Various people have asked what I make of Cato Vice President for Legal Affairs Roger Pilon’s Wall Street Journal piece on FISA. I thought it was awful, and really disappointing. Julian Sanchez and Tim Lee have already and ably taken hatchets to the substance of the op-ed, so let me just say a couple of things about Cato, which is taking a beating in the libertarian blogosphere over the piece.
Julian is right, the real impact of Pilon’s op-ed isn’t its persuasiveness (it isn’t, really), it’s the fuel it gives neocons and Bush acolytes to say, “See? Even the libertarian Cato Institute supports warrantless wiretapping…” It also gives Cato’s leftist critics more fuel to say the organization is really no different than, say, Heritage, or AEI.
It also isn’t the first time Pilon has wandered off the reservation on issues of executive power. Truth is, and I hope my friends at Cato aren’t bothered by my saying this, most of the people at 1000 Massachusetts Ave. disagree with Pilon. I’d also imagine that a good deal of the building is pretty pissed off about the piece. In fact, Roger could well be just about the only person over there who holds the positions he does. He was close to isolated on these issues when I was there. I remember hearing about vocal, sometimes angry debates during policy meetings, and hearing heated arguments myself regularly emanating from the Cato lunchroom.
To be fair to Cato, in 2006 Tim Lynch and Gene Healy wrote a damning paper on Bush’s power grabs that got lots of media attention. Lynch and Healy have also been pretty prolific in denouncing most of this administration’s war on terror efforts to grow the power of the presidency. Cato also staged a debate between Roger Pilon and Bob Levy on these issues (Levy cleaned Pilon’s clock). And of course I and Juilan are both former Catoites opposed to warrantless wiretapping, as is Tim Lee, who’s currently still affiliated with Cato.
I do think it’s a credit to Cato that they allow their scholars to have divergent views on contentious issues. That said, Cato is a libertarian organization. It’s one thing to have internal disputes over issues like intellectual property, incrementalism versus absolutism, or even (at least at the outset), the war in Iraq. But it’s something else to have a scholar making a public case for unchecked executive power to spy on U.S. citizens. Cato would never hire a health care analyst who favors a single-payer health care system. They’d never hire a criminal justice scholar who supports the war on drugs. You might hire, say, an education or trade analyst who doesn’t toe the party line on foreign policy. But you wouldn’t hire an education analyst who thinks we should give more money to the public school system, or a trade guy who supports farm subsidies or steel tariffs.
Unfortunately, I think the people criticizing Cato over Pilon’s op-ed have a point: Cato’s number one legal scholar, the top constitutional scholar at the most prominent libertarian think tank in the country, is taking to the most prominent neoconservative op-ed page in the country to advocate for massive, virtually unlimited powers for the president to fight an ill-defined war that likely will never end. And he’s done it before. That’s a huge problem. Pilon’s position is not shared by many or some or even a few of his peers. But his title and rank at Cato give his position on these issues a great deal of clout.
Frankly, I don’t know what Ed Crane does about it. Pilon’s an institution at Cato. But he’s way off the reservation on this. And he’s doing considerable harm to the reputations of both Cato and libertarianism.