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Like Rain on Your Wedding Day

March 6th, 2012 · 48 Comments

I’m a strong believer in free speech: With a few narrow and well-defined exceptions, I think people have a moral and legal right to voice their opinions, however misguided their views and however offensive their mode of expression. I also think (to pick an example from the headlines) that it’s grotesque, sexist, and idiotic to exercise that right by, say, verbally abusing a college student for her views on mandatory contraception coverage. When Rush Limbaugh exercises his rights in that way, I think he deserves to be roundly condemned. Also, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to work for him. Nobody who actually understands the principle of “free speech” thinks that this is somehow “ironic” or hypocritical.

Yet when it comes to the ongoing Koch/Cato conflict, there’s a bafflingly widespread round of herp-derpery rippling through blogs on the left and the right, wherein people imagine it’s clever to point out the supposed irony of libertarian scholars failing to enthusiastically embrace a couple billionaires’ putative property rights over the institution. This is just strange.

I don’t know anything about Kansas corporate law, so I have no idea whether, in fact, the Kochs are legally entitled to exercise majority control over Cato now. I’ve heard some persuasive-sounding arguments that their legal case is flawed, but who knows. Still, purely for the sake of argument, suppose they are. If that’s the case, I’m not arguing that Congress should intervene somehow. I’m arguing that exercising those rights as they seemingly intend to is a bad idea; that their direct control would, in itself,  be damaging to Cato’s credibility; and that I’m not interested in working for the Republican talking-point factory that all evidence suggests they envision. Like rain on your wedding day and other infamous Alanisisms, that’s kind of crappy, but not “ironic” in any recognizable sense. I realize progressives think libertarianism is just code for uncritical worship of rich people, but  as that’s not actually the case, the only irony here is that people think they’re scoring some kind of gotcha point when they’re actually exposing the silliness of their own caricature.

Tags: Libertarian Theory · Washington, DC


       

 

48 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John // Mar 6, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    I think most libertarians agree it’s within your rights to set your family photos on fire and destroy your car with an axe.

  • 2 Micah // Mar 6, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    It depends quite a bit what libertarianism is. As we have discussed before, it should be is a philosophy that warns about the encroachment on human freedoms perpetrated by all manner of human institutions both state and non-state. To the extent that modern libertarianism has had something of a blind spot as regards non-state actors, which it has, the irony that liberals are finding delicious is not exactly unrelishable. That said, this is potentially a tragedy in the making. I respect Cato and I respect you. Good luck with all of this. Si se puede! *grin*

  • 3 neil // Mar 6, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    How many people are going to attack you for being a liberal for criticizing the Kochs?

  • 4 Rob McMillin // Mar 6, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    To the extent that modern libertarianism has had something of a blind spot as regards non-state actors, which it has, the irony that liberals are finding delicious is not exactly unrelishable.

    What irony would that be? Not meeting your absurd ideas of how libertarians are supposed to behave?

  • 5 E. Ericson // Mar 6, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    ” I realize progressives think…”

    I’m with you on the substance, but I really wish you wouldn’t use that kind of rhetoric. I’ve seen the comments you’re describing, but I’ve seen at least as many from progressives who, while sometimes disagreeing with you on issues, respect your intellectual honesty and would hate to see Cato go down the drain.

    Personally, I’m neither wholly progressive nor wholly libertarian (right-wingers call me a dirty European; lefties say neoliberal sellout). Most humans are not such strict ideologues, so I wish you wouldn’t attribute to all progressives views that, as far as I can tell, represent a pretty narrow fringe.

  • 6 K. Chen // Mar 6, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    There is a legitimate line of attack somewhere about it being poetic justice that Cato falls victim to unchecked power of rich individuals, and the steady degradation of any sort of “ought” norm, legal or otherwise. That is of course, not the case being made, as the internet seems to prefer banal nonsense that is is pretty damn silly. Also, disgusting grave dancing.

  • 7 John Mozena // Mar 6, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    There’s nothing un-libertarian[1] about what’s happening. There’s a contract between private parties, they disagree on how the contract applies in this particular situation and they’re going to court to have a neutral party adjudicate the distribution of the assets in question.

