Will the Kochs Destroy the Cato Institute?

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March 5 2012 6:00 AM

Cato Goes to War

The Koch brothers have launched an extraordinary campaign to take control of America’s most respected libertarian think tank. Will they destroy it?

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“They said that a principle goal was to defeat Barack Obama,” remembered Levy. “The way David [Koch] put it was, ‘We would like you to provide intellectual ammunition that we can then use at Americans for Prosperity and our allied organizations.’ AFP and others would apply Cato's work to advance their electoral goals.”

Levy asked them: “What gives you the impression that [Cato isn’t] providing intellectual ammunition?” He says now: "I never got a satisfactory answer. The only answer that makes sense was that Cato needed to be more responsive to their needs. We would take closer marching orders. That’s totally contrary to what we perceive the function of Cato to be.”

Cato’s leadership didn’t respond to this directive, nor did they change anything about the think tank. The Kochs began to change it for them. In February, they nominated 16 people for four slots on Levy’s board. Levy and others were aghast at some of the names. One nominee, Tony Woodlief, a former leader of several Koch-funded groups, had blogged in the past about “sanctimonious libertarians” who refused to get serious about policy. “Libertarianism in practice largely consists of a homogeneous group of people talking to one another about a narrow set of things that matter most to them (legalized drugs, lower taxes), and hoping that the rest of America will wake up and elect them to office,” he sneered in a 2002 post. “The majority of Americans are not, in fact, ‘live and let live’ types.” John Hinderaker, a lawyer and founder of the blog PowerLine, had backed the Iraq war and called George W. Bush a “man of extraordinary vision approaching to genius.”

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In the end, the board chose the four members that horrified libertarians the least. The four new members were Judge Andrew Napolitano (“the only one of these nominees who actually is a libertarian,” says Levy), former solicitor general Ted Olsen, Koch Industries shareholder Preston Marshall, and Charles Koch himself. Both brothers were now on the board. They or their close allies held seven of 16 seats. Two more, and they would have had control of the board.* That would end Cato as Washington knows it. “You think I’d WANT to stick around a partisan propaganda farm?” tweeted Julian Sanchez, a Cato research fellow, on Friday. “The Kochs are making me root for that asshole Ed Crane,” tweeted Will Wilkinson, a scholar with some liberal leanings who left the think tank in 2010, sparking a now-quaint round of speculation about Cato’s politics.

“I don’t think there’s anybody, maybe with the exception of Charles and David Koch and their employees, who believes that Cato’s better off being governed by the corporate and political interests of the Kochs,” said Bob Levy. “Maybe they will wake up to the fact that this is destructive for everybody. It seems obvious. What is the purpose of doing this? What is there about Cato’s activities that requires redirection? What is there that they’re not satisfied with?”

The Kochs haven’t explained themselves yet. (I e-mailed the Kochs’ representative over the weekend, and I will print any reply.) The money speaks loudly enough. In 2010, AFP and the Kochs’ own donations went to support Republicans running for Congress. (AFP’s spending was “educational,” so most ads gently suggested that voters should call Democrats and explain why they were wrong.) In 2012, the Kochs talk about steering $200 million to conservative candidates. If they’re successful, Republicans will win the total control of Washington that they had from 2001 to 2007. Of course, even in those years, the Cato Institute produced some of the most consistent, passionate, and predictive attacks on Republican policies. One example: In December 2001, a Catoite grew worried that the Bush administration would expand the “war on terror” to Iraq.

"The Bush administration should not follow a successful prosecution of the war in Afghanistan with another war in Iraq,” he wrote, “unless it presents evidence, at least credible enough for Tony Blair, that Saddam helped finance, organize, or implement the Sept. 11 attacks or that he has supplied weapons of mass destruction to a terrorist group. No such evidence has been presented to date.”

The author: William Niskanen. If the Kochs win control of his shares, and the Koch-skeptics bolt, a much-less-credible Cato Institute will never be so rude to the Republican Party. The think tank’s response: total war, ending either with victory or with Ed Crane’s libertarians salting the earth as they retreat.

Correction, March 5, 2012: This article originally misstated the number of seats on Cato's board. It's 16, not 12. The article also misidentified the Mercatus Center as the Mercatus Institute.