Making an ideological omelette

Cato Institute from outside

For those who haven’t been paying attention to the Cato/Koch brothers conflict, a primer:

  • The Cato Institute, despite its reformist bent, previously employed Radley Balko, publishes papers against the War on Drugs and police militarization, and at the moment has people working for it who will write about things like how Mitt Romney’s ridiculously militaristic budget makes no sense, corporate welfare is a bipartisan occurrence, and “starve the beast” — the idea that cutting taxes with no immediate regard for spending prompts spending cuts later — is, to put it scientifically, a load of horseshit. Meanwhile, the political entities that the Kochs directly control are all “what? who cares! We wanna elect Republicans against that damn socialist Obama!”, which is to say they are right-wing hack artists.
  • Bill Niskanen, the guy that wrote the last post I linked, is a shareholder in Cato, among only four. Well, was, as he is now the owner of a farm.
  • Bill’s share was left to his wife. The Kochs are saying it instead should’ve been made available for purchase by other members — them, basically.  Their intentions if successful are made clear by the fact that they attempted to place on the board people who have written such things as “libertarians are idiots” and “George W. Bush is a genius” (seriously, read the link).
  • Because of the above, current employees like Julian Sanchez are writing that if the Kochs win, they quit.

Now that you’re up to speed, consider the following: the reaction of people like Julian is prompting laughing fits from the mainstream liberal blogosphere, under the view that they are somehow contradicting libertarian philosophy (which in their dictionary says “see: Objectivism”).  A more serious version of this by Corey Robin actually grazes a legit point about the common view of libertarianism:

[…] what’s noteworthy in [Julian Sanchez’] ”presignation” letter is not his complaints about the Kochs and what they’re trying to do. It’s the remarkable portrait he paints of himself and his workplace, how the coercion he imagines his new bosses wielding would threaten his autonomy and integrity, his very capacity to speak the truth as he sees it. […]

The mere thought that he might “be summoned to the top floor to explain why [he’s] ‘off message’”—with the obvious implication that he’ll be fired if he can’t or if he does it again—is enough, for Sanchez, to compromise his ability to do his job as he understands it, which is to tell the truth. So threatening to his independence and autonomy is the future bosses’ power to fire him that Sanchez believes he must flee it—in advance of it even being exercised.

The observation that workplace hierarchy can dehumanize workers and hamper the ability to actually do the work is an important one.  If you work at a BBQ restaurant and your new management wants to throw out your famous pulled pork sandwich in favor of a vegan dish, pointing out how dumb an idea that is shouldn’t be controversial.  In practice though, there’s constant assumption that anyone below management is just a drone who should shut up and follow orders, shoving aside that the reason people work is not as a favor to the employer.  This kind of conflict, if you know the writings of Kevin Carson on management & organization, will sound familiar.

Cato, when it comes to labor, has a clear blind spot. This is why the sentiment Julian expresses can be pointed at by Corey Robin as a divergence from “libertarianism” as he understands it.  Filling it in, though, is even pre-Koch seen as a left-wing thing to do, to which I’d say: exactly.

Corey goes on to draw attention to Julian’s relative lack of attachments to worry about, mentioning that others are in different positions, and then thinking he sees a nail drops the Prog hammer:

So if liberty is the absence of coercion, as many libertarians claim, and if the capacity to act—say, by enjoying material conditions that would free one of the costs that quitting might entail—limits the reach of that coercion, is it not the case that freedom is augmented when people’s ability to act is enhanced?

More to the point: is one’s individual freedom not increased by measures such as unemployment compensation, guaranteed health insurance, public pensions, higher wages, strong unions, state-funded or provided childcare—the whole panoply of social democracy that most libertarians see as not only irrelevant to but an infringement upon individual freedom? (emphasis mine)

Here are my issues with this assertion: first of all, the range looked at is extremely narrow.  If his definition of individual freedom is that possibilities are opened, then sure, within the space he establishes additional possibilities are available as choices which would not have been.  Yet, this is only so on a menu that was heavily edited in the first place.  Had organized labor not been actively neutered, the current dependance on the state to stabilize workers — not to mention the Silent Agreement on corporate paternalism prior, the collapse of which is leading to direct government subsidy in the first place — would’ve been headed off a long time ago.  Second, he assumes that because these things (minus the strong unions & higher wages part…) are currently provided for by the state that doing so is their primary purpose.  How one can acknowledge the massive influence of the FIRE sector and the endurance of the military complex, all the while claims are being made that citizens can be executed without trial and banned from protesting near the ones claiming such power, and see those as mere side orders remains a puzzle to me.

To summarize: it’s good to see the kind of organizational skepticism that is leaking from Cato, and whether they do so there after the takeover fails or elsewhere after the takeover succeeds, I hope they build on it.  At the same time, I’d recommend Corey Robin reconsider who is being served in the relationship between citizen and state, in multiple senses of the word.


About b-psycho

Left-libertarian blogger & occasional musician.
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