October 26, 2012

The Neo-Libertarianism of the Cato Institute

By In Philosophy

Robert Wenzel of the Economic Policy Journal has posted an intriguing article today regarding a new book written by the President of the Cato Institute.  I encourage any interested reader to look at the article.  Wenzel is a great and able defender of the Austrian School libertarian position over and against mainstream economics and “government solutions.”  This new book, complains Wenzel, “is a very dangerous book from the head of a supposed libertarian institute. Despite, its free market rhetoric, it is a confused book at key points, that indicates no true desire to present a plan for shrinking  government. In fact, it does the opposite, hailing greater government revenue and promoting war.”

While Cato’s roots actually began with the genius work of the founder of modern libertarianism, Murray Rothbard, who was funded by the opportunist Koch brothers, it has, ever since the early 1980’s, moved further and further away from the theories of Rothbard and has essentially established itself as the center of neo-libertarianism.  Originally the “think tank” that would carry forth the ideas of Murray Rothbard, the Koch-Rothbard connection was severed early on as the Koch brothers refused to limit themselves to the radical libertarianism of the Rothbardian camp.  Rothbard, consistent with his entire career, nobly refused to compromise his non-interventionist foreign policy and his “end the fed” position on monetary policy.  Rothbard left the Cato Institute and sought refuge from the legal battles in the newly formulated Mises Institute, started by the entrepreneurial Lew Rockwell.  The fake libertarian position of the Koch brothers slowly began to reveal itself as an opportunity for political advancement rather than an endeavor to create an institute of theory and advancement of the positions of liberty.

Since this great schism within the libertarian movement, the Mises and Cato institutes have been largely tense with each other.  Because Ron Paul sided with the Rothbardian/Mises Institute position, Cato has had trouble endorsing him as the standard bearer of libertarianism.  This story in its entirety can be found in three articles to be read in order here, here, and here.

As Cato moves and develops into the future, it finds itself here in 2012 lacking the anti-war position, the anti-fed position, and the anti-welfare position.  It is the poster child for the neo-libertarianism movement that is far closer to the Gary Johnson positions than the traditional conservative and traditional libertarian positions of the Ron Paul movement.  The pro-war Ayn Rand Institute takeover of the Cato Institute (the new Cato President is a member of the Ayn Rand Institute) marks a transition in which Cato will continue to be more pro-war, pro-establishment, and as the alternative to the libertarianism of Ron Paul and the Austrian School.

What will be the future of the liberty movement?  Will it belong to the natural rights libertarianism of the Mises Institute or the utilitarianism of the Cato Institute?  I watch in anticipation.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • At what point does Cato become just another branch of the Republican party?

    • It’s a good question. My thought is that it never will. The reason I think that is because it is important for influential people like the Koch Brothers to maintain an illusion of difference. They might become closer and closer to the Republican party on positions but never by title.

      Good question though. Ultimately it is yet to be seen. Thanks for engaging!