November 25, 2013

TAC’s Daniel McCarthy and the Cato Institute

By In C.Jay Engel

In the Autobiographical collection edited by Walter Block called I Chose Liberty, I was pleased to note that Daniel McCarthy, editor at The American Conservative, was given a chapter.  He had a phrase in his piece that stood out to me, and I will provide the entire paragraph for context:

I came to libertarianism in reverse, starting out as a conservative with no strong feel- ings about libertarianism one way or another, and then actually becoming quite hostile toward it based on what I’d seen. Ayn Rand never has appealed to me, nor has CATO-style managerial minarchism or Virginia Postrel’s techno-utopianism. It’s safe to say that without LRC, the Mises Institute, Antiwar.com, and the rest of the Rothbard legacy, I would not ever have become a libertarian, even if I would still believe most of the things that I do. There simply is no substitute—not among libertarians, not among conservatives, not any- where—for what Rothbard and those who follow in his footsteps have done and are doing.

Ditto.  But that phrase regarding Cato is striking.  “Cato-style managerial minarchism.”  Beyond the question of the size of government, which libertarians appear to be in agreement on, there is the debate about what, exactly, this “small” government is actually supposed to do.  You see, for Cato, the answer to that is very different than for other libertarians, such as Ron Paul who hold to the principles of some universal ethic to which the government too must adhere.  For Ron Paul, each individual has rights and thus the government’s role is to punish those who breach those rights.  That is strictly it.  But it seems that in reading Cato’s various public policy suggestions, they put their emphasis in other areas.  Rather talking strictly about what the government ought to do morally, they tend to focus on what the government is competent to be in charge of.  McCarthy is right to called this “managerial minarchism.”

In a recent blogpost at Cato, David Boaz writes about “reasons not to keep on expanding a government that has grown beyond its competence.”  And further down, he states: “Maybe the lesson is that if you want competent government, you should limit it to manageable tasks.”  Now there are plenty of reasons why one shouldn’t really label Cato libertarian, at least not by the same definition that the Mises Institute is libertarian, but beyond that, I think that McCarthy hit the nail on the head, especially after reading posts like that.  Not that there is anything really wrong with Cato’s view based on those two sentences per se, for Ludwig von Mises himself was famous for showing that the government without the price mechanism cannot calculate and thus is, by its very nature, is not “competent” to offer any services, the debate over the moral justification of its activity notwithstanding.  But the point is that when Cato uses these principles, it shows why they don’t really have any complete objection to war, central banking, the draft, federal income taxation, some social welfarism, some corporate subsidies, etc.  As long as it is small enough to be managed, it is great right?  The problem is that Cato’s idea of “small enough to be managed” is usually far larger than the libertarian should hope for.  Not only that, it is an inherently subjective standard.  The GOP thinks that Barack Obama is incompetent to handle everything but along comes Mitt Romney, who has business success that shows he has the skills to run the world.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Cato folk compromising on the Ron Paul-driven End the Fed movement in coming years. After all, the Fed might just need to be managed better instead of done away with.

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