has no affiliation with any political party, including the Libertarian Party. Righties like Cato for its free-market economics and its support of the second amendment. For their part, lefties like the institute for its championing of personal privacy and the advocacy of peace. For this appeal, Cato draws donors from across the political spectrum, from George Soros – representing progressives – to the conservative brothers, Charles and David Koch (pronounced coke), who hold shares of Cato.

Of late, the Kochs have been the liberals’ favorite target, the sort of super-wealthy right-wingers that are easy to demonize. They willingly plead guilty to their wealth and political philosophy. Koch Industries, founded in the 1920s as an oil refining technology company, has grown into a conglomerate that includes energy, financial services, fertilizer and paper product companies. Employing 50,000 in the United States alone, Koch Industries operates with a high profit to re-investment ratio, and the owners give to a wide array of artistic, conservation, educational and political non-profits. They also donate generously to Republican organizations and candidates, stoking the ire of the left.

I have no qualm with the Koch’s money or their right to finance campaigns of their choosing. Freedom to do so is completely in line with the founders’ political vision for this country. Those who oppose such practice are afflicted with either financial covetousness or political intolerance – or both. Still, I must object to the desire of Charles and David to gain working control of the Cato Institute, as evidenced by their litigation against the organization and its other stockholders. Their March 1st lawsuit contends that the original shareholder agreement obliges the estate of the late Chairman, William Niskanen, to sell its shares, if not to the institute itself, then to the remaining shareholders. Were the Kochs able to secure these shares, they could then name more of their own people to the board of directors.

Whether the agreement is in force and so constituted as to mandate the sale is for a judge to decide. My problem with the action lies in the motive and the possible effect. Before all this unpleasantness, the Koch brothers were already preparing to assert greater control. This from Save Cato:

In addition to filing suit, Charles and David Koch have used their existing power under Cato's long-dormant shareholder agreement to place several major shareholders, employees, and consultants of Koch Industries and the Koch Foundation on Cato's Board of Directors, removing several directors who have been among the organization's largest and most steadfast financial contributors. Some of the new directors are Republican operatives and social conservatives, a poor fit for the board of an independent libertarian think tank.

If this is true, it demonstrates that the Kochs’ financial support was never an affirmation of Cato’s independence and intellectual heft, but rather a calculated effort to turn Cato into a policy mill for the Republican Party. If the effort succeeds, Cato will lose its moral authority and the Koch money will have been wasted.

There is a difference between public policy research and political decision-making. Lawmakers and elected officials gain credibility when they have skin in the game. Volunteering and recruiting; organizing wards and precincts; raising funds; making calls and speeches on behalf of colleagues; and canvassing neighborhoods all raise political credibility. Pretty boys are good for photo-ops, the silver-tongued for debates, but it is the work horses that are taken seriously (the rule has exceptions, one of them living in the White House). Yet the opposite principle governs for policy research. When a paper comes out of the Center for American Progress or the Family Research Council, it serves to bolster conclusions already decided upon. Partisans will seize upon the information and opponents will ignore it, all based on who produced it. These think tanks, and many others, are specifically tethered to instruments of political action: parties, PACs and campaigns. Because of his, their audiences are narrow and their authenticity suspect.

This is the crux of the matter. A governing board dominated by party operatives will compromises Cato’s independence whether it seeks to or not, and independence is Cato’s strongest commodity. The organization will inevitably lose independent-minded scholars – and supporters – and begin to resemble a pale imitation of the Heritage Foundation. When all is said and done, Cato will become an impotent, if expensive, weapon in the political wars.

Here’s an idea. Might the Kochs be better off investing their money in a proudly conservative think tank like Heritage, which produces some excellent, albeit doctrinaire, analysis for the very purposes of advancing the conservative political agenda? Its directors already include Richard Scaife and Steve Forbes. Alternatively, they may wish to start their own public policy research firm, focusing particularly on their areas of interest. These are successful men and not without some good ideas. But they will find, sooner or later, that the best ideas come without political strings attached.


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    • TeaPartyCrasher profile image

      TeaPartyCrasher 5 years ago from Camp Hill, PA

      When I heard about this, all I could think of was "Right-Wing Deathmatch".