Jane Mayer at the New Yorker recently did a shameless hit-piece on the Koch brothers and the think tanks and organizations they fund (often termed the “Kochtopus,” a creative name I’m willing to endorse). My employer, the Cato Institute, gets mentioned in a brief but typically sneering fashion. The entire article oozes with bias and spite. Pure journalistic failure.
To give you an idea of the tone of the article, at one point, on page 5, it seems as if the article may, if only for a moment, attempt to discuss other political Daddy Warbuckses and the causes they fund. Quickly coming to her senses, Mayer then nearly trips over herself trying to explain the difference:
Of course, Democrats give money, too. Their most prominent donor, the financier George Soros, runs a foundation, the Open Society Institute, that has spent as much as a hundred million dollars a year in America. Soros has also made generous private contributions to various Democratic campaigns, including Obama’s. But Michael Vachon, his spokesman, argued that Soros’s giving is transparent, and that “none of his contributions are in the service of his own economic interests.” The Kochs have given millions of dollars to nonprofit groups that criticize environmental regulation and support lower taxes for industry. Gus diZerega, the former friend, suggested that the Kochs’ youthful idealism about libertarianism had largely devolved into a rationale for corporate self-interest. He said of Charles, “Perhaps he has confused making money with freedom.”
This is typical leftist reportage. The article constantly insinuates that people like George Soros are magnanimously and selflessly committed to truth and justice. The Kochs, however, are not driven by belief, but rather narrow self-interest. They champion self-serving and intermittent alliances that only pad their pocketbooks and bolster their portfolios.
Perhaps the worst bias in the article is scrawled across the top: “Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama.” The article paints libertarians into the right-wing of the American political spectrum and gives a scant, sneering mention (“its [Cato’s] scholars have at times been critical of both parties”) to our consistent attacks on Republicans, particularly Bush. This small concession is quickly withdrawn when, in the following paragraphs, the author tries to ensure that the reader is not fooled by Cato’s attacks on Republicans because “[Cato] has consistently pushed for corporate tax cuts, reductions in social services, and laissez-faire environmental policies.”
Amidst this manifest inability to scrounge up even a semblance of neutrality, it is no surprise that the Kochs’ activities are said to be “covert.” Although they are about as clandestine as Major League Baseball, the leftist media has chosen to fawn over Soros rather than the Kochs. How else does someone become a household name, which Soros certainly verges upon, except by sufficiently tickling the media’s fancy? When they do look at other side all we get is inexcusable and inaccurate trash like Mayer’s article.
David Weigel at Slate has offered an excellent rejoinder, urging us to revel in the epithets because it means the Kochs’ mission is working. Weigel even mentions the Koch Summer Fellow Program, a fellowship I recently completed and absolutely loved. Yes, I’ve spent my time living in the majestically adorned “Kochwood.” I too have suckled at the oil-filled teet of the Koch bros. I guess everything I have to say can be discarded as self-interested brainwashing.
By calling Cato right-wing, however, Mayer’s article stumbles into a timely discussion. The dust-up here at Cato, the departure of Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson, Cato’s champions of “liberaltarianism,” has produced some hemming and hawing from around the blogosphere over whether Cato is moving to the right. Daniel Foster at NRO has asked whether or not there is a “liberaltarian” purge at Cato. At Volokh, Ilya Somin does a good job putting the situation into context.
Despite losing two fine scholars, Cato will continue being Cato—treading water amidst a sea of partisan epithets—and Will and Brink will continue to produce their undoubtedly excellent work. I am somewhat miffed from a personal standpoint. Brink Lindsey wrote one of my favorite books of the last five years, and Will Wilkinson writes an amazing blog and has intellectual interests, as well as aesthetic tastes, that are eerily congruent with my own.
Brink and Will’s liberaltarianism is an admirable project that was “officially” inaugurated a few years ago with Brink’s piece in the New Republic. Whether or not libertarians should align themselves more with conservatives or liberals is a valid and important question. Like any group seeking political action, who our strange bedfellows will be is a prudent question.
Personally, I agree with my Cato colleague Julian Sanchez: I don’t particularly care about the answer to these questions other than the “boringly obvious one: Libertarian individuals and institutions should make whatever tactical alliances on specific issues that best suit their dispositions and concerns.”
But are libertarians shutting out one side of the political spectrum? On an individual level, libertarians have varying affinities for either one of the two parties. I’ve found this to be mainly a function of which side of the political spectrum a given libertarian came from. Perhaps, however, which side we are shutting out is the wrong question. Maybe we should look to which side is shutting us out and ask why they are doing so.
Which brings me back to the New Yorker’s left-wing bombing run over the fields of the libertarian landscape. Why does Mayer hate us so? Why does she shut us out and yet the Tea Partiers, by and large, are willing to listen to us despite the fact that we are pro-gay rights, pro-immigration, anti-torture, anti-Iraq war, anti-Afghanistan war, anti-Patriot act, etc… In other words, why are economic policies the deal-breaker? Beliefs on economic policy seem to have become the sine qua non for locating oneself in this mythically one-dimensional political landscape.
I will use later posts to discuss why I think this is so. For now I will endorse Weigel’s call to rejoice at our besmirching by the New Yorker. There are few worse insults than to be ignored and considered beneath response.