It’s been an exhilarating start to my time at Cato. Since I joined the Institute as President and CEO in early April, I have been busy traveling to meet many of our generous Sponsors, spending time in the office with our scholars and staff, and hosting and participating in Cato seminars and other events across the country. Among fellow donors and the Cato policy staff there are many people I already know well. But it has been great to meet many new friends and to have an opportunity to spend more time with old ones. We should be optimistic that our efforts will build a freer society: we have very powerful ideas and very special people on our side.
As my second week at Cato began, I visited Philadelphia to participate in the first observance of Freedom Day at the National Constitution Center. Freedom Day is intended to be an annual celebration of human freedom and liberty, an idea conceived nearly two years ago by long‐time Cato Sponsor Frayda Levy. Through her energy and force of will, Frayda brought this day from concept to fruition. Philadelphia hosted a kick‐off event for the first Freedom Day, which included a series of panel discussions with policy scholars, public intellectuals, commentators, and audience members from across the philosophical and political spectrum. Our objectives included finding areas of common ground and agreement with people and organizations we might normally consider intellectual adversaries, but we also recognize that our ability to disagree is, itself, an essential element of freedom. While the conversation highlighted our differences, it emphasized for me some of the things that are very special about Cato and libertarianism.
First, we favor an expansive view of individual liberty and limited government across the board. Regardless of the issue — free markets and economic liberty, property rights, civil and religious liberties, criminal justice, trade, immigration, nation building and military adventurism, education — we advocate the maximum scope for private action and freedom and the minimum, or absence, of government coercion. As debate moves across issues, others oscillate between an expansive view of freedom and an expansive view of government: the key difference being the various areas in which they argue for a classical liberal approach versus a statist approach. A philosophy that isn’t internally consistent is inherently weak. Ours is consistent — and hence it is strong. Among many other factors, this helps explain the inexorable march of liberty over the past 250 years. Of course, many of those with whom we engage in debate are not representing a philosophy, but simply politics. This is the only way to explain an inconsistent “packaging” of viewpoints on various issues. Why do Republicans tend to favor free trade but oppose more liberal immigration? Why do Democrats tend to defend some civil liberties and not economic liberty? Because they are pursuing political goals rather than standing on principle.
Second, a continuing commitment to nonpartisanship will help Cato advance its values. And these values advance only if we’re successful at persuading those with whom we disagree. In this regard, the point above is relevant: principle is more powerful than politics. But the context in which we make our arguments also matters. When debate takes place in a partisan context, people focus on their political objectives and rarely cede ground. They find or develop arguments to justify a position rather than applying principle to come to a conclusion. Adherence to classical liberal principle allows us to highlight the inconsistencies in others’ positions: areas of agreement can be the narrow end of a wedge used to persuade in areas of disagreement. Quite interestingly, at the Freedom Day discussions in Philadelphia, participants from across the spectrum highlighted areas in which they agreed with Cato and libertarians, as well as issues on which we had worked together. None of the other organizations present were cited in this way.
For years as a Cato Sponsor — and now as an employee — I’m proud when I leaf through our annual report and see, in addition to pictures of our fine scholars and staff, pictures of great thinkers and top minds from across the spectrum with whom we agree on key topics. I’m glad I don’t see exclusively pictures of politicians from one party or the other. I think this says a lot about libertarianism. And, despite the disappointing elements of the policy environment in which we find ourselves, I think it says a lot about our long‐term prospects for building the kind of free society in which we want to live. I expect more “Freedom Days” in our future.