Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 23, 2010

CAREFUL WHAT YOU THINK AT SOME THINK TANKS.... The Cato Institute, a leading institution for conservative libertarians, will no longer be the home of some high-profile scholars, who may be part of yet another think-tank purge.

Brink Lindsey, who helped oversee Cato research, and Will Wilkinson, the editor of "Cato Unbound," are both headed for new professional homes. Dave Weigel highlights the larger context.

I asked for comment on this and was told that the institute does not typically comment on personnel matters. But you have to struggle not to see a political context to this. Lindsey and Wilkinson are among the Cato scholars who most often find common cause with liberals. In 2006, after the GOP lost Congress, Lindsey coined the term "Liberaltarians" to suggest that Libertarians and liberals could work together outside of the conservative movement. Shortly after this, he launched a dinner series where liberals and Libertarians met to discuss big ideas. (Disclosure: I attended some of these dinners.)

In 2009 and 2010, as the libertarian movement moved back into the right's fold, Lindsey remained iconoclastic -- just last month he penned a rare, biting criticism of The Battle, a book by AEI President Arthur Brooks which argues that economic theory is at the center of a new American culture war.

I'm not privy to the internal personnel discussions at Cato, so my take is obviously speculative. But Cato was home to two widely-read, well-respected "liberaltarians," and both are out, just as the think tank becomes even more conservative? One need not be a conspiracy theorist to suspect an ideological purge.

But what's especially interesting to me is how often we've seen moves like these in recent years. David Frum was forced out at the American Enterprise Institute after failing to toe the Republican Party line. Bruce Bartlett was shown the door at the National Center for Policy Analysis for having the audacity to criticize George W. Bush's incoherent economic policies.

In perhaps the most notable example, John Hulsman was a senior foreign policy analyst at the right's largest think tank, the Heritage Foundation. Hulsman was a conservative in good standing -- appearing regularly on Fox News and on the Washington Times' op-ed page, blasting Democrats -- right up until he expressed his disapproval of the neoconservatives' approach to foreign policy. At that point, Heritage threw him overboard. Cato's Chris Preble said at the time, "At Heritage, anything that smacks of criticism of Bush will not be tolerated."

A few years later, Cato seems to be moving in a very similar direction.

Intellectually, modern conservatism is facing a painfully sad state of affairs.

Steve Benen 4:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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Comments

What's the old joke about Libertarians? They are Republicans who smoke pot. You do understand that the Koch Brothers give money to Heritage, AEI and CATO, right?

Posted by: Joe Klein's conscience on August 23, 2010 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

"Intellectually, modern conservatism is facing a painfully sad state of affairs."

That's the problem, isn't it - where's the "intellectual" aspect of these think tanks?

But then, that's what happens when power itself becomes the goal...

Posted by: blondie on August 23, 2010 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

What's the old joke about Libertarians? They are Republicans who smoke pot.

We also eat large quantities of Hostess fruit pies and have trouble coming to terms with our eight-year support for Bush.

Posted by: Sean Scallion on August 23, 2010 at 4:59 PM | PERMALINK

It seems to me that the very nature of conservatism is to restrain progressive thought, to "conserve," rather than "expand." To maintain the status quo and avoid liberal thought. Isn't the root of liberal, liberte=freedom? Free thought does not incorporate restricted thought. Sometimes, the buggy whip industry just has to retool and cater to a new market: automotive accessories, cup holders, windshield wipers, antennae decor. Or, sell whips to S&M clubs and wealthy sex perverts. There are always choices. That is the beauty of a free market society.

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Posted by: st john on August 23, 2010 at 5:06 PM | PERMALINK

University Research Scientists assemble facts, and come up with a theory.

Think Tank Conservatives come up with a theory, and assemble facts that support it.

Posted by: Day on August 23, 2010 at 5:23 PM | PERMALINK

Probably a good time to recognize the many times I've flamed on posters here who I've felt veered too far from the Democratic Party line. I've commented more than once that our lack of message discipline will be our undoing.

Well, here's what message discipline gets you — differing opinions drummed out for the sake of party consistency.

I, for one, will try to remember that listening is a Liberal trait.

