Peter Goettler joins us this week to talk about his role at the Cato Institute, Cato’s history of 40 years of advancing liberty, and what’s next for public policy organizations more generally and for Cato specifically.
What is a think tank, and what does it do? What does Cato do and how is it different? What’s the difference between being oriented towards politics and being oriented towards ideas and principles?
Aaron Powell : Welcome to Free Thoughts, I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And, I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell : Joining us today is Peter Goettler. He is president and CEO of the Cato Institute. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Peter.
Peter Goettler: Great to be here.
Aaron Powell : How did you get involved with Cato?
Peter Goettler: That goes back to the early ’80s. I was an undergraduate at MIT and I was writing a paper on social security. I went to the library, I was looking for some source material and I found some [00:00:30] material that was published by Cato, including Peter Ferrara’s book.
Trevor Burrus: The first book, I think, yeah.
Peter Goettler: Which I now know is the first book ever published by Cato, Social Security, The Inherent Contradiction.
Trevor Burrus: I think Boaz always jokes that we would never publish that book now. He was an undergrad or something like that, I think, the guy who wrote that, but …
Peter Goettler: Is that right?
Trevor Burrus: … continue. Yeah.
Peter Goettler: That exposed me to Cato and it’s interesting because looking back that’s how I first discovered Cato and found out that it was a libertarian [00:01:00] organization, a think tank. But, other than finding the book in the library, I don’t know how I found out all that other information because now, of course, you get it from the internet. There was no internet back then. We had 300 baud modems, which I thought were lightening quick. I’m not sure how I found out other information about Cato. But, I thought about Cato and I said, “Boy, this is an organization I should support, donate to.” But, of course, when you’re, at the time I was probably 20, 21 years old, you’re not [00:01:30] really thinking about writing checks to nonprofits because you’re trying to figure out how to make your next check to the bursar’s office. Just my, putting me, prioritizing things.
Then, gosh, it was around 2000, I finally had been thinking for years as a young investment banker, “I should be supporting free market organizations, I should be supporting Cato.” I don’t know why I was motivated finally to write a check, [00:02:00] so I became a donor. Got a letter back from Ed Crane, a visit from David Boaz and that was the beginning of my career as a Cato sponsor, which continues to this day. I joke that Bob Levy our board chair and Ed Crane and John Allison, my predecessors as presidents of Cato won’t let me stop writing checks. I continue to be a sponsor. I think that’s important. I think it’s important for [00:02:30] our supporters to know that Cato remains at the center of my own family’s philanthropy.
Trevor Burrus: Making the decision to become the president, were you … And, it’s more complex how the board works and everything. It’s not like running for office, but at some point before that happened had you mentioned to Bob or Bob Levy the chairman and said, “I might want to do this.” Or, did it come out of nowhere?
Peter Goettler: Not really. I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere. I was invited [00:03:00] to join the board by John Allison and this was in 2014. I agreed to it, even though I tell folks that the financial commitment that was involved was a little bit more than we were comfortable with. I knew that there was likely to be a leadership transition in the future because John Allison had stepped in in 2012 and he came out of retirement to run Cato. It was probably a good bet that he wasn’t going to be around for five or [00:03:30] 10 years.
That was really part of my motivation in joining the board was not to become president of Cato, but to have a seat at the table when we talked about it because I thought it was very important. This was really going to be the first longterm leadership transition in Cato’s history and I think the things that made Cato special throughout the years, its adherence to principle, its commitment to libertarianism and to independents and non partisanship. I really felt that it was important that whoever succeeded [00:04:00] John as president of Cato really agreed with those principles and that those were fundamental characteristics of whoever would lead Cato. Of course, at that time, I had no idea that I would not have a seat at the table because I would have to recluse myself for the discussion. I actually tell a joke, the board meeting at which I was elected president of Cato was my very first board meeting.
Trevor Burrus: [00:04:30] Oh, really?
Peter Goettler: Because six months before I was elected at that board meeting so I didn’t attend. What I like to say is they told me to show up at 9:00 o’clock and I did and that’s when I found out that the board meeting actually started at 8:30 and they’ve elected me president, and informed me when I showed up. But, I told John that being a member of a nonprofit board, I view it as a serious commitment. I’d been on a number of boards over the years including some in the liberty movement. View it as a serious commitment [00:05:00] and you want to be an engaged and contributing board member.
