Limousine Libertarians: Cato's Got Some Explaining To Do

Tim Lynch of the Cato Institute sends me an email from time to time alerting me to a piece his think tank has published. I almost always find the pieces interesting, and I am grateful to Tim for thinking of me. Yesterday, when a piece arrived regarding indigent defense, I didn't open it right away. I sat there wondering how much Koch money went into the piece.

It is not that I regard the Cato Institute as sacrosanct. I suppose I knew someone had to pay the bills there. But last week's piece in The New Yorker, "Covert Operations: The Billionaire Koch Brothers' War Against Obama," was an eye opener. It felt like reading something out of Oliver Stone. Just behind the scenes there really are Oz-like figures manipulating the secret levers of American life. The Koch brothers, two of the wealthiest men in American, have staked their fortune in support of pressing a libertarian agenda.

Charles and David Koch earned their wealth the old-fashioned way: They inherited it. And through shrewd practices, they have compounded their wealth to an estimated $35 billion, one of the largest fortunes in America. Koch Industries operates oil refineries in Alaska, Texas, and Minnesota. It controls about four thousand miles of pipeline. The brothers own the companies that produce Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber, Stainmaster carpet, and Lycra, among many other products.

God bless 'em, I say. Someone has to produce all this stuff. I often wondered who did so. I recall in high school being astounded by the fact of door knobs, and thinking that there must be billions of them in circulation on any given day. Turning one's mind to the quotidian task of churning out door knobs could make a man rich, I reasoned: One need only turn a small profit on each knob so long as one sold them in countless number.

I was never able to warm to the task of such pursuits, and wasted a youth in libraries, eventually gravitating to the law when it became obvious that a facility with words, fascination with ideas, and a desire to argue with my own shadow left few other options. Give me a case, almost any case, and I am happy to argue it. But for all that, I am no businessman: Making ends meet remains a daily struggle.

So I have a sort of Koch envy, I suppose, even though I do not actually want to be like the men themselves. Sure, they contribute lavishly to the arts, and to the upkeep of the New York Public Library. But they also spend tens of millions of dollars supporting political organizations espousing libertarian ideas. Calling them limousine libertarians isn't quite enough; these are the sort of fellows who read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and saw in it less a morality tale than a life's work. Call them Lear Jet Libertarians.

The closest I come to having a political creed is libertarianism, so I should be grateful to have such deep pockets supporting ideas I from time to time espouse. Hell, I've even entertained fantasies of seeking work at the Cato Institute, but doubt that I am enough of a team player to toe any party line.

But it troubles me to see big money trying to hide its tracks. Spokespersons for the Koch brothers seem less than forthcoming about the brothers' activities and financial commitments. The New Yorker piece went so far as to suggest that the Koch brothers helped engineer the Tea Party movement in order to generate grass roots support for ideas that typically are the province of a few eccentrics.

Transparency matters. I don't hold the Koch's wealth against them. But central to any version of libertarianism is a belief that individuals matter: The state is a legal fiction that often enslaves in the name of the good, true and beautiful. Yet individuals matter not just because the state is a fiction. There is a moral, neo-Kantian strain to liberalism: Individuals matter also because they are moral agents to be treated with respect. Playing hide the ball with wealth while preaching liberty and equality just plain smells funny.

The Koch brothers seem more than a little creepy; they seem like the sort of guys how plot assassinations and then make sure no one lives to talk about it. My mind kept turning to Oliver Stone's film on the JFK assassination as I read about the Koch's; I suspect my reaction was not idiosyncratic.

So I have yet to read the piece on indigent defense that Tim Lynch sent me. I can't quite get past the sense that someone with money to burn is trying to manipulate me, and that they regard the product of the think tanks they support, which, by the way, includes the Cato Institute, as mere propaganda. I don't care to be the dupe of plutocrats.

The Cato Institute owes those to whom it sends material a statement about the extent of support and control the Koch clan exerts over their daily doings. I still love the guys at Cato. I just need to know how that lipstick got on their collar. I'll even forgive a fling, so long as the prurient lips are honestly described.

Comments: (4)

