Cato & the Kochs

Increase Font SizeDecrease Font Size

The Cato Institute, a libertarian-ideology think tank, is in a legal fight brought by the Koch brothers, David and Charles, of Wichita, Kansas. The Koch brothers filed suit to exercise their shareholder property rights in Cato ownership; in turn, the Cato Institute defends its intellectual and political independence from the Koch brothers. Both parties in the lawsuit can be accurately described as devoted proponents of ‘open markets,’ so the dispute has many observers confused as to why there is any dispute at all.

One view of the dispute is that it is about power, which is interesting in itself because libertarian ideology is quite anarchial, against the acquisition or concentration of power. It was Lord Action who remarked, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and that quote could easily be used to define the ideology of libertarianism. So, why the power-play at Cato, among people who ostensibly are not interested in the acquisition or exercising of power over others?

Another view of the dispute is that it is about ‘politics.’ After 40 years of organizing, Libertarian politics are notoriously ineffectual and unpopular. In the last national election, libertarians only managed to garner 1% of the vote in eight States, barely half the performance of Ralph Nader, an extremist socialist. Perhaps frustrated with their long-time political impotence, prominent Cato staff in 2008 began to flirt with the idea of creating a political coalition with Left-libertarians, calling the new political animal, a “liberaltarian.”

The billionaire Koch brothers are very definitely not Left-liberaltarian. At least one brother used to be libertarian, true, but never Left-liberaltarian, and they were major donors to Cato as well as major shareholders. How it must have angered them to see their monies going to support developing an ideology largely contrary to their own. At least one brother switched political affiliation from Libertarian to Republican, the Cato staff members flirting with the Left-coalition eventually quit or were fired, and afterward came the Koch brothers lawsuit.

Cato howls that the lawsuit means it will lose its reputation for nonpartisan, impartial scholarship if it is absorbed into the Koch brothers conservative political juggernaut. But libertarianism is not ‘nonpartisan,’ nor is it ‘impartial.’ It is merely another ideology, competing with conservatism and Left-liberalism for loyal followers, funding, and ballot box success.

The mega-billionaire Koch brothers could have easily started another think tank financially, if they wanted to avoid a legal fight. The unnecessary lawsuit suggests that Cato is utterly out of touch with its major benefactors and funders, so the lawsuit is the equivalent of a ‘bitch-slap,’ telling everyone: ‘If you are going to take my money on behalf of our shared values, then don’t use my money to destroy the values I thought we shared.’

So, perhaps the dispute is not about politics or power, after all; it’s simply personal. The Koch brothers might feel betrayed by the very people at Cato who begged them every year for their financial support. Cato might win in court if the legal dispute is about power or politics or the Koch brothers’ property rights, but Cato will lose badly if the Koch’s believe they have been betrayed.