The Cato Institute vs The Little Green Men… and Ron Paul

The Cato Institute strives to be the respectable face of American libertarianism. It’s a difficult role to maintain in a movement with more than its fair share of eccentrics, extremists and conspiracy theorists. Earlier this month Dom Armentano, a Cato adjunct scholar, suggested that the US Government had been lying about UFOs:

Decades of reports from competent observers, many confirmed by radar, establish that some UFOs can fly soundlessly, stop on a dime, accelerate at breathtaking speeds and outdistance jets or missiles sent to intercept them. Moreover, there are disturbing reports of UFOs that may have interfered with the electronics of automobiles, airplanes, power stations, and even with the launch readiness of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

It would only be reasonable, then, for those in the military and intelligence community to treat UFOs as serious business and classify the information at the highest possible level.

According to the Institute’s web site, Dr Armentano is now a former adjunct scholar. In his blog at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune Billy Cox says that Armentano recieved a letter explaining that the Cato Institute was in the "process of overhauling" its adjunct scholars program and that they were letting him go.

Armentano sent an e-mail to Cato Executive Vice President David Boaz asking him what was going on. Boaz replied, “I won’t deny that this latest op-ed played a role in our decision. Some day we may look back and wish we’d listened to you. But for now this strikes us as not an issue that we want to have as part of Cato’s research agenda.”

There are a few other things Cato doesn’t want on its agenda right now. One of them is the unsavory brand of paleolibertarianism cultivated at places like the Mises Institute and These groups have a longstanding relationship with Texas congressman Ron Paul. Conflict between the two factions has intensified since Paul began his bid for the presidency. Paul’s roots lie with the Mises/Rockwell faction, a fact that explains Cato’s lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy. As James Kirchick wrote in the New Republic:

The people surrounding the von Mises Institute — including Paul — may describe themselves as libertarians, but they are nothing like the urbane libertarians who staff the Cato Institute or the libertines at Reason magazine. Instead, they represent a strain of right-wing libertarianism that views the Civil War as a catastrophic turning point in American history — the moment when a tyrannical federal government established its supremacy over the states.

According to TNR, since 1978 "Ron Paul has attached his name to a series of newsletters — Ron Paul’s Freedom Report, Ron Paul Political Report, The Ron Paul Survival Report, and The Ron Paul Investment Letter". The letters feature a number of bigoted comments directed against blacks and gays. For example, one accuses Martin Luther King of seducing underage boys and girls. Paul says he doesn’t know who wrote the inflammatory comments but members of the libertarian community are pointing the finger at his former staffer, Lew Rockwell. According to Cato’s Tom Palmer:

The evidence of truly ugly racist collectivism at and the little network of groups clustered around him is overwhelming, not only in the Ron Paul newsletters that have been found, but in their hateful attacks on Rosa Parks and others, as well as in their connections with anti-Semites, German “nationalists,” white supremacists (e.g., Sam Francis), etc., etc. ad nauseam. The embrace of clearly anti-libertarian figures, sentiments, and causes, all in the name of being “anti-PC,” contrarian, and enemies of the American state has done incalculable damage to the cause of limited government. Rockwell and his sick crew should be ostracized and excluded from decent company.

Brink Lindsey, Cato’s Vice President for research, was initially more diplomatic. When asked about Ron Paul, he said, "He doesn’t strike me as the kind of person that’s tapping into those elements of American public opinion that might lead towards a sustainable move in the libertarian direction". The Mises faction regards this attitude as elitist — an attempt to woo over-cultivated Washington insiders at the expense of libertarian principles and the concerns of ordinary people. As Justin Raimondo puts it:

Lindsey and his fellow creative geniuses are too good for the poor untutored hoi polloi who don’t go to the gym four days a week and are neither feminists nor gay. In Lindsey’s lexicon, “Forward-looking” means “people like me,” and “backward-looking” stands for non-feminist non-gay non-gym-going proles, who don’t count anyway.

The split in the libertarian movement goes back to the late 1970s. In 1977 Charles Koch, a wealthy industrialist, founded the Cato Institute along with Ed Crane. The institute quickly became a home for Rockwell’s mentor, Murray Rothbard. At first, some of Cato’s libertarians tried to reach out the left. Their message was pro-peace, pro-civil liberties and pro-market. And naturally it was in favour of drastically reducing the size of the state. But Rothbard was more radical than that. He wasn’t so much anti-big government as anti-government full stop. In 1979 the conservative National Review devoted a cover story to attacking the libertarian menace. According to Ernest van den Haag and Lawrence Cott, it represented "rationalism in its most virulent form" and was a grave danger to the rules and traditions that prevent civilization from collapsing into chaos.

