When Ed Crane decided to trade in the Cato Institute's colonial townhouse on Capitol Hill, with its Oriental rugs and English hunting prints, for more-modern quarters, he could have leased any one of the scores of chic vacant offices in downtown Washington. But Edward Harrison Crane III--founder of the nation's most prominent libertarian think tank--is a man of vision, say his supporters. And a bullheaded ideologue, say his detractors. So it seemed natural that Crane should take a page straight from an Ayn Rand novel and plunk a giant, $14 million steel-and-glass ice cube down on a blighted corner in the city's Northwest quadrant.
The design of the six-story building was so ambitious, its cost so out of sync with the market, that colleagues still snicker about the man's "ed"-ifice complex. But Crane was determined to make the point that Cato's vision of rooting out government from most aspects of American life is as futuristic as his building's design. That for all its 18th-Century Jeffersonian talk of government as a "necessary evil," Cato's view is relevant to the complexities of the 21st Century. That the American public's belligerent anti-Washington mood is, in fact, quite progressive.
In the 1990s, America is being wrenched by a cultural war, and it's not the one posited by Patrick J. Buchanan, with his images of prayerful soldiers standing up to the forces of amorality and Woody Allen. Today's cultural war has erupted over government, between those who see it as a clumsy, overgrown but generally benign force and those who view it as an potentially evil oppressor, gunning down basic human rights. Cato, the pseudonym taken by a pair of Revolutionary pamphleteers who lived in fear of King George's sword, has been thrust onto the front lines of what is aptly dubbed "the small-government movement."
When, shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton condemned hatemongering on the airwaves, he was aiming directly at the small-government movement. "There's nothing patriotic about hating your government," he said in early May, "or pretending you can hate your government but love your country." The President could have been talking about Cato, where some thinkers are fond of using that love-your-country, hate-your-government line.
Although Crane takes pains to distance himself from extremists in the small government movement, particularly the private militias, the thread of government-as-Darth Vader runs through Cato's work: in a Cato-published book by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that depicts a threatening trooper on the jacket alongside the words "Is Your Property Safe From Seizure?"; in a recent column by Cato policy analyst Dave Kopel that blames the rise of militias solely on an "increasing militarization, lawlessness and violence on the part of federal law enforcement"; in Crane's own insistence that government "is not reason, it is force."
Cato's roots are solidly libertarian, an outgrowth of Rand's philosophy that blesses individual freedom and curses collectivist controls of the state. Unlike some of its conservative allies Cato's skepticism toward bureaucracies is consistent. If government can't be trusted to help poor children and their mothers, why should it be any better at knitting a safety net for the elderly? Or deciding what drug, legal or illegal, we should ingest? Or running our children's schools? Or, for that matter, solving civil wars overseas? Cato's hypocrisy radar is finely tuned: As congressional Republicans debate which poverty programs to cut or fold, the libertarian think tank is shoving proposals that eliminate "corporate welfare"--farm, timber and utility subsidies--in their faces.
In the 17 years since Crane founded Cato on San Francisco's Bay Street, the institute has made the case that government's function is to protect life, liberty and property. Period. Or, as humorist P. J. O'Rourke, a Cato H. L. Mencken research fellow, put it in a recent speech: "I don't know what's good for you. You don't know what's good for me. We don't know what's good for mankind. . . . There is only one basic human right--the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences."
Crane describes Cato's philosophy this way: "Are you going to put your faith in people being able to work these things out on their own or are you going to put your faith in getting some bureaucracy involved?" A widely acknowledged genius at raising money for his $6 million think tank, the one-time money manager describes Cato's vision as "the politics of humility."