There's Something About Cato

In Richard Pollock's version of 1960s history, both the Berkeley Free Speech and the anti-war movements were based on libertarian values. "They were about the freedom to express dissent, which is a libertarian value. It had nothing to do with anything Marxist or socialist," the Cato Institute's communications guru expounds with undisguised enthusiasm. Hell, in the world according to Richard Pollock, even the hippies were libertarians.

This self-proclaimed ex-Nader supporter claims progressives are suffering from amnesia and, worse, a bad case of identity crisis. "If the Left would just take off its blinkers and look libertarians in the eye, they would see themselves," he says. His pet theory? A good liberal is merely a libertarian gone astray.

It's enough to make any self-respecting lefty choke. What could be worse than looking in the mirror to find a dues-paying member of the Cato Institute staring right back at you? The well-funded and influential think-tank has been anathema to the Left since the early 90s, when it rose to prominence riding the coattails of the conservative "revolution." Cato's anti-tax and anti-welfare credo meshed perfectly with the punitive agenda of the House Republicans. "Determined populist thinkers," declared their number one fan, Newt Gingrich. But to liberals, they looked more like a bunch of wealthy, white Marie Antoinettes intent on screwing the poor to feed the rich.

Maybe that image is about to change.

Witness this sampling of statements issued by Cato honchos since Sept. 11 on a number of cherished progressive issues:

On illegal aliens: "To demand that they be deported, perhaps for years, despite their family and employment connections, betrays a lack of perspective and humanity that reminds one of the inspector in Les Miserables who hounded Jean Valjean for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry family." -- Daniel T. Griswold; trade policy analyst.

On the war on terrorism: "What was originally supposed to be a war against terrorist groups with global reach -- ostensibly al-Qaida -- has now become a global war ... even against groups that do not threaten or attack the United States." -- Charles Pena, defense analyst.

On post-9/11 corporate subsidies: "It starts with the airlines, and then it's insurance businesses, and then it's the entertainment industry, and tourism, and then, of course, the Las Vegas casinos. It just becomes a parade of special-interest groups down Pennsylvania Avenue that have their hands out. This is the quintessence of corporate welfare." -- Stephen Moore, senior economist.

On military tribunals: "The Bill of Rights is more than scrap paper. And it applies to [all] persons, not just U.S. citizens." -- Robert Levy, senior constitutional studies fellow.

In a city like Washington D.C., where politics always trumps principles, Cato has shown little compunction about challenging its closest allies. Whether attacking John Ashcroft as "authoritarian," or reprimanding Bush Jr. for an over-inflated military budget, Cato has roared where other conservatives fear to even squeak, often right in the face of its targets. In an article published in the National Review -- the citadel of right-wing spleen -- Cato analyst Dan Griswold accused the magazine of "push[ing] every button to whip up hostility to immigration in the name of fighting terrorism and winning elections for Republicans."

The truth is that since Sept. 11, liberals have found themselves increasingly on the same side of the political fence as their arch-enemy. And some of them have begun to take notice. Cato's press releases on foreign policy -- particularly on the subject of military spending -- impressed David Morris, vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a think-tank that promotes sustainable development. "Anti-government advocates tend to draw the line when it comes to the Pentagon. But not the Cato Institute. They tend to go where their principles take them," he says. Even if it means ticking off their buddies in the White House.

The Institute has never been coy when it comes to expressing its controversial views. It opposed the Persian Gulf War at the height of the war's popularity. In 1998, writing in response to bin Laden's fatwa, Cato defense analyst Ivan Eland blamed U.S. foreign policy for terrorism, saying "Americans should not have to live in fear of terrorism just so Washington's foreign policy elite can attempt to achieve amorphous and ephemeral gains on the world chessboard."

And they haven't changed their minds - much to the chagrin of the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal. Cato is one of the most vociferous critics of the "Attack Saddam" brigade. "The neo-cons and we definitely don't see eye-to-eye," says Pollock. "We can't just move against a government just because we don't happen to like them."

ACLU president Nadine Strossen once described Cato's creed as, "Turn right at money, turn left at sex, and straight ahead is utopia." The fact that the Left and libertarians share common ground is hardly news to Cato's executive vice-president David Boaz. Hundreds of dyed-in-wool lefties gathered to hear Boaz speak last month at the annual convention of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) -- and no one was booing.