I told John that and I’ve told this story any number of times since I’ve been at Cato. It was a few months later, I was at a Cato event at the Waldorf and afterwards John mentioned, “Hey, next time you’re in Washington, why don’t we have a meal together, because I have an idea to get you more engaged in Cato.” When he and I had breakfast at the Henley hotel across the street here, and he asked what I would think about [00:05:30] possibly succeeding him. I didn’t have an ambition to be CEO of a think tank, but it was more a question about how much I cared about Cato and its mission and really trying to do all that we can do to maintain a relatively free country and a free world for future generations. It felt like the call of duty, in some respects. I don’t mean that in a … I don’t want to be too dramatic about it.
But, my wife and I talked about it. She was, [00:06:00] I think throughout the process she was hoping I wouldn’t get the job because she was quite comfortable in Connecticut with our life there, but we talked about it. We just said, “Hey, this is, as individuals, as family this is the most important contribution that we can make to advancing the principles of freedom and limited government that we really care about.” We were up for it.
Aaron Powell : I think that gives us a good opportunity to pivot to Cato as an organization and think tanks in general because [00:06:30] our listeners have, they know that the Cato Institute produces Free Thoughts podcast and they’ve listened to a lot of Cato people talk about all sorts of topics over the years on this show. But, may not have a good sense of what a think tank is as an institution and what it does. Maybe you could tell us a bit about Cato and its role in the policy world.
Peter Goettler: Yeah, I guess one of the ways to understand what a think tank is is to actually step away, step back from the colloquial name, think tank. Think [00:07:00] tank really means a public policy research organization that produces research on public policy. I probably don’t think it’s the right way to describe it, but let’s just start with the description of Cato and the mission that we describe on our website. We say 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 [00:07:30] free, open and civil societies founded on libertarian principles. I really like to distill that into what David Boaz calls the production of sharp, high quality insightful principled research related to public policy issues of the day.
Trevor Burrus: You were discussing a good analogy before we began recording about an ice burg, which I thought was a great analogy.
Peter Goettler: Yeah. I was actually just [00:08:00] going to segue to that.
Trevor Burrus: Oh, good. [crosstalk 00:08:01].
Peter Goettler: Because better than a dry definition, I think a conceptual one is better. I remember a few years ago Don Boudreaux, the economist at George Mason University on his blog Café Hayek, wrote a really good, and I’ve used this several times, always with attribution, just a description of what he saw Cato’s role is. Because he was commenting on the important role Cato has played over the decades [00:08:30] of his existence. He talked about the difference between being someone who’s oriented towards politics, versus someone who’s oriented towards ideas and principles. He said he was an idea guy.
The description he used is of an ice burg. An ice burg sits in the water, and you only see very little of it above the water, most of it lies below. He described the [00:09:00] fact that a lot of people are very interested in politics. I think that’s because when there’s a, someone running for election that a person feels they support and is simpatico with their own views, if they contribute to that person, or work, help them get elected, that feels like a tangible victory. What Don was saying in this is that that little bit of the ice burg that sits above the water is what’s politically feasible at any point in time. That if you, let’s say were able to elect [00:09:30] every pro-liberty politician you could find, that group of people could still only move policy so far in the direction of liberty and more limited government. So that the bit of the ice burg above the water represents what’s political possible.
The role of Cato, as he described it, was to push the ice burg, shift it, turn it to try to expose other parts of it to change the breadth [00:10:00] of what’s possible. How much we’re able to move in a direction of more freedom, limiting the state, et cetera. The way we do that is really by trying to change the climate of opinion and the terms of debate by trying to make arguments with our research and other activities to the academy, to media, to elite opinion makers, to policy makers about what kind of policy [00:10:30] and really making the case for liberty and limited government in the policy world. I think that’s a really beautiful description of what we’re trying to do.
I think it also has the benefit of messaging to people that don’t put so much faith in politics. Maybe those tangible victories when someone you support wins an election feels good, but what is it really accomplishing? Over the course of my lifetime I think of so many election [00:11:00] cycles where either on one side or the other folks who believe in a more limited role of government in certain realms would get their hopes up only to be dashed later. Maybe some of those things we’re seeing right now with the release of the Health Care Reform Act yesterday from the Congress.
Aaron Powell : The world’s greatest healthcare …
Trevor Burrus: Well, of course.
Aaron Powell : … plan as it’s now being [crosstalk 00:11:23] officially called.