    If the Kochs win, then they control the assets of Cato (building, brand, etc.), they can hire or fire within the bounds of existing employment contracts and the employees can stay or leave with the same contractual caveats.

    Even the purest of “night watchman state” libertarians shouldn’t have a problem with the process in play here. (Many of us may have a problem with the outcome, mind.)

    [1] – Unless your definition of “libertarian” begins and ends somewhere around Murray Rothbard, and you disagree with the concept of a public court system and codified tort and contract law. In which case, please read Robert Nozick.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Mar 6, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    Sure. Libertarianism is a thin theory of liberal politics. Many bad things are not “unlibertarian”. The whole point is that much of what’s important in life is not in the political domain.

  • 9 Glen // Mar 6, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    “There is a legitimate line of attack somewhere about it being poetic justice that Cato falls victim to unchecked power of rich individuals…”

    Except that in this case, it doesn’t appear that the Kochs’ billions are the issue. The issue arose because of a peculiar non-profit corporate structure in which 16 shares (nominally valued at $1 each) were distributed among four people, along with a peculiar rule for how shared would be transferred upon death. The very same thing could have happened with four poor people who founded a poor non-profit with those same rules. It’s not like the Kochs are acquiring the supermajority shares by outbidding everyone else with crazy amounts of money.

  • 10 K. Chen // Mar 6, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    As I understand it, they’re trying to enforce a shareholder agreement that would either:

    Sell the shares back to the corp that the Kochs (possibly just the one) helped found with their giant stacks of cash, of which some of their success is proximately caused. (Money buys talent among other things)

    OR

    Offer the shares to the other founders, at which point the Kochs would out bit everyone with their giant stacks of cash.

    To be fair, there are probably very few actual bills and mostly electronic signals and escrow accounts somewhere.

    As stated elsewhere, I’m actually something of a fan of Cato generally, but I do think there is a point to be made, in particular about the failure of libertarian scholars to carve out not only freedom from coercion, but normative counterweights.

  • 11 Tybalt // Mar 6, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    “To the extent that modern libertarianism has had something of a blind spot as regards non-state actors, which it has, the irony that liberals are finding delicious is not exactly unrelishable.”

    Well said Micah. Rob, the irony is that libertarianism in its modern form has paid an obsessive amount of attention to the state and almost none to the coercive actions of private actors; now we’re seeing a valued and valuable libertarian institution laid low by the coercive actions of private actors.

    Julian, you’ll always have my respect. It is sad to see many of my fellow liberals wriggling with glee over this; they little realize how effective an ally strong libertarian voices are for them. They will miss Cato when it’s gone.

  • 12 When Libertarians Go to Work… « Corey Robin // Mar 7, 2012 at 1:43 am

    [...] the Kochs want Cato to be a more reliable instrument of the Republican cause.) Today, Sanchez criticizes progressives who can’t help noting the irony of libertarians complaining about wealthy people [...]

  • 13 Pithlord // Mar 7, 2012 at 2:10 am

    K. Chen,

    I don’t think the problem here could possibly be libertarianism. Leaving aside Leninists, everyone is in favour of the existence of civil society organizations with privately-ordered rules of governance. Whatever those rules may be, it is possible that morons and hacks will be able to take over an institution that would otherwise do productive work.

    I can sort of agree that a more democratic internal structure is generally desirable in civil society institutions, and I can’t see why a libertarian would be committed to disagreeing. But even if you aren’t a libertarian, you have to be willing to defend the existence of undemocratic voluntary organizations in civil society (see Church, Roman Catholic). So there’s absolutely nothing peculiarly libertarian about this particular bummer.

  • 14 Thoughts on a Thinktank War | The New Student Union // Mar 7, 2012 at 3:07 am

    [...] out their necks and risk their jobs to preserve the integrity of their work. As Julian Sanchez points out, failing to take in this teaching moment about thinktanks — as much as you may disagree with [...]

  • 15 Freddie // Mar 7, 2012 at 8:36 am

    Kind of reminds me of saying “if you love poor people, just give your money to charity!”