Posted by: chrenson on August 23, 2010 at 5:30 PM | PERMALINK

Soon the only people pure enough for of "Conservative" "Think" Tanks will be Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Jonah Goldberg, Pamela Geller, Kathryn Lopez and John Hindraker.

Posted by: The Answer WAS Orange on August 23, 2010 at 5:39 PM | PERMALINK

Day on August 23, 2010 at 5:23 PM got it right.

That said, the intent of 'conservatives' to eliminate and stifle dissenting opinions and to propagandize is now readily apparent and we should expect self censorship by any and all 'scholars' and 'thinkers' who remain associated with the right.

If we are lucky, there shall some day be a Khrushchev like secret speech when the cost of their purity becomes apparent.

More likely we shall see the End of the Age of Reason.

Posted by: MikeBoyScout on August 23, 2010 at 5:39 PM | PERMALINK

Cato was not created to further actual thinking-it is one of several Koch brothers'front groups with two purposes only
1.further the financial welfare of the Koch brothers
2.serve as training ground/safe refuge between republican administrations for party hacks.

Posted by: sue on August 23, 2010 at 6:33 PM | PERMALINK

The fundamental feature of right-wing "think" tanks that distinguishes them from actual academic research institutions they are designed to resemble is that your arguments and logic can be as crappy and ludicrous as you want, as long as they end up at the right answer. And no matter how convincing your scholarship is, if it ends up at the wrong answer, you're out.

However, I don't see how this is news, just because there have been a few striking examples recently.

Posted by: Redshift on August 23, 2010 at 6:39 PM | PERMALINK

Why on earth do liberal bloggers care about liberatarians. All they care about is tax breaks for the rich and, perhaps marijuana legalization. they never stick their necks out on anything that they supposedly believe in, unless it clearly benefits the rich. Cato is just another wingnut position paper mill. No real "thinker" would work at such a place.

Posted by: Rich on August 23, 2010 at 6:58 PM | PERMALINK

Sue,

Can you name one person at Cato that has worked in a Republican administration and then worked in a second Republican administration? Can you name one that worked for G.W. Bush?

You are confusing Cato with the likes of AEI and Heritage. No one affiliated with Cato has worked in an administration after they began at Cato precisely because their criticism cuts across party lines.

Please do your homework before you read an article in the New Yorker and then make ridiculous assumptions.

Posted by: Rob on August 23, 2010 at 7:07 PM | PERMALINK

Would love to see some real thought out of conservative think tanks. They are all mailing it in for corporate masters. Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory with the GOP. It won't end well I fear.

Posted by: Sparko on August 23, 2010 at 8:28 PM | PERMALINK

Are you serious? Isn't this the same Cato Institute that furiously attacked the decision to go to war with Iraq and whose chairman endorsed "the moral and constitutional right to gay marriage"? http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=11112

Do your homework, indeed.

Posted by: Sandra on August 23, 2010 at 11:00 PM | PERMALINK

You mean those proud principled libertarians at Cato who, during the Bush attempts to privatize social security, went back in tine on their website and altered the contemporary references from 'privatization' to 'personal accounts', and then claimed they'd never ever supported privatization? Straight down the memory hole.

I always wondered if the ones who made that decision had twinges of conscience when they remembered their '1984', or if they'd internalized their doublethink well enough

Was it Delong who used to say "I'll stop calling them Orwellian when they stop using '1984' as their operating manual"?

Posted by: MikeN on August 24, 2010 at 2:45 AM | PERMALINK

Intellectually, modern conservatism is facing a painfully sad state of affairs.

That fact has been painfully obvious for years now.

Posted by: Gregory on August 24, 2010 at 7:49 AM | PERMALINK

"Modern conservatism" may be the pits. But libertarians aren't conservatives, which is why libertarians at Cato have opposed the war on drugs and the war in Iraq (from 2002 to 2009, both before and after Obama opposed it), called for leaving Iraq, opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment, co-chaired the Olson-Boies gay marriage lawsuit, published many studies denouncing corporate welfare, published two books on big-government conservatism in the Bush era, published separate studies of the depredation of civil liberties in the Clinton and Bush administrations, etc. John Stuart Mill wasn't a conservative, and neither are today's libertarians.

Posted by: Walker on August 24, 2010 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

Or it could be that war supporters like Lindsay are out the door at CATO, which is a welcome sign.

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