Jul 04

The Genuine Cato’s Letters: republicanism & publick virtue in the American revolutionary era


…not your crazy uncle’s 21st century neo-Libertarian doublethink

ABSTRACT: Part 1 of this essay is reflections on the context of my own introduction to Cato’s Letters: Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, 144 essays published 1720-23—that of an American teenager living abroad—and how that fit with and influenced the direction of my own education. I discuss my brief flirtation with Libertarianism, when I learned of its historical roots in Anarchism and Socialism, and I’ll shine a light on its differences from the neo-Libertarianism we see in the U.S.A. today. I present ideas from the work of several noted feminists regarding the philosophy and its protagonists at the turn of the 21st century. I fact check and correct myself  on some fuzzy perceptions I’ve held in the past. In Part 2 I also begin with context: the cosmopolitan aspirations—and liberal education—of the generation that fomented the American Revolution. I look at the misappropriation of the historical Cato’s Letters by the “Libertarian” think tank. By critically analysing the language and arguments of a contemporary “Cato’s Letter” relative to some  authentic Trenchard and Gordon (1720-1723) I reveal the degree by which the modern message differs from its namesake’s.

The Cato Letters: the TEA1 Party is not the first group to steal a name from history, shroud it in Orwellian doublespeak to skew its message and meaning towards a purpose. But this essay is not about the TEA party, Libertarianism or the Cato Institute. It’s about times and thinking of the genuine Cato’s Letters: Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, 1720-23—or rather what they told us, 300 years in advance, about groups like the TEA party, (neo-)Libertarians, and the Cato Institute, who go about borrowing names.

Background… where I’m coming from

For some years I’ve been fond of saying, “I distrust anyone who did not embrace libertarianism at 15 almost as much as I do those who continue to embrace it after about 21.” This is because I learned the word when, at 15, I told my father I liked the sound of “few laws, well enforced” and he replied “Sounds like you may be a libertarian!” I’ve also called libertarianism “an adolescent male fantasy.” This is because, my father’s comment having resulted in my soon looking them up, I uncovered some self-described libertarians in my neighborhood and observed they idealized a world like the Wild Wild West, or believed in such untenable ideas as returning to a gold standard2. At the time I was also learning jazz guitar, I was painfully aware there were no women in my musical circles, there were also very few at jazz or fusion shows, so I needed an extra-curricular activity that presented some chance of meeting women—but even then it took about 15 minutes to understand why they wouldn’t be at a meeting of these particular libertarians, anyway.

So far this is all anecdotal. That there are more neo-Libertarian men than women is accepted by everyone. Susan C. Herring, discussing online harassment, reports how a “rhetoric of harassment” manifests from libertarian principles of freedom of expression, “…constructing women’ s resistance as ‘censorship’—a strategy that ultimately succeeds, I propose, because of the ideological dominance of (male-gendered) libertarian norms of interaction on the Internet. (Herring, 1999:152).

Some Libertarian men who blog about the lack of libertarian women tend to be condescending and demeaning, as Darrell Anderson’s “when a woman finally understands the fallacies of statism and the proverbial bell rings in her head …” (Anderson, no date given) or prejudiced and demeaning, as James (2002):

I know what you’re thinking. “Women shouldn’t be so sensitive. Women shouldn’t be afraid of confrontation. Women shouldn’t be so hung up on niceties. Women…” Guess what? It doesn’t matter. They are.

Libertarianism is patronizing because it is patriarchy in perpetual adolescence. Tong (1992) and Walby (1990) stand at the forefront of a large body of work supporting the belief that the oppression (or “consciousness-shaping” (Seiler, no date)) of women results from a complex articulation of patriarchy and capitalism. Wood (1997:321) (as summarized by Seiler, op. cit.) highlights two aspects that distinguish Muted-Group Theory, which I find particularly relevant here: “focusing on how language names experiences” and “…paying close attention to the way that a dominant discourse silences or mutes groups that are not in society’s mainstream.” We see in the examples above, hundreds like them on the Internet, just as in the IRC chat rooms (Herring, 1999) an overt sexism is innate and omnipresent in libertarian thought and expression.

