Thursday, September 2, 2010

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.