"I promise not to insult your intelligence with a lot of capital letters and exclamation points," Edward H. Crane writes to me, "The issues we're confronting are far too serious for that." Instead, Crane will try to smother me with verbiage. His is the longest begging letter I've ever received, but despite his disclaimer it's no less hysterical than any communique from the anti-statist camp.
Crane is the founder of the Cato Institute, the best known libertarian think tank. He's alarmed by the "unconstitutional innovations" of the Obama administration, from the appointment of "czars" to "Obamacare." On the subject of healthcare Crane is as hysterical as any radio Republican. "Government-controlled medicine...inevitably brings bureaucratic rationing," he writes, "as a result, treatable conditions like prostate and breast cancer are often death sentences in Europe." Crane may think a begging letter doesn't require footnotes, but that's the sort of claim he should prove when he makes it.
Anticipating a turn of the tide against the Democrats, Crane claims that "I have never seen our side more energized and clear-eyed in its commitment to reclaim our liberties and our government from the statists and redistributionists who infest our nation's capital." He takes the Tea Parties as proof that "Americans haven't abandoned the values that inspired the American Experiment: skepticism toward power and respect for the dignity of the individual." Instead, they've "demonstrated a growing resistance to regimentation that frustrates latter-day planners and 'progressives.'"
But what side is this, exactly? Crane calls it "an energized freedom movement," but you have to reach Page 8 of this ten-page missive before he makes a real effort to differentiate this movement from the Republican Party. Once there, you'd see Crane condemn the last Bush administration for "spending faster than Lyndon Johnson" and "expanding executive power at a rate that would make Richard Nixon dizzy." He also reminds readers of Cato's genuinely admirable opposition to the invasion of Iraq and Bush's infringements on civil liberties, though Crane also finds it objectionable that Bush signed the McCain-Feingold bill. Both major parties, he complains, have shown "a general decline in respect for the Constitution." He would have been better off putting this section closer to the front of his letter. While I take him at his word when he writes that his concerns transcend "the Red Team/Blue Team fights that so preoccupy Washington," his emphasis on the menace of Democratic rule inevitably ends up reading like Republican propaganda. Admittedly, Crane isn't fundraising for the Libertarian Party, but for his own Institute. His object isn't to build an independent political party, but to influence whoever gets elected. But this agenda is unlikely to galvanize those Americans who are "so disgusted with both political parties that they're ready to throw in the towel."
Crane asks these skeptics to see Cato as a surrogate lobby for them. "Today most Americans simply don't have the time or resources to deal directly with the constant encroachments on our liberties that take place in Washington, D.C.," he explains, "The Cato Institute exists to provide that vigilance: to warn of new threats to our liberties and to propose means of winning back liberties we have lost." Ordinary Americans should donate to think tanks like Cato because they are "a market response to the intellectual conformity and stagnation in most American universities." Donors will help pay for "a powerful platform for getting our message out to those who want to hear -- and those who don't." But while Cato is certainly not compelling anyone to fund them, I can't help but ask why they can't make this venture in defense of free-market culture a profitable proposition. Maybe a "public policy organization" doesn't have the same kind of profit imperative as other entrepreneurial ventures, since it competes in the "marketplace of ideas" rather than the shopping mall. But I'd think these idolaters of entrepreneurship would be too proud to beg. I would be mistaken, obviously.
At least you get something for your trouble, even if you don't donate. Cato encloses a neat little booklet with their begging letters containing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and if you donate $100 or more they'll send you three more copies to hand out to friends. The booklet includes a nonpartisan but subtly ideological introductory essay by Roger Pilon, who suggests a natural-law interpretation of the Constitution in the context of the Declaration. You can take or leave that, but the founding documents are always nice to have on hand for impromptu political debates. Just bear in mind that, despite whatever Cato implies, they are not the last word on our future.