  • 16 MFarmer // Mar 7, 2012 at 9:33 am

    “To the extent that modern libertarianism has had something of a blind spot as regards non-state actors, which it has, the irony that liberals are finding delicious is not exactly unrelishable. ”

    It is unrelishable if you take time to realize that the Koch brothers aren’t coercing anyone to do anything. The difference between state actors and non-state actors, as long as we have rule of law, is that non-state actors don’t have the power to coerce. The Koch brothers can’t take control and force anyone to obey their commands and punish them with imprisonment if they don’t obey.

  • 17 Mitchell Freedman // Mar 7, 2012 at 10:06 am

    Julian, it’s like the members of the Clash filing lawsuits against each other, isn’t it? Just the way human beings actually behave–and that’s why people like me have so little use for those who buy into any overwrought theory, whether it’s communism or libertarianism. Marx’s central insight holds: Money obscures the power relations among people. The Koch brothers are exercising that power. And if some of us want to add a little snark, I’d say I recall the same from certain hipster right wingers laughing about the Clash when they went legal on each other.

  • 18 Julian Sanchez // Mar 7, 2012 at 10:13 am

    Why, exactly, is it like that?

  • 19 Montani Semper Liberi // Mar 7, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Money obscures the power relations among people. The Koch brothers are exercising that power.

    Except the Koch’s aren’t using any money other than lawyer fees to attempt to control Cato. The issue here is the shareholder agreement. If the court rules for the Kochs, it’s because the Kochs have the better legal argument, not because they are billionaires. And even if they do win, the other donors along with researchers like Julian can go set up another think tank leaving the Kochs with an empty building and a brand name that no longer has much value. Other than that, great insight.

  • 20 Mitchell Freedman // Mar 7, 2012 at 10:32 am

    The Clash analogy is this: The Clash were all about sharing, not being like “the Man,” etc. But then they turned on each other like a fractured board at a corporation, exactly like the Board at Cato is fracturing.

    As for Montani, he’s obviously never been in a lawsuit with someone with lots of money and power to push for something that is otherwise not so clear, and may otherwise be a weak argument if it was pushed by someone with limited resources.

  • 21 Barry // Mar 7, 2012 at 10:54 am

    I would suggest that people read Corey Robin’s post, ‘When Libertarians go to Work’, mentioned in comment 12.

  • 22 K. Chen // Mar 7, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    Pithlord,

    I think there is a small bit that is an issue of libertarianism, or at least, libertarianism in America of this generation. Libertarianism qua libertarianism may not be hostile to a healthy use of social norms (“oughts”) but my view of libertarian scholarship as a whole is that it has spent very little time on it. It is, as Julian suggested, a “thin” theory of politics but in practice it seems to absentmindedly rely on Randian enlightened self-interest as an overall way of organizing a society. The go to use of the words “is a bad idea” – versus say, “should not” – implies an overly strong laissez-faire attitude beyond the state.

    Not sure if that was helpful, so let me try another explanation. If libertarians had spent more time linking the legal right to dispose of property as the owner wishes with an even modestly robust set of norms that property owners should follow for the well functioning of all of us, they could then turn around and apply those norms as social pressure on the Kochs, instead of merely pointing out that the Kochs are being dumb, or vague paens to the damage they will do to the cause.

    As a separate thought, has anyone considered the possibility that the Kochs may not be trying to acquire a useful asset but simply cripple Cato for emotional or strategic reasons?

  • 23 Montani Semper Liberi // Mar 7, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    Mitchell, I would find the idea that the Kochs’ money alone will allow them to win a court case regardless of the strength of their legal argument more convincing if it wasn’t just less than a year ago that the Kochs lawsuit against the people behind Youth for Climate Change was thrown out of court. If a group of bloggers can beat the mighty Kochs, I’m sure Cato can as well, assuming that the facts support their case.

  • 24 j_h_r // Mar 7, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    “I’m not arguing that Congress should intervene somehow. ”

    who exactly IS arguing this?

  • 25 Pithlord // Mar 7, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    K. Chen,

    I’m willing to agree that if there are libertarians who think we can rely solely on rights and do without norms, they are dumbasses.