Peter Goettler: Or, as Michael Cannon calls it, he says that the Republicans have simply [00:11:30] put a new coat of paint on a house they’ve already condemned. It really does show you what the limits of politics can be. That ice burg description really harkens back to Anthony Fisher. If you recall Anthony Fisher, a great champion of liberty who was instrumental in the founding of any number of think tanks and also the Atlas Network, which is an organization that supports free market [00:12:00] libertarian think tanks around the world. An organization I used to be on the board of directors of.
But, I think the story is that in the wake of World War II as the state sector was growing in the UK, and the government was taking over sectors of industry, Fisher was really appalled and decided that he was going to go into politics to try to fight for freedom and a more limited role for the state. Supposedly he met with Hayek at the London School [00:12:30] of Economics and Hayek convinced him that that wouldn’t be the most productive means of achieving his vision. And that it was, would be a better idea if he poured his energy and resources into think tanks, and, think tanks as a way to change opinion, move the ice burg, as it were. He founded the Institute for Economic Affairs in London in 1955 and was involved [00:13:00] in founding the Manhattan Institute, and CIS in Australia. I don’t think he was involved in founding Fraser, but was involved early on, and Pacific Research and ultimately Atlas. Another example of someone who very much believed in the ice burg analogy.
Aaron Powell : A lot of think tanks in Washington are tied, or a guess we could call it shackled to political parties. That their interests or whatever are in the interest of the political [00:13:30] party that they’re affiliated with. But, Cato, we don’t have a party. There’s the Libertarian party, but we’re not affiliated with them. One of the things that comes up when we’re engaging with guests or when we get comments from people is libertarianism as a set of principles is a fairly broad concept. And, there are, we’ll just say, there can be in fighting within libertarianism and disagreement about principles within libertarianism. [00:14:00] You have the wide range of on the one hand the classical liberal, more moderate positions, and on the extreme other end you have your outright anarchists who all call themselves libertarian. How does Cato deal with we’re the big name representatives of the libertarian tradition within Washington. How do we deal with what exactly we [00:14:30] mean by libertarian and the conflicts, ideologically and principle wise as opposed to just policy differences within this broader, big tent?
Peter Goettler: I spent most of my life outside the liberty movement and as, long period as a donor to Cato and other organizations but didn’t consider myself, necessarily, an active participant in the movement. And, I was always a bit amused or maybe chagrined at a lot of the, what I would say, pointless [00:15:00] debates that go on. I think that’s a bit what you’re describing. These debates about, I’ve been at cocktail parties and I’ve seen people saying, “You’re not a real libertarian because you believe this.” And, “I am because I believe that.” I just think that there is so much that we agree on that there seems to be predisposition on the part of libertarians to sometimes … Because there’s a lot of folks who are intellectually engaged [00:15:30] and interested in debate, end up spending, I think, a bit too much more energy on those pointless arguments, rather than trying to keep an eye on the big picture and larger struggle between liberty and statism. I try to not spend a lot of energy in those types of arguments and try to discourage [00:16:00] others as well.
Trevor Burrus: That might be the answer, really.
Peter Goettler: Yeah.
Aaron Powell : And, I think it ties into the ice burg analogy as well, because if we’re locked in a long game here of advancing liberty. We’re not going to win out and have libertopia tomorrow. We’ve got a long way to go and so it always feels like those sorts of disputes are disputes happening way at the, quite farther down the road to liberty than we are now.
Trevor Burrus: [00:16:30] Yeah, exactly.
Aaron Powell : We can all agree, if it’s going to take a while, let’s work together to push that ice burg bit by bit. And, if that happy day comes when we’re at the point where should the state do this minimal thing, or this even more minimal thing, then we can hash out those arguments. But, we’re not there yet.
Peter Goettler: Sure. And, that shows why you’re the host of the podcast and I’m only a guest because you articulated that better than I did. I think there’s, it calls to mind some other things as well. Because [00:17:00] libertarians have areas of agreement and disagreement with almost anyone along the, any point of the philosophical spectrum, and certainly with any government that’s in power. I think that there are a lot of people in the liberty movement who maybe relish being in opposition a little bit too much. I think that this [00:17:30] has important implications for our message. Sometimes libertarians come in for criticism about being too negative or too pessimistic. And, one of the things that I really try to do is to take a much more balanced view because things just are never that black and white.
