I must say, a week ago I would have said that I would have been willing to pay serious money to hear Ed Crane and his posse at the Cato Institute say something like:
Shorter Ed Crane: Our collective societal well-being is advanced when restrictions are put on the ability of property owners to do what they wish with their property. The Cato Institute itself, for example, is in a legal sense the private property of its shareholders. But its shareholders do not have the moral right to do what they wish with it. For the Cato Institute is not a mere legal instrumentality that three shareholders control and direct. Instead, what the Cato Institute is is a social trust, a Great Compact, a contract that makes a great chain between all libertarians dead, living, and yet unborn, in which all those committed to the collective intellectual project of libertarianism are stakeholders who have moral rights over the Cato Institute that completely trump the property rights that so-called "owners" of The Cato Institute may claim to have.
For such an argument would seem to have the potential for wider applicability...
And now, taking all of the reactions from upholders of those currently seized of Cato against Cato's shareholders, Ed Crane and company have in effect fulfilled my dreams…
Here are a bunch of smart people who truly, honestly believe in their worldview - a worldview that shares some key elements with my own - discovering for the first time that they are in fact merely a proxy army for people who don't take them or their worldview seriously at all.
[Y]ou should wish for an independent Cato Institute even if — maybe especially if — you’re a socialist statist tool (like me). Cato is mostly antiwar, decidedly anti-drug war, and sponsors a lot of good work on civil liberties. That … is basically what the Kochs don’t like about them, because white papers on decriminalization don’t help Republicans get elected.
As Jonah Goldberg complains in a post that otherwise resolutely refuses to come to a conclusion or have a point [SNORT! tee hee - H], Cato has an annoying habit of not always seeing itself as a natural member of the glorious Republican coalition.
Current Cato headline: “It’s Not Obama’s Fault That Crude Oil Prices Have Increased.” Oh, man, don’t tell Americans for Prosperity that!
The irony here is that the nation’s preeminent libertarians—who ought to be exquisitely attentive to freedom of contract, institutional design, and observing the letter of the law—couldn’t get their rights right. They built this Streeling of libertarian thought, with its $20+ million annual budget and world-wide reputation, on a shareholding structure that is either actually or nearly under the control of people who do not share many of their values and have not for decades. The entire enterprise may well have been for years only one death away from Koch domination. If so many libertarians are now so worried about a Koch takeover, one has to ask, why have they spent so many years building a brand with an unshielded thermal exhaust port?*
The answers are obvious, and completely understandable. Because few people knew about Cato’s unusual share-based ownership structure. Because those few who knew didn’t think the Kochs’ power play was a serious possibility. Because Cato was there, and so it made sense as a coordination point, whatever its weaknesses. Because each individual project made sense, regardless of the long term. Because they never even thought to ask. All completely human, all quite arguably reasonable, and all things any of us would likely have done in the same position. And yet the end result could well be to deliver one of the world’s most recognizably libertarian institutions into the hands of men who would use it for other purposes.
I could not tell you how many times I’ve encountered libertarian arguments about law that assume that individuals can and ought to use contracts to protect themselves against just this sort of contingency. Don’t worry about users clicking “I agree” to overreaching terms of service; if they truly cared about the terms, they’d negotiate for better ones. Don’t worry about people who refuse to buy health insurance; they’re making a rational choice for themselves. Don’t worry about minority shareholders, don’t worry about franchisees, don’t worry about all the other groups that find themselves on the wrong end of a bargain that always seems to tip against them in the long run—if they wanted better protections, they could and should have negotiated for them up front.
Except they don’t. They never do. And really. If the uber-libertarians of the Cato institute can’t watch out for themselves, what hope is there for the rest of us?
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