As I see it, the Cato Institute is legally a membership organization: a majority of members can invite you in, a majority of members can throw you out, and you cannot sell or give your membership away to somebody else: it's personal. As of Bill Niskanen's death last fall, the members were Ed Crane, Bill Niskanen, Charles Koch, and David Koch. The Kochs have been letting Ed and Bill take the lead and run the Cato staff as they saw fit for the past twenty years, in spite of growing ideological, political, managerial, and personal differences with Ed. But it was their choice to let Ed and Bill do that.
Now the members are Charles Koch, David Koch, and Ed Crane. Repeat: the Cato Institute is Charles Koch, David Koch, and Ed Crane. The Cato Institute now is as much a Koch-controlled entity as the Koch brothers' underwear is. And now Ed Crane wants to pressure Charles and David Koch into giving up their majority-member ownership of Cato--or at least allow him to name another member who will join him in blocking whatever Koch moves Crane does not approve of.
The Kochs, not surprisingly, regard this as theft of something that is theirs.
The non-libertarians among us see that there are very powerful arguments in favor of the Crane position here--but they are Burkean and communitarian and social democratic arguments. They are not libertarian or propertarian arguments.
And the libertarians are hopelessly confused.
As near as I can see, somebody like Jonathan Adler is maintaining that
the Kochs have the right to do with their property whatever they see fit,
but he has the right to criticize how the Kochs use their property, and
the only proper use the Kochs can make of their property is that they abandon it, so
he thinks that the only appropriate way for them to exercise their property rights is for them not to exercise their property rights over Cato at all.
This is a libertarian defense of property rights at a very abstract and rarified level, I must say.
Backing up, I would think much more highly of the current Cato Institute these days if Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsey were still there.
Here are Will and Brink's takes on Cato:
More on the Fight over the Cato Institute: [M]y guess is that the Kochs want… (1) to replace Ed Crane and (2) make Cato's work more relevant to the actual policy-making proces…. I figure the Kochs think… Crane's continued leadership hurts Cato's mission…. Cato might not have needed "saving" had Ed gone quietly and retired, but if he's gonna go down, it seems that he intends to take the ship down with him, probably because he thinks the ship is his.
What I imagine to be the Kochs' second aim, to increase Cato's effectiveness in directly influencing policy…. Bob Levy… seems to make it out that DK was calling for Cato to bend its libertarian principles in order to be a better shill for the GOP. But it seems to me more plausible… that DK thinks that the effective application of undisputed libertarian principles to policy and politics requires a greater integration with more politically-engaged, but nevertheless ideologically compatible institutions…. [A] more practical bent need not involve changing anything about Cato's ideological orientation. It simply requires a shift in attention and emphasis to certain issues on which it already has a clear position. And this needn't be one-sided… focus more energy on some issues currently of interest to both groups like AFP and groups like, say, the ACLU or Amnesty International? I think there's a plausible argument that this would lead Cato to deliver greater libertarian bang for its donors' bucks, while possibly even improving its non-partisan reputation.
Now, I'm not sure I buy this argument…. [T]he Tea Party has almost nothing to do with liberty and almost everything to do with reactionary identity politics, and no good can come from helping the Tea Party along…. [I]t would be a terrible idea to orient Cato toward the the issues AFP's membership happen to be riled up about….
I'd really like to see Cato establish a deserved reputation for partisan neutrality… [but n]either Crane or the Kochs are interested in that…. I do think Cato's reputation for partisan independence, such as it is, would suffer under Koch rule… for this reason I sincerely hope the Crane faction prevails. Yet I don't think the Kochs are wrong to think Cato would be better off with a more effective and professional manager at the helm…. I also suspect that Cato would be more effective, according to the right-fusionist standards I think both the Koch and Crane factions accept, if the Kochs had their way and integrated Cato more fully into their line-up…. I don't think greater right-fusionist effectiveness is desirable, [so] my sympathies again fall on the side of the Crane faction.
Koch vs. Cato: It’s no secret that I’ve had strong differences over the years with some of my former colleagues at Cato. In some cases I’ve maintained positions that I now believe were wrong: it took the long occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq to disillusion the hawk out of me. On other fronts, I continue to hold views that are minority positions among Cato’s ranks. But the existence of those differences in no way detracts from my admiration for Cato or my belief that it is an important force for good…. [P]rincipled support of limited government across the domains of economics, personal life, civil liberties, and foreign affairs sadly remains a rarity. For 35 years and counting, the Cato Institute has been keeping the flame alive…. Accordingly, I am deeply troubled by the Koch brothers’ recent lawsuit…. As to the merits of the case, I will say only that there is a serious dispute about the proper interpretation of the long dormant and distinctly curious shareholders’ agreement….
[D]eeply committed libertarians and generous financial backers of Cato have been removed in favor of Koch operatives whose commitment to libertarian ideas is, well, less than clear. Furthermore, there are reports of a meeting between David Koch and Cato Chairman Bob Levy in which Koch apparently called for Cato to serve as a resource for the Kochs’ political activism – a role completely inconsistent with Cato’s longstanding mission as a nonpartisan research institute.
But in the end, the Kochs’ plans for Cato are beside the point. Regardless of their intentions, the Kochs cannot take over Cato without destroying it. The mere act of converting Cato into a legally Koch-controlled entity… would change Cato’s fundamental character….
I’ll close by addressing a larger question that I think lurks behind Will’s inability to see much at stake in the current dispute: why stand with Cato if the dominant brand of libertarianism there isn’t your own? That dominant brand features strong intellectual commitments to natural rights theory, minarchism, and Austrian economics – commitments that neither Will nor I share. But nevertheless, Cato has provided a home for many scholars over the years who depart in various respects from the prevailing viewpoint – including Will and me!… Cato is… unique in Washington for the opportunities it affords to smart libertarian thinkers and writers of all kinds to develop their talents and reach a larger audience. Preserving Cato’s independence is essential to ensuring that bright young libertarians to come continue to enjoy the same opportunities Will and I had…