I mean, I think of the way the world has changed since [00:18:00] the Cato Institute was founded in 1977. 1977 the government told airlines, which airlines would fly between which cities and how much they could charge and what railroads and trucking companies would charge for freight. There was significantly less personal freedom from the perspective of … Well, one of the things that’s amazing to me is in 1986 the Supreme … This is [00:18:30] nine years after the founding of Cato Institute in Bowers v. Hardwick the Supreme Court upheld the Georgia sodomy statute. Personal freedom has changed dramatically for gays, for other groups. There tends to be a lot of focus on economic issues where the picture hasn’t been necessarily a very bright one. And, one of the reasons that we focus on that is when we all get our paycheck [00:19:00] we wonder where the other half went. It’s natural, I think, as a human to focus on economic issues.
But, one of the things that I learned as a long time sponsor of the Cato Institute and the role Cato helped play in my personal evolution, the evolution of my own personal philosophies, teaching me that you’ve got to be able to look at all aspects of freedom [00:19:30] and keep a balanced picture of where some are advancing, where some are retreating. There are elements of personal freedom where things have been moving in the right direction. There’s obviously concern now with a change in administration, but on a state level, a lot of very positive focus, I think, on the criminal justice system. Changes in drug laws, educational freedom.
I know that our education system, [00:20:00] the government monopoly on education such as it is in the United States has created a situation in which none of us are satisfied with our education system. But it was 13 years after the founding of Cato in 1990 that the first school voucher program started in Milwaukee. Now you have half the states or more with educational choice programs of varying qualities and hundreds of thousands of students studying, [00:20:30] pursuant to those programs. That’s some place where things have been moving in the right direction. I also try to take some comfort from the fact that if you look at any long period of time, it seems like the planet is freer at the end of that period of time [crosstalk 00:20:47] the beginning.
Trevor Burrus: Definitely since 1989. I mean, between 19- …
Peter Goettler: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Definitely.
Peter Goettler: I was thinking about Cato turning 40 and in 1977. If you Google “1977 [00:21:00] Red Square Revolution Day parade.” You can see a pretty dramatic example of how the world has changed in some positive ways. Then, of course, there are clearly areas in which the battle’s been moving in a wrong direction. The growth of the surveillance state and a lot of concerns about technology and privacy and [00:21:30] relatively unsettling role of government there.
Trevor Burrus: You discussed how Cato and affecting you and your views. When, I think when you gave your first speech upon being announced president to the staff you told a story about David Boaz visiting you in your office after 9/11, which I thought was a fascinating story.
Peter Goettler: Yeah, I alluded to that when you talked about what brought me to Cato and when [00:22:00] I became a donor. Six or nine months after I became a donor, maybe it was a little longer than that, I got a call or an email that David was going to be in New York and could we meet? We set up the meeting and 9/11 intervened and the meeting was, I don’t know, two weeks after 9/11. The building I was in was the closest one to Ground Zero that actually wasn’t structurally damaged in the attack. David visited, [00:22:30] we had a chat, nice chat in my office, and then I brought him upstairs to the cafeteria where there were these big windows that overlooked Ground Zero. There were still dumpsters that said, “Aircraft parts.” On the side and things like that. Still a very horrific scene.
And, David, we both talked about the concern about terrorism. David also mentioned being very concerned about what was going to happen to civil liberties in the United States [00:23:00] in the wake of the attack. At the time I thought, “Man, that’s just not even in my frame of reference.” Boy, looking back on it, it was quite a prescient comment or prescient concern because when you think of the way our country has changed in the last 15, 16 years since the attack, clearly there’s been much higher risk profile for civil liberties [00:23:30] of all types.
Trevor Burrus: I definitely wasn’t thinking about civil liberties right after the attack either. I mean, it is …
Peter Goettler: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: A lot of people, even libertarians were thinking, “We got to go get them.” Kind of attitude. Keeping that cool head is important.
Peter Goettler: Which was okay, you know?
Trevor Burrus: Yeah.
Peter Goettler: But, yeah, that balance really struck me and I really thought quite a bit about it. Ed used to say, “Hey, all these things are connected.” Our views on economic freedom and foreign policy [00:24:00] and civil liberties and educational freedom, they’re all, it’s all parts of the same common thread. I guess I have a greater appreciation for that now. I’ve said this before maybe to you guys that one of the things that drew me closer to Cato over the years was I felt I was learning so much from the scholars here and my own view was evolving.
