The mission of the Cato Institute is to originate, disseminate, and increase understanding of public policies based on the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace. Our vision is to create free, open, and civil societies founded on libertarian principles.

The Range of Cato's Work

The principles of liberty and limited government impact nearly every dimension of public policy. Consequently, Cato scholars focus on a wide range of areas. Each topic below is linked to a continually updated list of comprehensive studies, commentaries, books, articles, multi-media resources, and more, prepared by Cato scholars.

Detailed below — under How to Label Cato — is general information about the perspectives Cato scholars bring to issues and policies. But here are some answers to frequently asked questions:

  • The Cato Institute does not undertake lobbying efforts, back political candidates, or engage in direct political activities.
  • Cato is not associated with any political organization or party — Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or other.
  • Cato is a think tank, dedicated to increasing and enhancing the understanding of key public policies and to realistically analyzing their impact — positive, adverse, and other — on the tenets Cato is dedicated to protecting — individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace.
  • Cato is committed to expanding civil society while reducing political society. The differences: In civil society individuals make choices about their lives while in a political society someone else makes or attempts to greatly influence those choices.

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How to Label Cato

Today, those who subscribe to the principles of the American Revolution — individual liberty, limited government, the free market, and the rule of law — call themselves by a variety of terms, including conservative, libertarian, classical liberal, and liberal. We see problems with all of those terms. "Conservative" smacks of an unwillingness to change, of a desire to preserve the status quo. Only in America do people seem to refer to free-market capitalism — the most progressive, dynamic, and ever-changing system the world has ever known — as conservative. Additionally, many contemporary American conservatives favor state intervention in some areas, most notably in trade and into our private lives.

"Classical liberal" is a bit closer to the mark, but the word "classical" fails to capture the contemporary vibrancy of the ideas of freedom.

"Liberal" may well be the perfect word in most of the world — the liberals in societies from China to Iran to South Africa to Argentina tend to be supporters of human rights and free markets — but its meaning has clearly been altered in the contemporary United States.

The Jeffersonian philosophy that animates Cato's work has increasingly come to be called "libertarianism" or "market liberalism." It combines an appreciation for entrepreneurship, the market process, and lower taxes with strict respect for civil liberties and skepticism about the benefits of both the welfare state and foreign military adventurism.

This vision brings the wisdom of the American Founders to bear on the problems of today. As did the Founders, it looks to the future with optimism and excitement, eager to discover what great things women and men will do in the coming century. Market liberals appreciate the complexity of a great society, recognizing that socialism and government planning are just too clumsy for the modern world. It is — or used to be — the conventional wisdom that a more complex society needs more government, but the truth is just the opposite. The simpler the society, the less damage government planning does. Planning is cumbersome in an agricultural society, costly in an industrial economy, and impossible in the information age. Today collectivism and planning are outmoded and backward, a drag on social progress.

Libertarians have a cosmopolitan, inclusive vision for society. We applaud the progressive extension of the promises of the Declaration of Independence to more people, especially to women, African-Americans, religious minorities, and gay and lesbian people. Our greatest challenge today is to continue to extend the promise of political freedom and economic opportunity to those who are still denied it, in our own country and around the world.