How Not To Change America's Politics: Set Up a
Public Policy Think Tank
Tea Party Economist
by Gary North: Why
Conservatives Have Lost the Political Battle for America's Soul
fight going on inside the Cato Institute, which is a very well-funded
libertarian think tank that deals with policy issues. That is what
think tanks do. They are policy-oriented.
Cato is a non-profit
organization that is literally as well as figuratively inside the
Washington Beltway, close to the corridors of power. Ed Crane runs
it. He is now in a fight for control with board member Charles Koch.
This has happened
before. It was co-founded by Murray Rothbard, Ed Crane, and Charles
Koch in 1974, but Rothbard
was removed in 1981 by the board. The board wanted to move Cato
into political policy-making. Rothbard thought it should be devoted
mission today is "to increase the understanding of public policies
based on the principles of limited government, free markets, individual
liberty, and peace. The Institute will use the most effective means
to originate, advocate, promote, and disseminate applicable policy
proposals that create free, open, and civil societies in the United
States and throughout the world."
There is always
a conflict between pure theory and practical application. This is
true in every field, in all locations, and in every time period.
Timeless principles must be translated into policies. Policies are
under the influence of time. Time brings changes. It forces compromises
with timeless principles. The defenders of timeless principles face
the criticism of "irrelevance!" from activists. The defenders
of timeless principles respond with "sellouts!" Such is
So, I do not
want to give the appearance that I think that an organization devoted
to practical applications of general principles is a bad idea. There
has to be some translation of general principles into action. The
problem is this: When an organization moves into policy-making,
it moves into the area of political compromise. Compromise is
what politics is all about. You have to give a little to get something.
Or, as former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn put it over 60 years
ago, you have to go along to get along. Politics is all about vote-trading.
We need intellectual
organizations that deal with theory, history, and fundamentals.
An example of such an organization is the Mises Institute. It was
founded in 1982 by Rothbard and Lew Rockwell. It is devoted to producing
theoretical materials, historical materials, and commentary on what
is wrong with contemporary politics and economics. It is tied to
a specific worldview, that of Austrian School economics. Because
Murray Rothbard was also a revisionist historian, better known as
a conspiracy theorist, the Mises Institute also promotes revisionist
history. This is necessary, because history books are written by
the victors of political battles, and the victors of political battles
in the United States after the presidency of Grover Cleveland have
comes when these principles are applied to politics. There are productive
ways to do this. There are also unproductive ways. Think tanks devoted
to public policy in general are the wrong way. The crisis at Cato
is an illustration of what is wrong with this approach.
problem that the Cato Institute had after Rothbard was expelled
was to maintain its commitment to libertarian theory and also achieve
some degree of influence inside the Washington Beltway.
ago, I would read the Cato Institute's scholarly journal, and I
got a lot out of it. There were good articles in it on the failures
of specific government regulation. We need ammunition of this kind
to fight the good fight against the extension of the federal government.
comes when the organization attempts to move from general criticism
to specific political action. An organization on the fringe of the
Establishment has to deal with the day-to-day activities of Congress.
It is one thing to criticize some preposterous decision by some
obscure bureaucrat in some powerful federal bureaucracy. Such nonsense
deserves public exposure. The master of this is James Bovard. He
is so good at it that I have never been able to read more than 20
pages in a Bovard book. I get too angry. He lists case after outrageous
case of attacks on liberty. How he assembled these, pre-Internet,
remains a mystery.
to work with politicians on ways to make the federal government
less oppressive, there has to be a compromise with the federal government.
What we find is that think tanks get into resistance more. They
abandon reversal mode. They see that reversal is impossible, so
they try to slow down the juggernaut. They recommend surrender by
degree. It is like adding an amendment to a bill to place everyone
in chains. The amendment calls for rubber insulation on each link.
and conservatives attempt to block horrific pieces of legislation,
but they do not have the votes to register effectively in Congress.
Only activist lobbying organizations get anything stopped. Non-profit
think tanks don't.
So, the temptation
is always there to work deals behind the scenes. The deals always
involve trade-offs. You give a little to get a little. What we have
found for the past hundred years is that conservatives surrender
their principles of limited government whenever they go to Washington
and attempt to roll back the federal government.
Ron Paul is
the most conspicuous exception in our generation. In the late 1940s
and early 1950s, Howard Buffett was the exception. But neither of
them was successful in blocking any significant piece of legislation,
and neither of them ever got a piece of legislation passed into
law. Their sole purpose was to serve as sounding boards within the
government against the government.
was not able to persuade the nation's voters. He was not even able
to persuade his son. But Ron Paul has persuaded millions of voters,
and this has been significant in the development of American resistance
politics. It is a turning point. It is a turning point, not because
he was ever able to work with an organization like Cato Institute
to block something that was being planned by the government, but
because he spoke out for 35 years.
the Cato Institute has ever done has blocked anything significant
that the federal government has planned. In too many cases, Cato
has served as a cheerleader inside the Washington Beltway for terrible
things that Republican presidents have done to extend the power
of the federal government. A
recent article in the liberal magazine, The Nation, gives
concrete examples of the degree to which the Cato Institute was
in bed with the Bush administration.
this firsthand in the early months of the Reagan administration.
Conservatives thought they might have some influence in at least
getting a few people placed inside the federal bureaucracies. When
the dust settled, the only conservative running anything in Reagan's
administration was C. Everett Koop. Koop became the Surgeon General
a minor position.
He was immediately
shut out by the Left on the issue of AIDS. He had no real power.
Only after he went along to get along was he allowed to go public
on the issue. Under his authority, a 1986 pamphlet by him was issued
promoting safe sex. He did not come out staunchly in favor of celibacy
until marriage. He promoted the use of condoms. The government printed
over 100 million copies of it and mailed them out. Yet he had been
a colleague of the Christian activist author Francis Schaeffer.
They had produced an anti-abortion film, and that was the basis
of his appointment by Reagan to the position. Conservative
Christians were appalled. They saw that they had been sold out.
Early in the
Clinton administration, Koop came out strongly in favor of Hillary
Clinton's proposal to promote government healthcare insurance.
He went along to get along, and he never stopped going along, even
after he was long gone from the Washington Beltway.
The lust for
power in Washington is greater even than the lust for adultery and
There are conservative
activists who are desperate to have influence. They want to be players.
They want to be known as players. They want to get inside those
formerly smoke-filled back rooms where the deals are made. So, they
head for Washington. That is where power is concentrated.
you really believe that the direction of the country is suicidal,
you have to make a decision. You have to decide whether to put your
time, money, energy, and hopes in a program of local resistance,
or whether to put your time, money, energy and hopes in a program
that will somehow reverse the accelerating federal train as it heads
for the collapsed trestle. You have to decide either to get off
the train, by jumping if necessary, or else you have to try to persuade
the engineer to put on the brakes.
movement has never been successful in putting on brakes from inside
the Washington Beltway. This has been true ever since the election
of Franklin Roosevelt. The one major case of victory was the defeat
of the Equal Rights Amendment, and that was engineered from Alton,
Illinois, by the Eagle Forum. The defeat was imposed on the Beltway
by statewide activists, mostly conservative women, who convinced
state legislatures not to ratify the monstrosity. That battle was
lost inside the Beltway. Congress voted overwhelmingly for the amendment,
and then submitted it to the states for ratification.
the rest of the article
North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible.
2012 Gary North
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