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OPINION

No, I’m Not Corrupt, but It’s a Fair Question

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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I get criticized all the time, usually because of my support for limited government (though sometimes because people think I’m not sufficiently radical).

Sometimes I even get attacked because I cite someone else’s work, as happened when a bunch of Keynesians went after me for posting some data on Reaganomics vs. Obamanomics put together by Richard Rahn.

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Just last week, though, I was attacked from a completely different perspective. Some guy named Stan Sewitch, in an article for the San Diego Daily Transcript, questioned my motives rather than my views.

He started out with an innocuous description of a speech I gave.

These days, the harbingers of doom no longer include hippies or even youth. The “protest” movement that may be growing in our country now is known for its natty fashion sense and belief in free markets… It winds its way to the offices of lobbyists and politicians. It acts a great deal behind the scenes, and uses the educated, articulate voices of “think tank” gurus to make the points. Daniel Mitchell is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a nonprofit economics and policy research organization that promotes “libertarian” philosophies, i.e., small government, free markets and individual rights. I heard him speak recently about how the United States could avoid “becoming the next Greece.” As he described the lengthening list of ills that our country has inflicted upon itself, Mitchell acknowledged that neither party has a consistent track record of doing the “right thing” to keep our gross domestic product growing faster than our government spending rate. …In that sense, the Cato Institute does seem to represent a nonpartisan view of our national and international state of affairs.

Since I think America faces a very grim fiscal future in the absence of entitlement reform, and since I also blame Bush as much as I blame Obama, I can’t quibble with anything he wrote.

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But then he starts to speculate about my (grossly inadequate) salary.

But as he continued to describe the litany of calamity that will befall us under current conditions, I asked myself, “Gee, I wonder who pays Mitchell’s salary? Can’t be cheap.” So I did a little looking on the Web, and I found the 2011 annual report for the Cato Institute. They brought in about $33 million in revenue last year, spent about $22 million and showed net assets of $63 million. Well, it looks like they practice what they preach, spending less than they earn. And they earn a lot.

Where’s he going with this, I wonder. But I suppose I could have guessed that he would focus on rich people and corporations.

The Cato Institute doesn’t list its individual benefactors or corporations that provide the funding, but their board of directors includes David and Charles Koch. The Kochs founded the Cato Institute and have contributed millions to it. Combined, the Koch brothers are worth roughly $50 billion. Their company, Koch Industries, generates about $100 billion in annual revenue and is the second-largest private company in the United States. Other like-minded, wealthy individuals undoubtedly make up the financial support for the Cato Institute, along with corporations, the sale of Cato Institute books and the speaking fees that Cato scholars receive for their expert punditry.

My Sewitch obviously doesn’t know that Cato hasn’t received support from the Kochs in recent years, much less that the Cato Board and the Koch brothers had a big fight about the future of Cato, but that’s an understandable mistake since the average person would have no reason to follow a squabble inside the libertarian movement.

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But his point is generically true. Occasional large contributions from wealthy people can play a non-trivial role in the budget of any non-profit group.

So what’s the point? Well, here’s where he gets to the part about my motives.

Whether or not one subscribes to the shiny and attractive ideals of small government, free markets and individual liberty, one has to follow the money, the economics of any given viewpoint to be able to evaluate the veracity of the opinion. The money behind Mitchell’s capacity to publicly opine comes from business people who want to affect policy at the federal and state level toward outcomes that they believe are in the collective best interests. It also doesn’t hurt that those same people benefit personally and financially from the promoted policies and research results that the Cato Institute generates. …So if someone is earning their living by preaching, whether for God or free markets, I have to find out who’s paying them to tell me this stuff, and I immediately discount the value of the sermon by 84 percent.

Gee, I guess I should be happy that my opinions are worth 16 percent rather than zero.

But now for my serious point. Washington is filled with people who say things, write things, and do things solely because they’re getting paid. I often write about the sleazy behavior of such people, particularly Republicans who do the wrong thing just to fatten their bank accounts.

So I can’t complain when someone questions my motives. Everyone in Washington should be viewed with suspicion. It is, after all, a pervasively corrupt town.

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That being said, I invite the world to comb through everything I’ve ever done, everything I’ve ever said, and everything I’ve ever written to find the slightest shred of evidence that I am motivated by anything other than a principled belief in liberty.

Do I get paid to do all these things? Of course, which is why I consider myself to be a very lucky person. I’m getting a salary to do what I would be doing anyhow.

And if we count the non-pecuniary satisfaction of fighting for liberty, I’m one of the richest people in DC.

You can’t deposit non-pecuniary satisfaction in a bank, to be sure, but I wouldn’t trade places with any of the multimillionaire lobbyists. That would be like watching It’s a Wonderful Life and wanting to be like Mr. Potter instead of George Bailey.

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