Cato, the Kochs, and Supposed Libertarian Inconsistency

Some critics of Cato’s stance in the Cato v. Koch dispute claim that it is inconsistent for libertarians to criticize the Koch brothers’ exercise of their rights. After all, libertarians support property rights, so how they can criticize anyone’s use of their property? Such claims are misguided. They are the equivalent of arguing that if you are committed to freedom of speech, it is inconsistent for you to criticize anything anyone says.

In both cases, there is no inconsistency in saying that you have the right to do X, but you nonetheless should not exercise that right. For example, I believe that bloggers have the right to promote racist conspiracy theories. But I also believe that they should not actually do so. I oppose government efforts to censor racist conspiracy-mongering. But that does not mean I can’t criticize it when it occurs. Similarly, if the Kochs are legally entitled to take control of Cato (which is disputable), I would not want the government or anyone else to use force to take away their rights. As far as I know, none of the Kochs’ libertarian critics are advocating any such thing.

But there are many situations where it is unwise or even immoral for us to make use of our rights, whether they be property rights, free speech rights, or others. In this case, the Kochs’ exercise of their rights is ill-advised because it would damage Cato and the cause of libertarianism with little or no offsetting benefit. For that reason, I believe they should drop their lawsuit even if their position on the disputed legal issues is completely correct.

A more subtle version of the inconsistency argument holds that the real problem here is not property rights as such but libertarians’ supposedly unjustified defense of the right of wealthy people to spend money on political causes. However, if the Kochs prevail here, it will not be because they have somehow “bought” Cato with their wealth. For many years now, they have only provided a tiny proportion (about 4-8 percent) of Cato’s funding. The Institute could easily continue its work even if the Kochs never give it another dime. If the Kochs prevail, it will be because the arcane details of Kansas corporate law support their legal position – not because Cato has somehow “sold out” for their money.

More generally, if we bar wealthy people from funding think tanks and advocacy organizations, the only realistic alternatives are either government funding or requiring these institutions to raise all their funds through small donations from many different donors. The government alternative creates obvious conflict of interest problems. A public policy research institute exclusively dependent on government funding is not likely to bite the hand that feeds it. Indeed, the problem is much more severe than in the case of institutes dependent on private funds. If one private donor withdraws, there are many other alternatives (as witness Cato’s ability to survive despite the Kochs’ reduction of support over the last 20 years, and the withdrawal of other donors who opposed Cato’s stance on the 1991 Gulf War). By contrast, government is a monopoly. If it withdraws its funding, there is no other government to turn to, though perhaps state governments can fund think tanks that have fallen out with the feds.

Relying on small donations is also problematic. It makes it difficult for a research institute to survive if its ideas are unpopular or it is not well-known. Historically, many new ideas and causes have been successfully promoted by a small group of donors willing to buck conventional wisdom. Groups such as the NAACP and the ACLU were established in large part with funds provided by a few wealthy donors. The same goes for many more recently established organizations on both the left and the right.

Finally, it is simply not true that reliance on wealthy donors leads to a think tank market dominated by a monolithic “pro-corporate” agenda. Just looking at a few of the major think tanks located in Washington, DC, a very wide range of perspectives is represented: libertarian (Cato); conventional conservative (Heritage); neoconservative (AEI); moderate liberal (Brookings); conventional liberal (the Center for American Progress, the Economic Policy Institute, the Urban Institute, and others); radical left (the Institute for Policy Studies), and many think tanks addressing a narrower range of issues from a variety of viewpoints. Wealthy donors are a sufficiently diverse lot that we are in no danger of having a monolithic think tank market, even if think tanks were completely dependent on them for funding (which most are not). Indeed, there is considerably more ideological diversity among think tanks than in many parts of the academic world.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST WATCH: I have detailed my various ties to the parties in the Cato-Koch dispute here.

UPDATE: It’s not entirely clear to me whether AEI should be characterized as “neoconservative.” The organization has a number of scholars who fall into other conservative camps, and also a few libertarians. I think neoconservatism is probably the dominant strain of opinion there. But I can understand if others perceive the institution differently. In any event, whether AEI is distinctively neoconservative or a hodgepodge of different types of conservative and libertarian thought is not crucial to my broader point.

UPDATE #2: I have corrected the link in the third paragraph of this post. Thanks to readers for pointing out the initial error.