I grew up during the Cold War. I had [00:24:30] a much more hawkish attitude towards the Soviet Union and the Communist block. But, the world changed and before I came to Cato and as a sponsor and started thinking about these things perhaps a little bit more deeply, I realized my personal views weren’t evolving as the world evolved. I think that’s one of the arguments that Cato was making at the time about how our [00:25:00] relationship with NATO and troops in Europe and troops in South Korea, we didn’t evolve our own foreign policy and our military footprint in the world for a pretty fundamental change in the world and risk profile that we faced.
Aaron Powell : This is, as you mentioned, we’re, Cato’s celebrating its 40th birthday this year. I’d like to point out that we have been fighting the empire [00:25:30] for as long as Luke Skywalker has. But, in those 40 years, I mean there have been … As you said, there have been many trends that are in a positive direction, there have been many trends that are in a negative direction. Cato’s been involved in a lot of policy issues and questions in four decades. When you look back at these 40 years, our first 40 years, what do you see as our greatest victories? Are there particular [00:26:00] issues that stand out as something where Cato, where we won on that one?
Peter Goettler: I think the greatest victory is the mainstreaming of libertarianism as a political philosophy, which is really a seat change from 1977. I think one of the things you, Trevor reminded me of my first day at Cato, my first presentation. I think I said that, speaking of Star Wars, in 1977 going to a libertarian [00:26:30] function was like taking a look at the Star Wars bar scene. At the time I made that joke, to be honest I hadn’t, I’ve never watched Star Wars all the way through.
Aaron Powell : Really?
Peter Goettler: But, I have now, at least, seen at least the bar scene.
Trevor Burrus: Aaron, I just saw your heart break from here, I think.
Aaron Powell : It would have made it hard for me to vote for you for president.
Peter Goettler: That’s an incredible achievement. I’ve never … One of the difficult things for Cato is that the things [00:27:00] we’re fighting are so big, right? The entitlement state, and government spending and just the power of the federal government. With meaningful budget, but still a small … We’re a $30 million dollar, roughly organization, that’s a pretty big fight and a pretty big mismatch. As I said earlier, people like tangible victories like winning elections. I think that [00:27:30] the impact that Cato has had as a sponsor I never doubted. In fact, over the years as I became more involved with Cato, the organization ended up earning the largest share of my family’s philanthropy because we felt that the battle was so important and, that the mission was so important and that Cato was so effective for the reasons that we mentioned earlier. The fact that it really stands out [00:28:00] in Washington as a very principled organization and one that truly is independent and nonpartisan.
I think sometimes people ask, oh, if you’re critical as we are of almost every administration, right? There are elements that we support, policy [inaudible 00:28:25] where we support the initiatives and the thrust of almost any administration [00:28:30] and there are areas where we disagree. It’s critical that we focus on the things that we support and have impact in advancing policy in those directions. But, it’s equally important that we try to get the brakes put on when things are moving in areas where things are moving in a direction that we disagree with.
One of the things I’ve learned quite clearly [00:29:00] since I’ve been here because people ask, “If you’re criticizing an administration in this area or another, does that reduce your access? Does it reduce your effectiveness as an organization and the amount of impact you can have?” I’ve really seen it being quite the opposite. I think that really just in the last few months when I see the access that people here [00:29:30] have on the Hill and some of the meetings that we’ve had with officials in the administration where I think what we have to say carries a lot of weight because people know that we are principled and when we have a view point it’s going to be well thought out. We’re going to have important ideas to add in specific areas of policy. Really, it comes down to [00:30:00] a quote that I think Ezra Klein made a few years ago when he said, “I often disagree with Cato, but when they say something, I know it’s what they really think.” I’m paraphrasing.
Aaron Powell : Yeah.
Peter Goettler: I think that that really does set Cato apart. I had lunch with George Will a few weeks ago and he sat down. The first thing he said, he looked at me and he said, “Cato has never been more … ” “The Cato Institute has never been more important.” He [00:30:30] was deadly serious and I think it’s because he’s a little bit exasperated seeing what you referred to earlier as most organizations in Washington they line up with either the red team or the blue team and they’re therefore willing to make compromises to not criticize their team. I think that that can dilute your influence, and again, make people view you through a partisan lens and erodes the credibility that you have. Since we, [00:31:00] it’s really the, I often say the greatest assets of Cato, and it’s a tribute to Ed Crane and David Boaz over their decades of leadership of Cato that we, that the institute has, there’s really significant points of pride that we do tell it the way we think it is.
