Random Thoughts on the Cato Dispute

by Mike Kimel

Random Thoughts on the Cato Dispute

Recently there’s a bit of a to-do about the battle for the soul of Cato, one of the big Washington policy think-tanks. I’m at best a disinterested observer – unlike most people weighing in, I have no conceivable stake in the outcome. I can’t see any away in which I or any members of my family or friends are or have been in any way compensated by any of the parties involved, nor can I envision any way in which anyone I personally know would gain or lose from whatever happens.* From that perspective, a few random thoughts….

1. Both sides in the dispute have a philosophy that the best measure of an idea is the free market. But it doesn’t seem like Cato, as an organization, is operating as if that is true. They are in the business of giving away philosophical policy points, and providing analytic support (much of which is not in accordance with the data if you ask me) for free. All of that is paid for as a charity, but the philosophy they are promoting is that the market knows best. And yet, the market doesn’t seem willing to pay for that philosophy. Note that the market is quite willing to pay for philosophy, including some similar philosophy: whatever one thinks of Ayn Rand, people still buy Atlas Shrugs and the Fountainhead. Ditto much of Heinlein’s oeuvre. But how many of the Cato people would have kept body and soul together this far counting on the free market alone? It seems odd that people would spend their careers to advance an idea when they have taken such extraordinary steps to minimize the effect of that idea on the way they earn their livelihood.
2. Cato-leaning types of all stripes tend to be against government social programs. They typically advance a number of arguments against such programs, but one that frequently comes up is dependence: the existence of these programs teach their recipients to be dependent on the government rather than going out and making a living on the free market, and this process is self-perpetuating. And yet, this seems to be exactly what the donors to Cato are doing. They are encouraging those who work at Cato to continue engaging in behavior that is not self-supporting. If they didn’t, the folks at Cato might hone their craft sufficiently to produce something which the market would actually buy, which their philosophy says would make everyone better off.

  3. Whatever happens, I suspect just about everyone involved in any way with Cato, whether as a donor, employee, or reader of their material, will continue try their best to avoid anything that can remotely be construed as a free market outcome.

* After writing this, I took a quick inventory around the house and realized that the toilet paper (“Quilted Northern” brand) we recently purchased was made by Georgia Pacific which is owned by Koch Industries. Nevertheless, I still believe my association with any of the parties in the Cato flap is de minimus.