Cato Institute

Cato, the Kochs, and a Fluke

If you follow the libertarian sector of the blogosphere, as I do, you will have noted the recent dominance of two controversies: the future of Cato Institute and the subsidization of contraceptives. In the matter of Cato, it seems that the Koch brothers want to take control of Cato for the purpose of making it more “relevant” to current political issues, much to the universal dismay of the libertarians commentators whose opinions I have read. In the matter of contraceptives, it seems that the testimony of Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student, has fostered libertarian-conservative agreement in opposition to Ms. Fluke’s whining plea for mandated insurance coverage of contraception (e.g., here and here).

I will not bother to recite the history of the controversies, nor will I try to summarize what various writers have said about them. If you are unfamiliar with either or both of them, start here and here, then follow the links therein. My modest aim is to show how the controversies reveal a link between left-libertarianism and the subsidization of contraceptives.

I therefore turn to Will Wilkinson, a former denizen of Cato who has described himself as a “liberaltarian.” What is a “liberaltarian”? I refer to myself:

In “More Pseudo-Libertarianism,” I say that I must come up with a new name for left-libertarians, inasmuch as they are not really libertarians. Some of them have tried “liberaltarian,” an amalgam of (modern) “liberal” and “libertarian.” To be a “liberaltarian” (with a straight face), one must believe that leftists are willing to abandon their pursuit of all-encompassing government and join left-libertarians in their pursuit of absolute fairness (by whose standards?) in economic and social outcomes. Leftists seek the latter objective, but will never be persuaded to drop the former one.

All of which suggests that  a left-libertarian is really a (witting or unwitting) collaborationist: an intellectual Vichyite or, in the parlance of the 1950s, a fellow traveler or comsymp (communist sympathizer).

Comsymp has a certain ring. Perhaps “libsymp” is what I’m looking for. I’ll give it a try.

Anyhow, the libsymp named Will Wilkinson seems to have a (libsymp-related) grievance against Cato, which is evident in his commentary about the Cato-Koch affair; for example:

Suppose Cato, without changing anything at all about its ideological orientation, were to focus more energy on some issues currently of interest to both groups like AFP [Americans for Prosperity] and groups like, say, the ACLU or Amnesty International? I think there’s a plausible argument that this would lead Cato to deliver greater libertarian bang for its donors’ bucks, while possibly even improving its non-partisan reputation.

Now, I’m not sure I buy this argument. I tend to think that a greater focus on practical political relevance would tend to exert a subtle pressure on Cato’s analysts to take it relatively easy on perceived allies when they do and say things harmful to liberty. Indeed, this pressure already exists, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to increase it, since it’s already biased toward the right. The legacy of right-fusionism has been to desensitize many libertarians to the inherently liberty-limiting aspects of social conservativism, and to reduce many self-described libertarians to acting primarily as cheerleaders for the economic agenda of “free-market” reactionaries….

For folks outside the Beltway, for whom the Cato staff are complete strangers, Cato looks like part of the right, if an odd one. There’s a reason David Boaz [Cato's executive VP] is always complaining about newspapers identifying Cato as a “conservative” think tank, and it’s not just that David Boaz likes to complain. Just ask yourself how Cato’s work could have been more congenial to the GOP during George W. Bush’s failed attempt to reform Social Security, or during the failed attempt to block Obamacare? Cato obviously already is in the politically-relevant intellectual ammo business. And in actual large-stakes political fights in Washington, Cato is generally on the Republican side. It would not be strange to spot a Catoite at Grover Norquist’s infamous Wednesday morning meetings. Because Cato functions as part of the right.

It’s tempting to think that Cato almost never does anything to help the Democrats largely because it’s just too far to the left of the Democratic Party on foreign policy and civil liberties. Yet Cato is equally far to the “right” of the Republican Party on economic policy, welfare policy, education policy, and lots more. Social Security privatization is a forced savings program. School vouchers and/or education tax credits are taxpayer-funded education. Lower income-tax rates concede the income tax. Again and again Cato finds a way to settle on non-ideal, “second-best” economic, welfare, and education policies, and argue for them in away that provides “ammo” to the right. But it very rarely develops compromising second-best policies on foreign policy or civil liberties that would be of any practical use to dovish or civil-libertarian Democrats. Why not? Why was coming out in favor of gay marriage more controversial at Cato (the state shouldn’t be involved in marriage at all!) than coming out in favor of school vouchers (the state shouldn’t be involved in education at all!)? Why not a bigger institutional push for medical marijuana as a second-best, nose-under-the-tent alternative to outright legalization? The fact is that Cato has so deeply internalized the ethos of the venerable right-fusionist alliance that there is almost no hope of it functioning on the whole in a truly non-partisan way. I think its status-quo reputation reflects that.

I reproduced that much of Wilkinson’s post just to give you an idea of the depth of his animus toward the Cato of Ed Crane‘s making. A particular aspect of Wilkinson’s “indictment” bears on the thesis of this post. It does not take much reading between the lines to detect Wilkinson’s embrace of “positive liberty,” which is the antithesis of liberty. He spells it out more explicitly here:

[F]reedom has a number of meanings, and one of them is “ability to do stuff.”… Persons, natural or legal, are either coerced or they aren’t. Mugged people with fat wallets aren’t coerced or wrongly interfered with more than mugged people with thin wallets. They just lose more money. That conservatives and libertarians always ultimately do treat tax increases as losses of freedom suggests to me that they’re really proponents of positive liberty after all, but haven’t thought the implications through. In that case, they’re right to see growth as a matter of freedom. But then they’re also are quite wrong to think that a well-functioning welfare state isn’t a matter of freedom.

There you have it. Wilkinson — like other left-libertarians — hews to a key tenet of modern “liberalism,” which is that people are not really free unless they have a certain measure of economic wherewithal. The taking of income by taxation, in Wilkinson’s view, is morally equivalent to a lack of income.

This left-libertarian (and “liberal”) view of the world depends on the slippery use of the term “coercion.” The taking of something from a person by force or the threat of force is coercion. Taxation is coercion, and resistance to taxation is not a plea for “positive liberty.” On the other hand, there is no coercion when a person is “forced” to accept a standard of living that is arbitrarily deemed sub-standard simply because that person does not earn enough “to do stuff,” according to the arbiter’s standards of what “stuff” a person needs “to do.”

There is, in sum, no moral distance between the left-libertarian and “liberal” worldviews, both of which favor “positive liberty.” What kind of and how much “positive liberty” should be doled out are merely matters of taste. The likeness of left-libertarianism and “liberalism” reminds me of this famous anecdote:

A man asks a woman if she would be willing to sleep with him if he pays her an exorbitant sum. She replies affirmatively. He then names a paltry amount and asks if she would still be willing to sleep with him for the revised fee. The woman is greatly offended and replies as follows:

She: What kind of woman do you think I am?

He: We’ve already established that. Now we’re just haggling over the price.

Which brings me, at last, to Sandra Fluke, who has established what kind of person she is, and is just haggling over the price.

Related posts:
The Causes of Economic Growth
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
A Short Course in Economics
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Invoking Hitler
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Left
Enough of “Social Welfare”
A True Flat Tax
The Case of the Purblind Economist
Youthful Wisdom
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Social Justice
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Nature Is Unfair
Elizabeth Warren Is All Wet
“Occupy Wall Street” and Religion
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
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The Morality of Occupying Private Property
In Defense of the 1%