Trevor Burrus: Integrity. It’s like my dad always said, “It takes a lifetime to build and seconds to destroy.” I think it works that way for a think tank, [00:31:30] too.
Peter Goettler: Yeah, I think so. I think so. I think it’s something that’s, that can never change and we really have to have that commitment and I think we do. At the same time, we talked a little earlier about sometimes people enjoy being more … And, it’s human nature to want to complain or whine. I think it’s important to keep a positive outlook on what we’re doing and being adequately focused on [00:32:00] the areas where policy is moving in a positive direction and where we can help it move in that direction more significantly.
But, you mentioned specific areas of, we had a conference last weekend and I was thinking about just some things that have happened in the last week. We’ve got some interesting feedback from the Hill on the fact that [00:32:30] every senator was given a copy of our report on the TPP. And it was said that this is a great example of the work think tanks should be doing to contribute to a difficult issue. We talked about educational freedom a few minutes ago. I mean, Jason Bedrick wrote a paper earlier this year with an example of really a new idea for him. Combining the idea of educational savings accounts with tax credit funded scholarships [00:33:00] into tax credit funded ESAs. There are now two states, Missouri and Arkansas where there are bills pending based upon that work.
Aaron Powell : This, the new administration that came in in January is, I mean it’s different in its policy preferences than administrations that have come before, but it’s also different in its style and its tone and its, the way that it seems to fit into the Washington system, including [00:33:30] the think tank system. Does the Trump administration change the way that Cato operates or do we have to think about the way we’re doing things differently in this administration?
Peter Goettler: I don’t think it changes the way we operate because for the reasons that we mentioned. We still have to approach things as we would with any administration. Try to make the most of areas of agreement and make sure that we’re vocal in areas of disagreement. [00:34:00] It changes some of the feedback we get because I think whenever there’s a new administration that there’s a desire, think about eight years ago, there’s a desire to be hopeful.
Trevor Burrus: Give them a chance [crosstalk 00:34:18].
Peter Goettler: Whether the candidate you support has won or lost. One case you’re hoping for the best, the other case you’re hoping that the worst outcome doesn’t come [00:34:30] to pass.
Trevor Burrus: You see heightened criticism, do you think, of you, of Cato since Trump took office in that regard? It’s sort of what you seemed to imply. I mean, I’ve seen it with Alex Nowrasteh for example.
Peter Goettler: Yeah, just that there’s a … I get mail from sponsors or calls from sponsors and some of them, I wrote about this in my last bi-monthly memo, there’s some who don’t think that we’re enthusiastic enough about Trump. And, look, I can see [00:35:00] that the economic realm there’s room for hope. The regulatory reform efforts feel pretty real. We’re hopeful that tax reform can happen in a way that is very positive. We’re still hopeful in the healthcare realm, not withstanding the bill that was released yesterday. To get all that. But, I think that most of our sponsors recognize that, look, [00:35:30] it’s critical for Cato to say what it really thinks. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think that necessarily shuts us out of the debate. In fact, it makes us more effective in the debate because I think we have enhanced credibility.
Also, one of the things that I should mention in addition to the commitment to principle and independence is, and this again relates to the years of [00:36:00] leadership of Ed and David, which continue to John Allison, which is the commitment to quality and high intellectual standard. And, I think that that reflects very well on us so that policy makers, whether they agree with us or not recognize that there’s value to be had from engaging with Cato.
Trevor Burrus: How do you think think tanks might be changing because the model, some people argue [00:36:30] the model is changing for a different time? We used to, as opposed to just feeding papers into Capital Hill and you didn’t have blogs, you didn’t have as many media outlets as you can do, you didn’t have podcasts like we’re doing now. Is there room or time to rethink how think tanks are behaving and trying to innovate into the future to maybe more public facing or different ways of reaching people?
Peter Goettler: You’ve hit on some things [00:37:00] that certainly there are significant ways in which think tanks have changed. One that I don’t think we have to get into maybe too much, but just the proliferation of think tanks has been pretty amazing. David Boaz and I were talking about that earlier, how it used to be a few big players in town, and now the University of Pennsylvania, they rank think tanks and there are thousands of them around the world.
