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Cato and the Kochs: A Presignation Letter

March 5th, 2012 · 126 Comments

As you may have already heard, the Brothers Koch have mounted a campaign to take control of the Cato Institute, where I hang my hat. Now, I have a pretty fantastic day job, which basically consists of reading, writing, and speaking about whatever I find interesting in any given week. And I don’t generally subscribe to the popular caricature of the Kochs as supervillains.  For a lot of progressives, the Kochs now serve the same function as the Liberal Media does for conservatives: The shadowy elite cabal whose pernicious influence explains why your own common sense views aren’t universally embraced, as they otherwise would be by all right-thinking Americans. Obviously, I don’t buy that, and in any event, of all the ways wealthy people use money to influence politics, openly sponsoring ideological advocacy seems by far the least pernicious. So if this were ultimately just about an ego contest between the pretty-rich  guy (Cato President Ed Crane) and the insanely rich guy (megabillionaire Charles Koch), I’d be content to keep my head down and scribble away without too much regard for what the nameplate on the top-floor corner office reads. Nothing personal, Ed.

Unfortunately, it’s fairly clear already that rather more than that is afoot. As my colleague Jerry Taylor lays out over at Volokh Conspiracy, after years of benign neglect, the Kochs have suddenly decided to use their existing shares in the Institute to attempt to pack the board with loyalists, several of whom are straight-up GOP operatives. To give you an idea: They apparently nominated neocon blogger John “Hindrocket” Hindraker of PowerLine. There’s every indication that they (and their proxies on the board) think Cato would be more useful if it were integrated more tightly into the Koch portfolio of advocacy groups—Americans for Prosperity, etc.—for which it could serve as a source of intellectual ammunition in the ongoing struggle to defeat Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. Indeed, they’ve said as much, more or less verbatim, to the chair of Cato’s board. I don’t think it’s the end of democracy if people want to throw money at that cause, but I doubt Cato’s the right place to do it, and I know it’s not what I signed up for.

At a purely practical level, I write a lot about civil liberties issues where I’m often in agreement with Democrats and progressives. In my time here, I’ve invited Sen. Ron Wyden in to speak about government location tracking, been invited to testify on the Patriot Act by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, and written pieces for venues like The Nation and The American Prospect. That sort of thing gets a lot harder if we’re perceived as an overtly partisan shop.

More importantly, I can’t imagine being able to what I do unless I’m confident my work is being judged on the quality of the arguments it makes, not its political utility—or even, ultimately, ideological purity. Obviously Cato has an institutional viewpoint, and I wouldn’t have been hired in the first place if my views on the topics I write about weren’t pretty reliably libertarian. But when it comes down to specific issues and controversies, nobody tells me what to write. If my honest appraisal of the evidence on a particular question leads me to a conclusion that’s not “helpful” in the current media cycle’s partisan squabble, or that differs from either the “official” libertarian line, or from the views of my colleagues, I can write it without worrying that I’ll be summoned to the top floor to explain why I’m “off message.” That’s the essential difference between an analyst and an activist: I can promise readers that what appears under my name—whether I get it right or wrong—represents my sincere best effort to figure out what would be good policy, not an attempt to supply a political actor with a talking point.  If I couldn’t make that promise, I’d have no right to expect people to take my work seriously.

As I said, I’m in no great hurry to leave a job I enjoy a lot—so I’m glad this will probably take a while to play out either way.  But since I’m relatively young, and unencumbered by responsibility for a mortgage or kids, I figure I may as well say up front that if the Kochs win this one, I will. I’m not flattering myself that they’ll especially care; I’d just be saving their appointee the trouble of canning me down the road. But I suspect I wouldn’t be the only one looking for the door under the administration they seem to be envisioning, and my hope is that saying this publicly now might encourage someone in the Koch empire to reconsider whether they can win this particular prize without damaging it.

So, first, apologies to my colleagues for springing this on them in a blog post: I wanted it to be clear that I’m not doing this on the encouragement of Cato’s current leadership, and the easiest way to ensure that was not to tell them.

Second: I hereby tender my pre-resignation from Cato, effective if and when the Kochs take command.  I’ll be sad to go, if it comes to that, but sadder to see a proud institution lose its autonomy.

Tags: Personal · Washington, DC


       

 

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