Amid the maelstrom of media coverage surrounding the Republican presidential nomination contest, an issue of tremendous importance has slipped under the radar. The libertarian Cato Institute is being taken over…by its two biggest donors.
Charles and David Koch, the oft-ridiculed billionaire co-owners of Koch Industries, have filed suit in a Kansas court to gain control over the independent, nonpartisan organization. They’ve also cited a questionable interpretation of an obscure clause of Cato’s bylaws to remove several popular board members. In their place the Kochs have installed high-level Koch Industries employees, all of whom have ties to the GOP establishment (save one actual libertarian).
The move is equal parts disastrous and surprising.
Disastrous because Cato is an invaluable, irreplaceable asset in informing the citizenry. The institute’s scholars are among the most widely respected in their respective policy arenas. Lawmakers rely on them for advice in Capitol Hill testimonies; academics rely on them for peer reviewed essays; the general public relies on them for concise, smart op-eds and books. (Michael Tanner’s “Leviathan on the Right” is the best political book I have ever read.) Additionally, unlike the American Enterprise Institute and Center for American Progress, Cato is unbound by political leanings. They critique Republicans and Democrats alike. If successful, this lawsuit will devastate the institute’s vital independence and nonpartisan nature.
The move is surprising because, as Gene Healy notes, just about every organization that promotes social and economic freedom is bankrolled by the Kochs. They have poured millions of dollars into Cato and have been outspoken in supporting the institute’s call for “Individual Liberty, Free Markets, and Peace”. That they would usurp the agenda of their own project is leading some to believe that the brothers have long been using Cato’s popular ideology to advance traditional Republican interests. As recently as February 29th, this would have been unimaginable.
The significance of this battle cannot be overstated. If the Kochs are successful, Cato as we know it disappears. Socially liberal, economically conservative individuals would have no serious resource supporting their cause in Washington. Politicians making dubious claims would have one less group to worry about calling “bullshit” on them. Rick Santorum-conservative or Nancy Pelosi-liberal, we will all suffer.