But, you’ve hit on something [00:37:30] that I think is really important. I think sometimes we get caricatured. That I’ll be speaking with someone who’s, usually it’s a moment which they’re frustrated about the path of policy or the public debate, and they’ll caricature think tanks as producing white papers. And, when I think about the full range of our activity, our 15 or 1,700 [00:38:00] blog posts we do a year and 1,500 plus TV and radio appearances. The 900 op-eds and books and research papers, I think are an important thing as well because the way people consume information has changed. People getting information from Twitter and the internet blogs. It’s also important to have, again, that intellectual stature, that commitment [00:38:30] to quality.
An analogy that I often make is we get contacted by people on the Hill or people in presidential campaigns that want to know what we think on an issue or a policy area and they want to see some material. You’re just not going to, I don’t think it’s very effective to print out a bunch of blog posts to give them. I think you need to have some serious, serious research that illustrates a depth of knowledge on a topic in a way that really helps them.
Now some of the things that we’re doing to reach, [00:39:00] some of the stuff you guys are doing at Libertarianism.org is just outstanding. Different types of content. The multimillion dollar grant that we got that I think you guys are really delivering on by developing, and I think many of the listeners probably don’t know about these things. But, the suite of online courses that we’re developing that’s focused on young people and teaching them about liberty and [00:39:30] the role of the state and libertarianism and political philosophy and economics are just outstanding. The marketing tactics that you’ve employed to drive increased participation, increased traffic to the site and increase use of these really important and valuable tools has been outstanding. I think the L.org, Libertarianism.org traffic was up over [00:40:00] about 150% last year, which is outstanding.
Trevor Burrus: Well, that’s a little bit interesting, too. They exist [inaudiable 00:40:07] Libertarianism.org because that’s clearly long game thinking. I mean, that’s not policy papers. We’re saying, “Hey, you should read this essay from 1835.” It’s probably not going to get to the Hill and not going to be turned into a piece of legislation. But, we’re trying to influence people. But, that seems to be something uniquely libertarian. I don’t think the Center for American Progress has something analogous [00:40:30] to Libertarianism.org in terms of exploring the depth and the history and the philosophy of these ideas. That’s a different thing for a think tank to do.
Aaron Powell : Yeah, I mean, I think libertarianism is a … There certainly is an underlying intellectual framework for progressivism and for conservatism.
Trevor Burrus: Absolutely, yeah.
Aaron Powell : But, the way that they’re practiced now, in contemporary America, like libertarianism seems almost unique in that we’re a set of policy [00:41:00] prescriptions. Of course, that’s what we write about at Cato. But, we’re also a coherent and long intellectual tradition and a shared set of principles and values and ideas that … I wonder, though, how much does that … One of the big questions is if we like to say … I mean, we like to think we’re right in our policy prescriptions, otherwise we wouldn’t believe them. And, that a lot of the stuff that we see in Washington confirms like, “Yes, [00:41:30] we told you if you passed Obamacare it was going to run into exactly these kind of problems. And look, it did.” This, “We told you so.” Almost get sick of having to say it. But, if the arguments are on our side and the economics are on our side and the principles are on our side.
Trevor Burrus: And the history.
Aaron Powell : And the history. Then, why are we still the outsiders? Why are we still … David Boaz and David Kirby did this [00:42:00] study …
Peter Goettler: I think it’s the wrong way to talk about it.
Aaron Powell : Okay.
Peter Goettler: Because to me libertarians are very much insiders because people ask, “When has there ever been a libertarian country?”
Aaron Powell : Sure, yeah.
Peter Goettler: My answer always is, “The United States.” Because when you read the Constitution, right? Which specifies limited and enumerated powers for the federal government, and a very expansive view of liberty. To me, that’s a libertarian document. I view [00:42:30] libertarians as the heirs of the enlightenment and the classical liberal tradition and the founding in the United States. I think it doesn’t serve us well when we talk about it as if it’s a new philosophy or we’re the outsiders. It’s about recapturing the libertarian tradition of the United States and recapturing the libertarian meaning of the Constitution.
[00:43:00] But, we hit on a lot of things there, so let’s back up and talk about some of them, particularly how think tanks are changing and maybe we can talk a little bit about what the future of Cato holds and some of the things that we’re thinking about strategically and how we can increase our impact. But, when you mentioned …
Trevor Burrus: That was my next question.
Peter Goettler: … Libertarianism.org and it’s … I was thinking of the word entrepreneurial. That is something that runs through, to me, [00:43:30] libertarianism and many of the libertarians I meet, many of our very generous sponsors are entrepreneurs who’ve built great businesses. I think that we’ve had a very entrepreneurial approach to this organization as well going back to its founding by Ed and Charles. The founding and building of Cato was very much an exercise in entrepreneurship. [00:44:00] I think that that’s certainly an important part of the libertarian tradition.
