The Long View Gives Me Reasons for Optimism

May 23, 2017 • Cato Online Forum

I remember Cato’s tenth anniversary. It was a swanky affair, in Washington DC’s historic Willard Hotel. I had just started as a summer intern, in between my sophomore and junior years at George Washington University.

We had such an enormous response that we had to add an overflow room, with the attendees there watching the festivities on closed circuit television. Befitting an intern, that’s where I was seated. Ed Crane used me as a prop for one of his gags. At one point, I stood up from my table while Ed was speaking in the main ballroom. Ed scolded me, “Preble, sit down.” More evidence of the all‐​seeing powers of Cato’s Founder.

Looking back to where we were, you have to be proud. Sure, that party at the Willard was pretty awesome. But what we’ve accomplished over the 30 years since is far more enduring.

For example, we were pretty excited back then by a one‐​page feature article in Newsweek magazine. Such attention would barely elicit a yawn today. In 2016, Cato scholars appeared 84 times in Newsweek and its affiliated products.

That’s just one example from one news outlet, but Cato’s vastly expanded presence is clear across all media. Cato Clippings was once a printed publication, issued quarterly. The Spring 1987 issue featured 72 items, including articles written by Cato scholars or featuring Cato research. Now Cato Clips is sent via email every weekday. On January 30, 2017, one of our busiest days in recent memory, Cato Clips included 100 media mentions and Cato op eds, plus another 50 television or radio broadcasts. More typical days routinely include 40–60 entries of all types, articles, op eds, and broadcast appearances.

But we don’t measure Cato’s impact merely by scholarly output and media mentions. We want to believe that such work is helping to shape public attitudes in favor of human liberty.

It’s easy to focus on what hasn’t been achieved. One of my pet gripes back in 1987 was how Social Security was a raw deal, especially for Generation X. Cato’s first book talked about ending Social Security, and I took to Cato’s research like a fish to water. But alas, the program remains as popular as ever. Even many avowed free‐​market conservatives have backed away from talk of private accounts for younger workers.

Meanwhile, despite Cato’s best efforts, government hasn’t gotten smaller. According to the OECD, general government spending in 1987 stood at 36.89 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), versus 37.74 in 2015.

Still, there has been some progress in recent years. Thanks in part to the caps in the bi‐​partisan Budget Control Act of 2011, we have witnessed the burden of federal government spending fall from 24.4 percent of GDP in 2009 to 20.3 percent in 2014. This is, notes Cato’s Dan Mitchell, the biggest five‐​year drop since the end of World War II.

I am optimistic about the future because I see the many ways in which Cato’s research reaches an ever‐​wider audience. I would attribute much of this audience growth to our use of social media and new technology platforms, as well as traditional marketing and media outreach.

We are, after all, in the education business. Yet unlike university professors who teach to captive audiences, we at Cato must first convince the public to care. Fortunately, Cato is full of creative, persistent people. And we use every means at our disposal to catch people’s attention, and to keep them interested, including an outstanding website and smartphone app, plus our renowned podcasts and short videos.

But ultimately the message matters most. We can and should argue on the basis of first principles, on the inherent value of the individual and individual rights. But for those people who aren’t committed to the same ideals, Cato scholars still have a chance to convince them that our ideas are right if they contribute to policies that deliver tangible results. Again, a range of approaches is likely to work best, with some scholars focusing on the nuts and bolts of policy and others keeping an eye on the horizon. We’re all playing a long game, and success or failure can’t be measured by lines of legislation enacted or repealed. Success will come when the public at large demands liberty, grows accustomed to liberty, and becomes personally invested in preserving it should anyone threaten to take it away.

In this context, fear is the greatest threat. In 1798, James Madison posited “a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger real or pretended from abroad.”

Madison was right. When people are afraid, they often reflexively turn to the government to comfort them. The government is typically happy to comply. The social critic and satirist H.L. Mencken declared “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

We see this playing out in our present era, with some demanding that the state assume broad new powers to protect them from what frightens them, whether that be Mexican immigrants or Muslim terrorists. The dangers don’t merely emanate from beyond our shores. Americans also fear economic devastation from a prolonged illness, or from the loss of a job. Still others fear the effects of drug addiction in a friend or loved one.

These are tough problems, and it would be dangerously short‐​sighted to dismiss public anxiety as misplaced, or driven solely by ignorance.

As we seek ways to address the public’s fears, we should recall the teachings of Frédéric Bastiat. The 19th century French economist explained public policy as a contest between the seen and the unseen. The normal human instinct is to focus on what the government does — the checks issued, the post offices built, the warships launched – and to ignore the diversion of resources out of the private sector that are needed to fulfill such projects.

In my work at Cato, I often take it as my mission to help people see the unseen. For example, my current research focuses on the conversion of former military facilities. People tend to focus on the jobs lost when a military base closes, effects that are tangible and clearly visible. The troops pack up. The planes fly away. The gates are padlocked shut. These are the images that people have fixed in their minds.

But most bases don’t stay closed. When the military leaves, the properties previously separated from the neighboring communities by armed guards and fences are made available for other uses, from housing, to education, to new businesses. Because these changes occur gradually, sometimes over the course of many years, they are generally unseen. I’m trying to shine the light on some of the more successful conversion cases, while not ignoring the few that haven’t gone so well.

Looking ahead to Cato’s next 30 years, or even just the next four or five, I believe that our principled approach to public policy will be as important as ever. In addition to creative scholarship that adheres to consistently high standards, Cato’s other main selling proposition has always been our independence. We scrupulously stand by our principles, and strongly resist the pull of partisan politics.

This will be tested. Donald Trump has demonstrated how a political party’s leader can powerfully shape its agenda. Today we see many Republicans, and even some self‐​described conservatives, abandoning long‐​held views with respect to the benefits of global trade. Others speak worryingly of excluding people on the basis of religion or national origin. They take their signals from the man who cast Mexicans as murderers and rapists, and who has been a critic of U.S. trade deals for decades. At the Cato Institute, our views on such issues don’t change with each election cycle.

Cato should maintain its independent, non‐​partisan stance because it sets us apart. Pundits aping RNC and DNC talking points are a dime a dozen. To hear Team Red tell it, Blue Team can do no right. The same goes for Team Blue, always ready with a rebuttal to any idea that Team Red might offer up. It’s all so predictable. Television and radio producers who prefer a reliably partisan talking head know where to find them. Meanwhile we’re always there for those looking for a different perspective, and, though it may sound hokey, I truly believe that the world is a better place because of it.

It has been a tremendous privilege to work at Cato for the last 14 years. I am proud of the work that everyone here has done. And I’m immensely grateful to the generosity of our sponsors who make it all possible.

In honor of the fortieth anniversary of our founding, the Cato Institute has organized a special online forum on the future of the free society. Join the conversation on Twitter with #Cato40, and follow the hashtag for updates.

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