Much has been written in recent weeks about the fight for control of the Cato Institute between the Koch brothers and Cato’s current board of directors. Several of my Cato colleagues have offered their own views about the damage that a Koch takeover would cause the organization. The most prominent concern is that Cato would lose its hard-won reputation for nonpartisan analysis and would either be perceived as simply another cog in a pro-Republican ideological machine or, even worse, actually become such a cog.
Both Charles and David Koch hotly deny that they harbor such intent, although the views of some members they have sought to put on Cato’s board certainly seem to validate those fears. But the prospect of the Institute becoming a partisan shop (or the parallel scenario that scholars who refused to toe the conservative GOP ideological line would be quickly purged) is not the primary danger. Such an ugly outcome cannot be cavalierly dismissed, but the more probable danger is more subtle.
Charles Koch and his right-hand associate, Richard Fink, have long advocated the concept of “market-based management.” Indeed, Koch wrote a book on the topic. The specifics of the concept have often proved elusive, and critics have made withering criticisms of that lack of clarity. But the basic feature seems to be that organizational leaders should tailor their approaches based on feedback from their audience. Ideally, that feedback gives useful information about whether a strategy is working or whether it should be adjusted or abandoned.
That approach makes sense for an organization in the private sector where success or failure can be determined on the bottom line each quarter. It even makes sense for activist organizations in the nonprofit arena where success can be measured (e.g., number of candidates elected, number and importance of legislative measures passed or defeated) with some precision—again over the relatively short term.
But such an approach is dangerously corrosive for a think tank. It creates both an activist bias and a demand for short-term results.
That is not how an effective, respected think tank should or even can operate. Cato scholars have taken positions and built compelling intellectual cases on behalf of a host of issues. Often, there was no chance that the position advocated would be adopted in the foreseeable future. Those scholars nevertheless persisted in their efforts for three reasons. One, the policy was correct on the merits; two, over the long term there was a significant chance of success; and three, moving policy toward the proper outcome on one set of issues furthered the goal of changing the entire paradigm about government’s proper role in our society.
Generating the needed critical mass of support for changing policies that have been entrenched for decades often requires the patience of Job. Cato scholars began to advocate private Social Security Accounts more than three decades ago, for example, but it wasn’t until the administration of George W. Bush that the option became a prominent part of the political debate.
Likewise, several colleagues and I have labored over the same period to make the case against the futile, counterproductive war on drugs. Change on that front has been agonizingly slow. But in the mid and late 1990s, states began to pass medical marijuana laws and decriminalize possession of small quantities of drugs. Over the past decade, several countries, most notably Portugal and Argentina, have adopted significant drug policy reforms. And in the past three years, a growing roster of prominent opinion leaders, including two former presidents of Mexico, the former presidents of Honduras, and Brazil, televangelist Pat Robertson, and Pope Benedict have expressed opposition to the war on drugs. A Gallup poll in the autumn of 2011 showed 50 percent of Americans now favored the legalization of marijuana—nearly double the percentage in the early 1980s.
It would be unwarranted to argue that the work by Cato scholars was entirely responsible for such a sea change in attitudes regarding drug policy. But the several books, dozens of policy studies and journal articles, and hundreds of newspaper op-eds, magazine articles, blog posts, and media interviews undoubtedly played a role.
It would have been difficult to justify such a long-term commitment (with few visible signs of success in the early years) under the concept of market-based management. But it is a strategy that is now beginning to pay dividends—and holds the promise of making a huge, beneficial change in public policy on a crucial issue.
The mission of a think tank to drastically alter (not just tweak) entrenched policies is akin to trying to turn around an aircraft carrier that is headed in the wrong direction. The Koch market-based management strategy is akin to turning around a nimble speed boat. Cato’s current management team, headed by Ed Crane, understands that important distinction and wishes to keep Cato focused on the former, ultimately more important, orientation. A Koch-appointed board would, even with the best of intentions, almost certainly want Cato to adopt the latter approach. That would be a loss for Cato, the public policy debate, and the cause of liberty.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books and more than 500 articles and policy studies. His books include Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America (2003) and The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America (forthcoming, September 2012.)