  • There are very different kinds of libertarians. Th...
    There are very different kinds of libertarians. There are those further on the right, like the Cato Institute, who are often correctly perceived as Big Money corporate apologists. Then there are those further on the left, like the much smaller Center for a Stateless Society (, who I much prefer.
    The difference is primarily a matter of priorities. If libertarians by definition are generally in favor of less government, different libertarians believe different parts of government are more odious than others, and should be done away with first. On the question of income taxes for example, it seems to me the focus should be on raising individual exemptions to something like the mean U.S. income, so that individuals making less than the mean should pay no income tax at all, and individuals making more than the mean would pay taxes only on income above the mean. (Of course, I think it would be better if the income tax was abolished entirely.) The typical Cato libertarian would be strongly opposed to this, and would typically advocate instead in the name of "fairness" a flat tax on the rich and the poor alike.
    Apart from basic justice (see, e.g., Henry George), the left version of libertarianism as opposed to the right version is supported by the perennial insight that artificially-caused (i.e. government-caused) large concentrations of wealth are inimical to a free society.
    I'm guessing the Cato piece on indigent defense advocates its abolishment. But that's one of the last parts of government that should be abolished. Indeed, indigent defense should be expanded. It's all a question of priorities.
    Posted on September 2, 2010 at 3:40 am by John Kindley
  • Having googled the Cato piece on indigent defense,...
    Having googled the Cato piece on indigent defense, I have to take back my supposition about what it advocates. It's co-written by David Friedman, who's a good guy. The abstract states: "Yet virtually every suggestion for reform takes for granted the feature of the current American system that is most problematic and least defensible – the fact that the indigent defendant is never permitted to select the attorney who will represent him."
    I think they stole this idea from my blog.
    Posted on September 2, 2010 at 5:27 am by John Kindley
  • Well now that the Koch story has been making waves...
    Well now that the Koch story has been making waves, I went to the New Yorker to see what the dust-up was all about. Not finished, but so far I am having no problems. If your inclinations are already 'libertarian', why should there be a problem?
    If your inclinations are not libertarian, I can see why this story might cause consternations in some. The Koch brothers activities and actions are entirely understandable, in my opinion. Let's review some recent history, shall we?: In 1949, or thereabouts, Harry Truman 'nationalized' the steel industy, a move subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court. On or around 1958, the Justice Department starting hounding IBM under Sherman-Antitrust and pursued them relentlessly into the 70s, costing the company milllions of dollars in legal fees,... instead of rolling over and playind dead before the almighty feds. Finally, the feds ceased and desisted. Meanwhile, we had a failed invasion of Vietnam, costing 500,000 Amerikan lives.
    In the 80s, the feds turned their attention to Ma Bell and broke up the almighty powerful AT&T, reducing the parent company to a mere pittance and shadow. It took the company 20 years to recover, while the baby bells were given their separate licenses to steal. The rest is history.
    More recently, the SEC was unable to stop or prevent Bernie Madoff, even when hand-delivered to them by the sharp accountant in Boston. The feds were unable to spot and stop the 'savings and loan crisis' of the late eighties and early nineties, the Enron debacle and subsequent collapse in Texas, or the current housing bubble. In fact, quasi-government agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were partially, if not largely, responsible for this current crisis. They sold mortgages to unqualified buyers, re-sold them to third-party 'investment banks', whereupon they were sliced and diced into tranches and were sold back to Fannie and Freddie as 'derivative' places to park their excess monies. It was a government-sponsored Ponzi Scheme which goes unacknowledged by all but Ron Paul and those who think like him.
    And now we've just wound up the War in Iraq, leaving the place no better than it was under Hussein,... only 100,000 fewer population, casualties all. So the question, rightly is, what CAN the government do right in the 21st Century for honest, hard-working Amerikans?
    And let's not forget what limousine liberal Nina Totenberg did in attempting to 'bork' the Clarence Thomas nomination. Hey, I'm no fan of Thomas, but lots of folks have served on the Supreme Court who were not qualified. So why not Thomas? Really! The Fleming commission fingered Totenberg, of NPR, in her role of leaking key documents under Senate Judiciary lock-and-key, a serious, jailable violation. She was subpoenaed to testify before Congress and declined. What!
    Posted on September 3, 2010 at 2:08 am by William Doriss
  • And she got away with it. (Documented in the book,...
    And she got away with it. (Documented in the book, The Real Anita Hill.) Whatever you may think of Roger 'The Rocket' Clemenons, at least he was man enough to appear before Congress and face the music. The weasel that ratted on him has v. bad body language. I happen to respect Roger and wonder how on earth Nina could still be with NPR, the legal and Supreme Court reporter no less?!?
    The Koch brothers hate the Clintons. And why should they not? This is the man [Bill, aka 'Slick Willy'] who does not know what the definition of 'is' is. And Hillary, as senator, refused to block the nomination of an incompetent state judge to the federal bench in New York. One of the first things the Clinton White House did was to call Wellesley College and request that Hillary's senior thesis about Saul Alinsky be locked-down and not made public should any requests be made for it. Why? What was so damaging in her senior college thesis that they wanted it pulled? I suppose that is called 'liberal transparency'! The Clintons are disgraces to my generation AND the proper functioning of government of the people, by the people.
    And you wonder why the Koch brothers refuse to talk to the press? I wouldn't want to talk either if I knew the government was trying to bust up my businesses and take away my assets. (That's what they do in Russia: GasPro anyone? Can U say Putin?)
    Kindley's observation above that there are two kinds of libertarians is astute. On the two coasts, you have the water-libertarians; educated with credentials from the best schools, they think they know what's best for the rest of us common folk. They tend to favor abortion-rights and legalization, but frequently lack the yacht--a non-sequitur for sure.
    The hard heartland and high plains libertarians, on the other hand, are all hat and no cattle. These Bible-thumping, tax-cheating types usually are 'pro-life', meaning they oppose abortion-rights, while at the same time proclaiming the virtues of gun-ownership and the death penalty for all manner of crimes against their properties and servant-serf-employees. They prefer airplanes and helicopters to yachts and cruise ships as modes of transportation.
    And finally, there is that peculiar breed of golf-cart libertarian who likes to live in high, dry places like Palm Springs and who believes a round of golf a day keeps the doctor away,... without working up a sweat. They regale us with stories of their (unearned) portfolios of stocks and bonds which allows them to 'patronize' the aaarts and other NON-profits.
    I find this Koch story to be hardly the best I've ever read in The New Yorker and wonder if author Jane Mayer does not have an agenda of her own?
    Posted on September 3, 2010 at 2:16 am by William Doriss

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