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Vacation Response Roundup

March 19th, 2012 · 6 Comments

Just back from a much-needed vacation, a quick pass at some stuff around the web relevant to the last few posts from before I left.

First, my post on the Cato/Koch fight stressed my substantive concerns about how it appears, on the basis of what I regard as pretty compelling circumstantial evidence, the Kochs intend to reorient Cato as a more partisan and political institution. But Gene Healy makes an important point: Even if you ignore all that evidence and assume, implausibly, that they don’t mean to change anything about how Cato is run, the mere fact of their control would have a damaging effect on Cato’s credibility, not just with hardcore lefties who think the Kochs are in league with Satan (and already regard Cato as non-credible), but any reasonable person.

Some folks are going to believe that Cato must just be shilling for corporate donors no matter what, and for them a direct Koch takeover probably won’t make much difference. But the reality is that Cato’s donor base—overwhelmingly individuals, not corporations—is large and broad enough that we can and do write what we think without being concerned about whether it will cause any particular entity to pull funding. I’m told this occasionally happens: A company likes the study we published one year and starts contributing, then stops a year or two later when they realize we’re publishing studies at odds with their interests. Probably this causes the occasional gray hair up in the development department, but as a rule the scholars don’t even hear about it, which is as it should be. You don’t even have to take my word on this: Cato leadership and the Kochs rather publicly did fall out back in the 90s, the Kochs did pull funding, and life went on. I don’t know the details, but manifestly they weren’t prepared to do whatever it took to keep a big donor happy.

But there’s a world of difference between some corporation or businessperson being one funder among many and literally owning the institution. Even if there were never the least hint of pressure to bring scholarship in line with the corporate interests or partisan political activities of the owners, it would not be reasonable to expect people outside Cato to take this on faith.  An ordinary person, with no particular animosity toward the Kochs, should be skeptical about whether a think tank that’s a wholly owned subsidiary of a U.S. petrochemical firm, and whose owners routinely take sides in electoral contests, can really produce scholarship that pursues truth in complete disregard of those facts. The fact of independence is important, but so is the plausibility of the public claim of independence to readers who can’t easily check behind the scenes.

Second, Corey Robin argues that a brief aside in my post unwittingly undermines the libertarian worldview by tacitly acknowledging that being unemployed is a hardship, and even more so if you’ve got children to support or mortgage payments to make—facts so obvious that I didn’t think anyone, of any political orientation, seriously doubted them. Much too quick here, though, is Robin’s leap to the inference that this makes employment relationships inherently coercive. This, of course, turns on the thorny question of what counts as “coercive” in a morally significant way, which it probably doesn’t make sense to try and explore here at the length it demands. In passing, though, I doubt it’s helpful to define “coercion” so broadly that it applies to any offer of a conditional benefit involving serious tradeoffs, and in particular when the downsides to refusal depend so heavily on personal choices the employer has no real control over. Jessica Flannigan has some helpful remarks on this point, but again, it’s not really an apt topic for a quick blog post, and it’s a little odd that Robin effectively assumes that his sense of “coercion” is unproblematic, and it’s just that most libertarians labor under the strange false belief that it’s awesome to lose your job.

Additionally, I think Robin reads me as objecting to the constriction of professional autonomy as a kind of personal imposition or obstacle to my flourishing as a human being. Certainly I enjoy the freedom to write what I think about what interests me, but I was really making an argument about the conditions of doing a particular kind of job well and credibly. I could make a parallel argument about the norms governing journalists or attorneys, that would stress the importance of not feeling free to always just express your own view. In any event, my point was not that I’m personally entitled to be paid a salary for writing what I please because it’s an important condition of my personal fulfillment, but that certain kinds of scholar autonomy are necessary for building institutional trust and credibility.

Finally, Ross Douthat complained that “Straussian social conservatism” is a misnomer given that conservative writers make the kind of argument I describe in plain sight all the time. True enough—and I pointed to a few examples in an update to the original post. But for the most part, we’re talking about forums in which conservative intellectuals make the argument for an audience of other conservative intellectuals. I’m prepared to be proven wrong, but I’d wager you find it much less frequently, at least in explicit form, in political speeches or talk radio jeremiads, because it’s at the very least an awkward fit with the populist tone of so much modern conservatism.

Tags: Libertarian Theory · Washington, DC



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steve Bruns // Mar 19, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    “Additionally, I think Robin reads me as objecting to the constriction of professional autonomy as a kind of personal imposition or obstacle to my flourishing as a human being.” – That there is your basic straw man under construction. Don’t have the time/space to rebut his actual argument but you can find the space/time to counter the argument you wish that he’d made?

  • 2 Is That All There Is? « Corey Robin // Mar 19, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    […] was a little underwhelmed by Julian Sanchez’s response to my post about his thoughts on the Cato-Koch […]

  • 3 wetcasements // Mar 20, 2012 at 5:08 am

    So liberals are wrong to label the Koch brothers as basically ultra-wealthy functionaries/water carriers/tendrils of the RNC, but Cato will be hopelessly compromised if said totally neutral functionaries/water carriers/tendrils take over Cato.

    Still not making any sense to me. To quote a great American poet, you can’t have one without the other.

  • 4 K. Chen // Mar 20, 2012 at 10:13 am


    The appearance of independence is nearly as important as the substance of independence. For example, judges.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Mar 20, 2012 at 11:34 am

    I don’t think anyone denies that the Kochs are (a) extremely wealthy and (b) at least recently, strong partisan supporters of the Republican Party. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that, though: As I wrote previously, of all the ways money can influence politics, by far the LEAST troubling is the funding of open advocacy for a particular set of views. That’s wholly consistent with thinking it’s problematic for an independent and non-partisan research institution to be wholly owned by a couple of clearly partisan CEOs.

  • 6 philip meguire // Mar 20, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Before WWI, it was widely understood that no employee was truly free. Personal freedom required owning a business or a trade or a porfolio of financial assets. This is a major reason why so many people were farmers before WWI; farming was a form of self-employment open to all men.

    For most of us, true freedom requires owing no mortgage, having liquid funds sufficient to support oneself for at least 2 years, and at least 1 million in stocks and bonds. We can then be employed without ever being at risk of compromising our independence for fear of losing one’s job.