It wasn’t long before tensions began to emerge in the movement. It started in the Libertarian Party — a political party supported by Koch family funding and subject to Crane’s influence. The party’s favored presidential candidate — Ed Clark — was attracting attention and Koch and Rothbard both wanted to make sure that they didn’t miss an opportunity for favourable media coverage. According to Brian Doherty, Koch and Rothbard worked hard to keep a lid on the "space cadet" faction — the futurists and Robert Heinlein fans. But in the end, the conflict between libertarian purity and saleable message became too much for Rothbard and he rebelled. In March 1981 he was fired from Cato. From there he moved to the Mises Institute.

The Ludwig von Mises Institute was founded in 1982 with Rockwell as president and Rothbard heading academic programs. In 1989 Rothbard and Rockwell decided to reach out to traditionalist conservatives with a new ‘paleolibertarian’ message. According to Rockwell paleolibertarians posited, "Objective standards of morality, especially as found in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as essential to the free and civilized world order." Rothbard and Rockwell went on to form an alliance with Pat Buchanan’s populist conservatives.

While Rockwell and the Mises Institute have been reaching out to conservative populists, Cato staffers like Brink Lindsey have been reaching out liberals. As he writes on his weblog:

With the collapse of socialism, however, American liberals have begun rediscovering the value of market competition. By my lights, many of them still have a long, long way to go. But encouraging that process — making the case that economic liberalization is of a piece with overall social liberalization — is the only way forward for those of us concerned about overweening state power. In this project, people whose values and habits of mind are deeply hostile to liberal modernity are not our allies.

At Catallaxy, Jason Soon has a series of good posts on the Ron Paul controversy (complete with the long and rancorous comments threads Catallaxy is famous for):

Ron Paul newsletter brouhaha splits the libertarian movement

Update on the RP newsletters

The Kochtopus speaks!

More on Dom Armantano & UFOs

At Armentano wrote about how he became a libertarian. Two events stood out in his memory. The first was being given a copy of Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead and the second was in 1958 when he was watching The Armstrong Circle Theater on television:

This was a live television broadcast and the subject being debated was the reality of the UFO phenomena. I’d prepared a report on UFOs in a high school science class so I knew something about the subject. The government/Air Force position (then and now) was that there was nothing in the nature of the reports that represented anything extra-ordinary or a threat to national security. The Air Force mantra was that UFOs were balloons or mirages or hoaxes and that no information to the contrary was being withheld. Yea, right.

The "other side" in the debate was represented by Donald E. Keyhoe, who was then the executive director of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomenon in Washington, D.C. Keyhoe, a feisty retired ex-Marine Major, spoke in support of the reality of the phenomenon and of an Air Force cover-up of inconvenient facts such as 90 degree turns and evasive action when pursued by our jets. At one point in the program Keyhoe suddenly broke away from his prepared remarks, looked at the camera and said: "And now I am going to reveal something that has never been disclosed before…" but his microphone abruptly went dead. The live t.v. audience saw his lips moving (me included) but his audio had been terminated by CBS and the U.S. Air Force under prior agreement. I think that I became a radical libertarian at that very moment.

According to Billy Cox, Armentano has been trying to publicise his views on UFOs but not even will run his columns. "This is important. This is the biggest news story of all time, but Lew will not print anything about it," says Armentano. "I think he thinks he’s trying to save me from myself."

The story of Donald Keyhoe and the Cold War UFO panic is interesting in itself. In an article on the CIA’s role in the study of UFOs, Gerald Haines offers an explanation of why the US Government resisted Keyhoe’s efforts to have UFO information released to the public. Around half of the UFO reports may have been sightings of US manned reconnaissance flights — the U-2. According to a now declassified report – The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance; The U-2 and OXCART (download it from here) – "High altitude testing of the U-2 soon led to an unexpected side effect — a tremendous increase in reports of unidentified flying objects (UFOs)" (p 72).

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Jason Soon
Jason Soon
16 years ago

Damned, Don nice find. I am familiar with and respect the work of Armentano as an antitrust scholar but I didn’t realise he was an X-files fruitcake.

Nicholas Gruen
16 years ago

Thanks for the post – fascinating.

(And the earlier part of the post certainly explains who’s been interfearing with my car. They’re quiet little buggers, seem to be able to nip out of just about any situation with nary a sound or a sign, but I’m glad someone’s onto them.)

Martha Maus
Martha Maus
16 years ago

Don, thanks for this informative summary of who’s who and what their historical and philosphical allegiances are/were.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
16 years ago

[…] movement that goes back to the late 1970s. I’ve written about that in a 2008 post: ‘The Cato Institute vs The Little Green Men… and Ron Paul‘. It’s a dispute that involves much more than arguments about whether Paul is or […]