John Samples on the ‘CAP-iz-ation’ of Cato

My colleague John Samples, director of Cato’s Center for Representative Government, argues that, if Cato is lost, conservatives stand to lose something too. A takeover transforming Cato into a politically responsive “Do Tank” would undermine Cato’s ability “to further conservative ends of principled limits to government power”:

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. From those aspirations arose the Center for American Progress, an institution that official Washington judges a success. Perhaps the Kochs have decided to emulate CAP and integrate Cato into their larger political enterprise.

The 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. It has attracted support from donors whose success in the private sector is matched only by their commitment to liberty and limited government. Since Cato has no endowment, those donors could have withdrawn their support at any time, and yet, they remain. Should conservatives endorse innovation by questioning the judgment of men and women whose judgment would be trusted on any other investment they might make?

But 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. I recall also the poor treatment of Bradley Smith when he chose principle over party at the Federal Election Commission. I suspect a “new model” Cato might be less critical of the GOP during those times that principle and partisanship diverge in First Amendment matters. One of those times might be 2013 after Republican candidates get worked over by a few liberal Super PACs in 2012.

Conservatives place great weight on the virtue of prudence. Politics is not a reckless pursuit of abstract ideals but rather a modest effort to preserve what is valuable in our tradition. A conservative considers circumstances as well as rights, the larger context as well as the next moment. Even if we assume the Kochs are correct in their legal claims, they are hardly being prudent in pursing their takeover of Cato. Progressives are palpably enjoying the Koch-Cato fight for a reason: it serves their ends, which is to say, the cause of Obama. Prudence sometimes counsels restraint, even when you believe your cause is just. Or so conservatives believe.

Finally, it is important to recognize that for over 30 years Cato has stood for “individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace.” I cannot count how many times I have heard Ed Crane say that Cato’s cause is the cause of the American Revolution. Cato scholars are second to none in their devotion to the original public meaning of the Constitution. Not all conservatives agree with the implications Cato draws from the American political tradition. But Cato scholars have always been clear that individual liberty and limited government were incompatible with the Progressive mantra of collective welfare through unlimited government. A “new model” Cato might offer a less distinctive defense of the cardinal values of the American political tradition.

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.

Posted on Mar 20, 2012 in Koch v. Cato, Uncategorized | Comments

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