    I’m not sure that is really responsive to the situation here. The Koches want to turn Cato into a partisan-hack institution run by Hindrocket. That would be too bad in my humble opinion (and more significantly, in Julian’s) because the republic is in no need of more such institutions. However, I can’t really see how this could violate a norm that those entrusted with the governance of think tanks could be said to be bound by.

    If there are arguments about why hack think-tanks run by Hindrocket are inferior to the actually-existing Cato institute, they really have to get into the merits of the relative positions and cannot depend on broadly-accepted social norms.

  • 26 MFarmer // Mar 7, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    “I’m willing to agree that if there are libertarians who think we can rely solely on rights and do without norms, they are dumbasses.”

    I must really be a dumbass, because I don’t know what you’re saying. Rely solely on rights for what, and do what with or without norms?

  • 27 Pithlord // Mar 7, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    MFarmer,

    I was responding to K. Chen. He claimed that while libertarainism as such is not hostile to social norms (as opposed to legal norms), libertarian scholarship doesn’t spend enough time on these norms. He stated (and I certainly agree) that just because property owners should have a legal right to do X does not imply that they shouldn’t face social disapproval if they do X.

    An example would be a social norm that a wealthy person ought to give away some money to charitable causes.

    I was conceding that it is obvious that any society requires social as well as legal norms, and that if there are libertarians who meet his description, they are people incapable of grasping the obvious (“dumbasses”). I then said that this point, although obvious, has nothing to do with the whole Cato/Koch imbroglio.

  • 28 Libertarian Hypocrisy? | Bleeding Heart Libertarians // Mar 7, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    [...] out the ‘hypocrisy’ of Sanchez and other lefty libertarians. Sanchez himself has a terrific take-down of this line of response. Here is my favorite part: “I realize progressives think libertarianism [...]

  • 29 K. Chen // Mar 7, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Pithlord,

    My thought is actually that libertarian in action (as opposed to libertarianism as a political theory) has done a piss-poor job actually establishing, defending, or adjusting norms in tune with the legal vision, regardless of how well libertarianism can handle such things in theory.
    I think the vast majority of libertarian thinkers understand on an intellectual level that social norms are important overall, but they are not committed to making it an important part of libertarian scholarship.

    As far as the Koch/Cato issues in particular, there is a lot of suggestion that the Koch’s shouldn’t take over Cato. But why? Those are the norms I’m talking about. Like maybe “powerful and wealthy people ought to fund and support organizations that are independent of partisan control and the pique of its founders” or “people shouldn’t enforce a shareholder agreement over the interests of a fellow founder’s widow, especially in the case of a non-profit organization.”

    Maybe those are a little too on point. How about “libertarians should do what is good for libertarianism as a whole, not themselves?”

    At any rate, I’m a bit further down the rabbit hole than I wanted to be when bringing up this point, and back to the main topic:

    Grave dancing is generally disgusting and the world would be a much place without it. The world would be better off with an independent Cato employing Julian Sanchez than not. “Progressives” and lefties generally ought to know that much.

  • 30 Pithlord // Mar 7, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    Actually, I don’t see how the Koches are being immoral (assuming, without being interested enough to figure out, that they are legally right). I can’t see why wealthy people have a greater obligation to support ideological-but-not-partisan institutions than partisan-but-not-so-idelogical ones. And I also can’t see why it would be wrong to include in the governance structure of a non-profit institution that rights of control aren’t hereditary. Neither of those propositions make any more sense as moral norms than as legal rules.

    Perhaps we could say that in Aristotlean terms the good of this particular institution is the promotion of ideologically-informed but non-partisan scholarship. If the mission changes to getting Republicans elected, then that’s objectionable because there are norms that are internal to the type of institution Cato purports to be that are violated.

  • 31 kent // Mar 8, 2012 at 12:06 am

    I, for one, am hoping hoping hoping for a sustained response by Julian to the Corey Robin post mentioned a couple of times above. Robin seems awfully convincing to me, but then I tend to lean left more than libertarian at least 5 days a week. So I guess 2/7ths of me would love to see a devastating riposte by our host Mr. Sanchez, while the other 5/7ths wants our host to admit he’s never thought carefully enough about these questions.