The way I think about the future and continued innovation, and we’ve talked about some of these things with respect to Libertarianism.org and some of the other elements of media, internet that we’re using to reach audiences. I think there’s more of that we can do. I think it’s really important for an organization [00:44:30] to stay focused and to recognize what its model is and what the areas in which it’s intended to operate because there’s so much that’s worthwhile to do, or that needs to be done or that you want to do. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of trying to do everything. That is just a prescription for wheel spinning, less impact, ineffectiveness.
But, I think there are a lot of [00:45:00] areas in which, or a lot of assets that Cato has that can be leveraged. Like, we have this fantastic policy staff and the human capital in this building that is a really valuable resource. And, we obviously, it generates a lot of product and a lot of activity and a lot of influence. But, I think that there are ways that we can think about [00:45:30] increasing, leveraging those important human capital assets that we have.
I think that what happens to a lot of nonprofits is that they want to keep growing and they usually think of growth in what I would call conventional ways, the way that they’ve always grown. For a think tank it’s about, “Hey, let’s raise more revenue so that we can hire more policy staff.” [00:46:00] I’m not sure that’s the best approach. I think over time I think we do want to grow, and by growing we can significantly impact, increase Cato’s impact. But, I think that there are ways that we could, can grow and invest to increase the impact and what we’re generating out of our existing policy staff.
Maybe this is because I’m a former business guy, so I think of things in [00:46:30] terms that a profit generating enterprise would, but I think of the policy work and the research we produce and think about, “Hey, have we … ” I think a lot of think tanks they keep investing in policy staff and generating more research, and I think there’s a case to be made for investing a bit more in what I would call distribution. Trying to figure [00:47:00] out how to get, more widely propagate, or leverage some of the work that you’re doing. I think it’s important to recognize that, again, it’s about turning that ice burg and with a $30 million dollar budget here in D.C. we’re not going to trigger some mass conversion exercise in the United States that’s going to turn tens of millions of people into libertarians. But, we do have to ask ourselves … That shouldn’t become our mission.
But, I think we can ask ourselves what kind of investments [00:47:30] we can make in technology and, again, leveraging in certain ways the work that we do, existing work we do, which is excellent and high quality and figure out how to get more mileage out of it. Not change the mission, but leverage some of the existing assets to generate a little bit more impact. I think some of the things we’ve talked about, Libertarianism.org, technology communications for the core [00:48:00] think tank activities are examples of that. But, I think that with the digital world having … And I think Cato’s actually very good at that, and that’s borne out by some of the surveys that we follow that rank think tanks and when you look at the statistics on our digital penetration and mobile and social media. It’s really outstanding. I think that we’re doing a really good job there.
But, I think that, hey, [00:48:30] if we raise more money would the next best investment be in … It would probably be in some policy staff, but maybe making some of these investments in distribution, as well. And, maybe thinking about some more inventive ways to leverage Cato’s role in the movement and existing human capital here and a lot of the contact that we have with …
I was just up meeting with Mark [00:49:00] and Katie who run the intern program and we’ve got, I think, 1,350 applications for the summer intern program, which is amazing. We brag about, “Wow, that’s 37 applications for every slot in the intern program, so we have a lower acceptance rate than Harvard.” I think about that and I say, “Okay, I don’t care about the low acceptance rate.” I’m trying to think how can we leverage some more of those people? [00:49:30] Are there ways that we can bring more of those people not necessarily in as interns, because I think we have limits to the … We want to make sure that we create an excellent experience for the interns and with a finite staff there are only so many … The intern class for whom we can create a positive experience and an excellent experience can only be so big, but are there other ways that we can exploit [00:50:00] that pipeline of talent that we have? We’ve been exploring and tossing around some ideas in that regard.
We’re going to have an event in May when Cato turns 40. We’re going to have some leaders from the policy world and a lot of presentations by Cato scholars as well. But, talking a little bit about some of the things that we’ve been discussing here. What Cato has accomplished, what it means, [00:50:30] but then also talking a little bit about the future and we expect to fully flesh out some of these ideas as to how we can leverage these really outstanding assets to create more impact in the policy world.
Aaron Powell : Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us at www.libertarianism.org.