Boaz has been a board member of NORML for years, working closely with progressive icons like Barbara Ehrenreich and Keith Stroup. "We've known about these areas for some time," he says, rattling off a list of other issues, including free speech, the rights of accused and immigration. Their "no borders" position made Cato a natural ally for Latino and immigrant rights groups, which worked together through the 90s to soften INS regulations.

But if Cato turns left on a lot more than just sex, it doesn't make its swings to the right any less alarming. Its blind devotion to the Market puts most religious fanatics to shame. Libertarians have opposed virtually every piece of environmental regulation, mercilessly attacked public welfare, and are every multinational's best friend. "They take a hyper-individualistic position," says Paul Ray, author of the book "Cultural Creatives."

Ray argues that Cato's real allegiance is to "the Caesars," the corporate plutocracy that controls the world's wealth. "There many such people in business who are very closely allied with the pro-globalization side, but are pro-civil liberties and other issues that we think of as belonging to the Left," he says. And that free-market zealotry sometimes overshadows Cato's commitment to individual freedom.

Take the shenanigans of the Club for Growth, for example. Founded by Cato economist Stephen Moore, the organization underwrites candidates who meet a supply-side standard: lower taxes, free trade, Social Security privatization, and smaller government. The group is infamous on the Hill for its scorched-earth tactics targeting moderate GOP incumbents who fail the litmus test. Most recently, it helped arch-conservative Bill Simon defeat the more moderate Richard Riordan for the Republican nomination in California's gubernatorial race. Apparently Simon's stance on abortion or homosexuality did not dim Moore's enthusiasm for his pet candidate.

It's the sort of thing that puts most progressives off Cato and other libertarians -- and with good reason. But not reason enough for liberals to "turn their back on the real potential for cooperation," Pollock argues. "We are natural allies for a good number of people on the Left." But apparently progressives are just too prejudiced to see it. And some of them agree. Morris says the Left often has a knee-jerk response to Cato. "The attitude is, why should we care about what someone who has $25 million says even if we happen to agree with them," he says. "The fact is we need to understand the opposition -- learn to differentiate between them and say the Heritage Foundation," he says.

The distinction is important because we may -- god forbid -- actually learn something from the enemy. David Morris points to Cato's support for the legalization of drugs. While the Left has opposed many aspects of the Drug War, it has been reluctant to call for legalization. But Cato -- which came at it from the principle of individual liberty -- has been able to maintain its stance without being dismissed as wild-eyed extremists. "We learn that when you are consistent, you can break the bounds of common convention," Morris says.

The Left can also learn how to sell its arguments -- couching them in terms of popular values such as freedom. "Our position on invading Iraq comes from the sense that the U.S. must be wrong," Morris says. Cato makes the same argument but from a national security angle: The U.S. has no business meddling in the Middle East because it is simply not important to our national interest. It's an argument more likely to win the hearts of mainstream America. "They are intellectually nimble enough to take positions that are very radical and internally consistent across a variety of issues," he says.

Does this mean we can look forward to a Left/Right love-fest coming to a protest rally near you? Boaz says it all depends on Dubya's War on Terror. "The more this all-encompassing global war drags on, the more opportunities there will be for libertarians and liberals to join together against the national security state," he says. If the war wraps up quickly, the two sides will return to business as usual. That is, screaming insults at each other from opposite sides of the barricade at the next Seattle.

Morris, on the other hand, sees the emerging common ground between Left and Right as "instructive rather than some kind of trajectory towards more cooperation." It teaches lefties an important lesson: they can disagree with a group's values and still support its position on a given issue.

Same difference, says Ray. He argues issue-specific agreement is misleading; it disguises far more important differences in long-term goals. When it comes to structural change - or their vision of the world as it should be - the libertarians and liberals are in complete disagreement. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the fight around globalization, development, and the environment. "Piddling around with legislative issues is a bit like painting the deck chairs on the Titanic," Ray says.

What everyone seems to agree on is that old distinctions of Left and Right are no longer useful. The old fault-lines are increasingly losing relevance. Take Oxfam for example -- the NGO has come out in qualified support of globalization (though not the kind that would make the Rupert Murdochs of the world happy). Or take the feminist groups that have aligned themselves with the Christian Coalition on cloning. Politics these days entails a lot of bed-hopping. It is then entirely likely that some lefties will continue to find something good about Cato, while others never will.

Lakshmi Chaudhry is a senior editor at AlterNet.org.

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