Ralph Benko

“Who is John Galt?” This tantalizing question opens Atlas Shrugged, one of the most popular, if least critically acclaimed, novels of all time. A new chapter of an epic story worthy of the pen of Ayn Rand is scheduled to open next October. It centers around John Allison IV. Who is John Allison?

John Allison is taking over the helm of the Cato Institute. And for devotees of human dignity and liberty this is good news indeed. The stated mission of the Cato Institute is “to increase the understanding of public policies based on the principles of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace.” It is an extraordinary place.

A fight for control over Cato recently was in the news. There was a struggle for governance between the celebrated and powerful industrialist/philanthropist Koch brothers, Charles and David, who helped to create Cato, and its founder and CEO Ed Crane who nurtured Cato into the respected cultural force that it is today.

Crane transformed libertarianism from a marginal ideology into a major input to the policy discussion. He took libertarianism out of the Star Wars cantina and gave it a place of dignity in the modern culture. “The Cato Institute is the foremost upholder of the idea of liberty in the nation that is the foremost upholder of the idea of liberty,” wrote George Will.

Cato has been very much about making an intellectual impact. Its analysis consistently is impressive. But, understandably coming from the most elite proponent of libertarianism, an attitude of disdain for government bleeds through. This has put Cato into a somewhat aloof posture towards the policy fray. Power to elect the majority of the Cato board recently passed, legally, to the Kochs. And the Kochs invest great importance in policy, as well as cultural, relevance. Confrontation loomed.

Cato, unquestionably, is the bellwether of the libertarian school. And libertarians, it can be argued, often cast the deciding “swing vote” in policy matters. When the libertarian movement sided with the conservatives on foreign and tax policy, that united front set the stage for the defeat of international communism. It similarly set the stage for the push to reduce the top U.S. federal tax rate from 70% to 28%, and for nation after nation to adopt far lower rates on their own. World prosperity blossomed. When, however, most libertarians sided with liberals on cultural issues (such as abortion and gay marriage, neither inevitably libertarian stands), the liberals prevailed.

Ralph Benko

Ralph Benko, author of The Websters’ Dictionary: How to use the Web to transform the world. He serves as an advisor to and editor of the Lehrman Institute's thegoldstandardnow.org and senior advisor to the American Principles Project.