  • 32 dwayne stephenson // Mar 8, 2012 at 1:25 am

    I tend not to think that there is an irony in the particular arrangement of legal forces involved in the dispute over Cato shares. But I do identify one in the struggle over what it means to be a libertarian in the first place. Cato plays a role in normalizing what it means when someone says they are a libertarian. This is perhaps not a permanent situation-as Ezra Klein notes, Cato will lose rep if the Kochs really trick it out into a stridently partisan think-tank. Nevertheless, for the time being, Koch is interested in exerting more influence over that role, and it makes sense because there is real value in it. So how should what it means to be a libertarian be decided? If the Kochs win through legitimate claims of contract, they will be enabled by the principles of libertarianism to manipulate perception of what the term means away from its basic principles. There’s your irony. Maybe they won’t do that if they gain control of the board, or maybe they won’t win. But it’s not like this is just theoretical-the man on the street that self describes as a libertarian usually has a pretty weak grasp of the intellectual history of that term, and there are plenty of people, disenchanted by the Republican party but uninterested in revising any of their views about policy, perfectly willing to use the label to describe themselves, oblivious to the inaccuracy of the reference. To paraphrase Lucifer, two republican parties is one republican party too many. But anyone can see how handy they would be for the Kochs.

  • 33 On Cato, Libertarians, Freedom, And Social Democracy | Alas, a Blog // Mar 8, 2012 at 11:23 am

    [...] why Julian Sanchez’s presignation was ironic. Not because I believe that Sanchez worships rich people — but because he recognizes the ways employers can coerce workers, yet libertarianism seems [...]

  • 34 Pithlord // Mar 8, 2012 at 11:39 am

    I don’t think libertarians have an answer to the point that employer demands on employees are “coercive”, other than by stipulating their own special meaning for that word. Governance matters for the infra-marginal, and most of us are infra-marginal most of the time.

    The argument has to be that capitalism makes effective exit more available to more people than any practical alternative, not that bosses exercise no power at all.

    Of course, once we are comparing feasible options for how much leg room they give people, we are into an empirical discussion and the natura-rightsy libertarianism goes to the wall. That’s a feature, not a bug, as the kids say.

  • 35 Date // Mar 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    “progressives think libertarianism is just code for uncritical worship of rich people”

    No, progressives think, rightly, that libertarianism is code for the uncritical worship of free enterprise – they worry about the libertarian disregard for the idea of power and power balances, and their overly optimistic belief that free enterprise is the best check on power.

    Libertarians always present the “Government” as some kind of alien entity, but in practice it is not – it is, as the saying goes, constituted by the people. It is necessary to check and regulate the inevitable excesses of the powerful (see Koch, CATO).

    If you don’t want to work for a “talking point factory”, the libertarian worldview leaves you with only one option – leave. As per the libertarian world view, Koch wealth is not doing anything it should not be doing.

  • 36 MFarmer // Mar 8, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    “Libertarians always present the “Government” as some kind of alien entity, but in practice it is not – it is, as the saying goes, constituted by the people. It is necessary to check and regulate the inevitable excesses of the powerful (see Koch, CATO).

    If you don’t want to work for a “talking point factory”, the libertarian worldview leaves you with only one option – leave. As per the libertarian world view, Koch wealth is not doing anything it should not be doing.”

    Wow, you have libertarians pegged. The jig is up, so we can all quit pretending we’re not backing the Koch brothers to rule the world. It’s amazing how you’ve seen right through our ruse.

  • 37 MFarmer // Mar 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    “I don’t think libertarians have an answer to the point that employer demands on employees are “coercive”, other than by stipulating their own special meaning for that word.”

    Pithlord, surely you see the difference between an employee agreeing to abide by the policies and procedures of the employer and a State with the power to force a person to do something against his/her will?

