We’re taking the Cato Institute seriously on this?

TW: torture, indefinite detention, surveillance of civilians, violations of civil liberties

One of the more intriguing and yet overlooked things to have happened in the past couple of weeks while I haven’t been blogging at full speed happened on the Rachel Maddow show, a few days after Christmas while Ezra Klein was filling in for her. He decided to address the fact that bipartisan support for effectively warrantless wiretapping of US citizens is still the norm, which made particular sense in the wake of the Senate’s then recent extension of the government’s right to warrantlessly wiretap.

That said, a major part of how he covered those issues was to invite on Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, who then proceeded to label President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate as the fundamental barrier to rescinding the vestiges of Bush era surveillance. The fact that this had to pass through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives disappeared from the discussion, which made clear that Sanchez and by proxy the Cato Institute are holding Democrats responsible but letting Republicans off the hook.

Unsurprising though this may be, coming from the Cato Institute, this speaks to several broader political problems we need to understand and respond to. The Cato Institute and many other libertarians in recent years have largely reinvented themselves as not only a libertarian think tank, but the group leading a call to arms on issues pertaining civil liberties. As already quite clearly Republican-friendly, much of that narrative has focused on how Democrats are the wannabe despots, in spite of much of the ideological groundwork for this being put together during the Bush years. But that strategy has started to bear fruit, with President Obama being implicitly asked why he doesn’t support “internet freedom” when the Republicans do and with this sort of an appearance being treated seriously on the supposedly den of social democracy at MSNBC.

Of course, whether this narrative actually makes sense with the facts on the ground is another question entirely. There is a point to be made that the leadership of both parties are unwilling to take on this issue, but the real question to be asked when faced with that fact is which party is most salvageable. And the answer is quite clear: the Democrats even if their current status on this particular issue is not much better than the Republicans.

The vote tallies tell this story quite frankly. The bill passed the House with the support of 227 Republicans, which alone would have been sufficient for that body’s approval. Admittedly, 74 Democrats went along with them, and obviously they should be held accountable for their support. But look at where the groundswell of opposition to this sort of a governmental powers is coming from – 7 Republicans voted against, compared with 111 Democrats. It’s quite clear that if the Cato Institute took civil liberties quite seriously, they’d be considering how best to ally with the Democrats who support their position, rather than alienating them.

Even if we accept the framing that Klein and Sanchez put in place, in the much more surveillance-supportive Senate, we can’t help but come to a slightly weaker version of the same conclusion. Yes, a majority of Democrats and Republicans supported the bill, but of the 23 who opposed it, 19 were Democrats, compared to only 3 who were Republicans. If the Democratic Party isn’t salvageable with those numbers, then the Republicans are long past saving. After all, the sole independent in congress, Senator Bernie Sanders, voted against the bill.

Beyond the broader partisan issues of how this subject has frequently been framed, there’s also the question of why we should even honor the Cato Institute’s work on this issue. This is an institute with staff that treated the extension of Miranda rights to an alleged terrorist as something to complain about or an opportunity to state that the Miranda decision “smacks of judicial lawmaking” (which is nothing more than an intelligent way of saying “judicial activism”). This is an institute which could only publicly defend the Obama Administration’s proposal to criminally try Guantánamo detainees by refusing to credit it as being his administration’s proposal. Of course, that was only the viewpoint publicly provided by the Cato Institute when it wasn’t ambivalently worrying that a trial might provide “a forum for propagandizing on behalf of al Qaeda” or bemoaned the legal use of “alleged” in media coverage pertaining to those trials. Because why would you expect a civil liberties-oriented think tank to concern itself with freedom of speech or presumption of innocence?


(At the time, the Cato Institute’s response to this was more or less “meh”. Image originally from here.)

But beyond questioning garden variety rights of the accused, Cato has hardly much of a record when it comes to the peculiar legal standards of the Bush Administration, namely when it comes to torture. Among other discussions on the subject, they saw fit to publish in May 2011 an article titled “Did Waterboarding Work?” which contains astounding statements like “We’ll probably never know the real value of coercive techniques. Surely some accurate information came from their use.” Actually, the fact that torture was not only dehumanizing and degrading but counter-productive had been an established scientific fact for years at that point, but that didn’t seem to trouble anyone over at Cato. And yet somehow, the institute that saw fit to publish this and has continued hosting it since then is the voice we should look to for advice on civil liberties?

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2 thoughts on “We’re taking the Cato Institute seriously on this?

  1. Julian Sanchez says:

    I considered it so incredibly obvious that Republicans are far, far worse on this issue that I didn’t think it was necessary to make a big point of it. Everyone expects Republicans to be horrible on this–though I certainly mocked their ignorant spin back when the reauthorization bill passed the House–whereas Obama’s rhetoric on these issues was initially good enough that his administration’s track record actually counts as something of a surprise and disappointment, which is presumably why Ezra wanted to talk about that angle. I did, however, specifically praise Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden–who I’ve been pleased to have come and speak and Cato twice about his heroic efforts on civil liberties issues–for attempting to offer sensible reforms. If you impartially survey what we put out on civil liberties–rather than hunting for sentences to cherry pick that support your presuppositions–you’ll see there’s nothing terribly partisan about it.

  2. GSW says:

    It is particularly the case that mistaking Julian Sanchez’s opinions with your sense of Cato’s “institutional view” not only does Sanchez a disservice, it frequently deprives your own perspective of an informed, strong and thoughtful voice.

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