Cato Sucks but PERC Does Good Work

Cato InstituteSomething I really hate is when a website allows you to write a comment with paragraph breaks, but when it’s published, everything gets pushed together in one long paragraph. Such is the case with Google when you do reviews of websites. You can do that when you search for a big website on Google. You can’t, for example, search for “Frankly Curious” and get the option to write a review. But the Cato Institute is very big and so when I did a search on them, there were reviews so I thought I would add my own thoughts. After all, I used to be a big fan of Cato. Since then, two things have happened: my thinking has evolved and their thinking has devolved.

So here is my review:

Cato does some fine work—notably on the drug war and the patent system. Cato also does some terrible hack work. But the main thing is that they have been very candid that they will bury any research they do that does not point to a libertarian solution. This is simply intellectually unethical. Cato is committed to an ideology. They aren’t in the business of creating better policy. At its best, it is in the business of coming up with the best ideologically acceptable policy. But that seems to be less and less of what they do.

Over the last two decades, I think they’ve become much more like the Heritage Foundation: interested more in selling libertarian (and increasingly general conservative) ideas than coming up with libertarian solutions to problems. I suspect the slide will continue.

Worst of all, Cato has mostly chosen to simply deny global warming. This was not necessary. The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), has spent decades researching free market approaches to dealing with climate change and living with it.

There are groups like PERC who really think that free market solutions are the best way to deal with the problems we all face today. But increasingly, Cato is only interested in creating justifications for the existing power elite. I suspect with a yearly budget of over $30 million, Cato needs to tell a lot of rich people what they want to hear.

The best thing you can say about Cato is that of all the major conservative think tanks, it is clearly the best. It continues to do some excellent work. However, I think a serious libertarian would be a fool to give Cato any money. As a practical matter, the Cato Institute may complain about Republican politicians, but it acts as an apologist for the Republican Party.

As a group, I would give it a single star, because it does more harm than good. Its website, however, has a lot of interesting information. It is worth checking out. But it contains a lot of garbage too. Its writing on Social Security and Medicare are absolutely horrendous repetitions of the same old conservative talking points we’ve been hearing for decades. So you need to be aware of what Cato is up to, but it has some good information and it is well organized.

Cato InstituteI do want to give a special call out to the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). The founder of the group is Terry L Anderson, and I read his book (with co-author Donald R Leal) Free Market Environmentalism when it was first published back in 1991. It had a chapter on global warming and it made the case that it might not be happening and that if it were it was likely to be less intense than the models predicted. I was in graduate school at the time and most of us thought the models were probably erring on the high side. (How wrong we were!) So the argument was reasonable at that time. But nonetheless, it had a section titled, “What If Chicken Little Is Right?” It then discussed things we could do. One of those, as I recall, was a cap and trade kind of idea. Since that time, he and his group have accepted global warming and do a lot of research on how to deal with emission controls and how we can manage the harm that is already being done. (Anderson published a new version of the book in 2001.)

To me, this is the work of a serious libertarian. Clearly, he believes in the free market. But it isn’t a religion to him. He isn’t an apologist for the oil industry. In general, I’ve found him to be a bit more optimistic about the power of markets and property rights than I think is reasonable. But he’s a smart and dedicated guy looking to find real solutions to our problems. We need more people like him. Cato used to have more people like that, but now they are mostly just a bunch of hacks who aren’t going to open your mind to new ideas because they have none. More than whether I agree with someone or not, I want them to be interesting. I think there are a lot of good ideas in free market environmentalism that come from the people at PERC. But Cato is only interested in those ideas as a way to avoid doing anything.

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