  • 38 Pithlord // Mar 8, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    I see the difference, but I’d also say they can both be experienced by the ordinary person as coercive. I’m not a utopian and I don’t imagine it’s possible to live in a world without coercion. But I’m not absolutely convinced there is a fundamental difference between a cop demanding a sexual favor as the price for getting out of a ticket and a manager demanding one as the price for not being fired. If libertarian theory can’t explain how the latter is coercive, so much the worse for it.

  • 39 MFarmer // Mar 9, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    “But I’m not absolutely convinced there is a fundamental difference between a cop demanding a sexual favor as the price for getting out of a ticket and a manager demanding one as the price for not being fired. If libertarian theory can’t explain how the latter is coercive, so much the worse for it.”

    You’re getting the concept of State coercion all mangled. There are all forms of coercion throughout society. There are laws to punish both these types of coercion you mention. In a society with rule of law, and one that values rights, coercion is only a problem when we begin giving the government power beyond the limits placed on government in the Constitution, making the rights-violating coercion legal.

  • 40 MFarmer // Mar 9, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    And since we’re twisting the concept of coercion, in today’s society, thankfully, both the cop and the employer would be turned in and the city and the employer’s company would be coerced in court til the cows come home, and the individuals coerced into jail, probably.

  • 41 ¿BRAD DELONG O JULIAN SANCHEZ? « ¿QUIÉN ES MÁS MACHO? // Mar 14, 2012 at 11:59 am

    [...] Sanchez (@normative): Like Rain on Your Wedding Day “I’m not arguing that Congress should intervene somehow. I’m arguing that exercising [...]

  • 42 Julien Couvreur // Mar 16, 2012 at 1:10 am

    Robert Murphy had a great insight on free speech rights: they are nothing more than simple applications of property rights.
    Considering free speech issues in this light often makes for an elegant resolution. Where the only issues remain are on government-controlled space such as streets or public buildings.

  • 43 DavidT // Mar 16, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    MFarmer

    ” The difference between state actors and non-state actors, as long as we have rule of law, is that non-state actors don’t have the power to coerce…”

    Uh, believe it or not, MFarmer, there are serious people, including philosophers, who disagree with the libertarian-in-the-American-sense definition of “coercion..”

    (Sorry for using that clumsy “libertarians-in-the-American-sense” but I still refuse to acquiesce in Murray Rothbard’s theft of the word “libertarian” from the European anti-capitalist anarchists who originated it.)

  • 44 fs // Mar 17, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    For a libertarian apparently, the problem of Rosa Parks on the bus was that it was a municipal bus. Had it been private, it would have been completely justified to tell her to sit at the back. No coercion possible. She could always walk instead, if she didn’t like it?

  • 45 MFarmer // Mar 20, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    “Had it been private, it would have been completely justified to tell her to sit at the back. No coercion possible. She could always walk instead, if she didn’t like it?”

    Can you imagine how fast a bus company would go out of business today if they insisted blacks sit in the back. Oh my.

  • 46 Lindsay // Mar 27, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    Nitpick: Actually, as tradition goes, rain on your wedding day is considered good luck. But rain is something that most people like to avoid because it’s wet, messy, makes mud, causes streets and roads to become slippery, etc. And lots of people have weddings outdoors, giving rain an opportunity to interrupt, alter, or perhaps postpone the event. Given the longstanding superstition, but our modern day inclination to avoid rain, there is something ironic about hoping for rain on your wedding day.

    Now I don’t whether Alanis Morissette knew this at the time the song was written, but she might have. Otherwise by itself it’s a really random, weird lyric.

  • 47 Thoughts on a Thinktank War (Alex Biles) « ( iN ) // Sep 19, 2012 at 4:38 am

    [...] — as much as you may disagree with the views of libertarians — is your own loss. Again, Julian Sanchez seems appropriate within this context: I realize progressives think libertarianism is just code for uncritical [...]

  • 48 Thoughts on a Thinktank War (Alex Biles) « ( iN ) // Sep 19, 2012 at 4:38 am

    [...] — as much as you may disagree with the views of libertarians — is your own loss. Again, Julian Sanchez seems appropriate within this context: I realize progressives think libertarianism is just code for uncritical [...]

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