Age 15 is also when I moved to the province of Quebec, Canada, enrolled in the “Social Sciences” program at John Abbott College, and signed up for The History of Western Philosophy, Calculus for the Social Sciences, (one I didn’t think they’d teach as well in the States:) Marxism, and thought I’d treat myself to at least one cushy course. An American in Canada should be able to ace US History, right? Maybe—but not if the teacher is Neil Cameron. We learned the phrase “primary source,” we read personal letters of founders and everyday colonial Americans (e.g., Beers, 1891), we read The Federalist, we read Alexis de Toqueville , we read Aristotle’s Rhetoric — and we read several of Cato’s Letters.

At the time Professor Cameron’s telling of the War of 1812 engaged me more, for I’d heard it told so differently I’d finally caught my old US school texts red-handed re-writing history… but I always recalled discussing ‘publick spirit,’  ‘virtue’ and in the phrase ‘…to hear the worst things called by the best names…’ the clear understanding of what Orwell would many years later develop into ‘doublespeak’.

It was well past 1984 that I heard of The Cato Institute and gradually learned what such rhetorical phrases as individual freedom and free markets mean within their context, and that they took their name from John Trenchard’s and Thomas Gordon’s essays. I believe that’s where my anger at the Cato Institute began.


Leave men to take the full reward of their fancied merit, and the world will be thought too little for almost every individual, as Alexander thought it for him. He had the fortune to ravage the world, and from thence believed he had a right to it.
— Thomas Gordon,
Cato’s Letter Vol. 4 No. 1. Saturday, August 24, 1723


Men who are advanced to great stations, and are highly honoured and rewarded at the publick cost, ought to look upon themselves as creatures of the publick… They ought to reflect, that thousands, ten thousands of their countrymen, have equal, or perhaps greater, qualifications than themselves; and that blind fortune alone has given them their present distinction: That the estate of the freeholder, the hazard of the merchant, and the sweat of the labourer, all contribute to their greatness; and when once they can see themselves in this mirror, they will think nothing can be too grateful, nothing too great or too hazardous to be done for such benefactors.
— John Trenchard,
Cato’s Letter Vol. 1 No. 20. Saturday, March 11, 1721

I don’t recall Neil Cameron ever reducing American intellectual thought to Locke et praeterea nihil, what Robert E. Shalhope has called the “orthodox” position on American republicanism (Shalhope , 1972). Shalhope points to the work of such historians as Neal Riemer and Caroline Robbins as what has slowly and steadily nudged the literature towards a deeper underestanding of American Revolutionary thought. Taken as a whole, this entire train of thought that has transpired in academia since my studies with professor Cameron is referred to as the republican synthesis.

The republican synthesis

Daniel T. Rodgers has written a thorough yet wonderfully readable (downright engaging) summary of this school of thought.

The republican synthesis can only be understood within a succession of paradigms: Beardian, Hartzian, and republican. The Beardian paradigm organized American history around a restless sea of conflicting material interests; the Hartzian around a stable liberal consensus; the republican around the importance of liberalism’s precedents and rival”


To a left critic …like Isaac Kramnick, to leave Locke and bourgeois liberalism out of the story was to dissolve class relations into a court/country schematic “too confusing to be useful.” To a Hartzian [on the right] like John Diggins, America was nothing if it was not Locke and Calvin, acquisitiveness and guilt, locked in tragic embrace. For all of them, the new stress on language and ideology sharply compounded the problem: for Appleby because it allowed too little room for dissent and novelty, for Kramnick because it was too soft, for Diggins because it imputed behavioral consequence to ideas at all.”
(Rodgers, 1992)

But when Shalhope says “… radical whigs such as Robert Molesworth, John Toland, Thomas Gordon, John Trenchard, Richard Baron, and Thomas Hollis… did manage to transmit their libertarian heritage to America where it acquired great vitality…” (emphasis mine) he is not speaking of the same libertarianism now flogged by such factions as the Cato Institute. Caroline Robbins’s important contribution to understanding English libertarian thought was by way of the story of Thomas Hollis (1720-1774), whose “peculiar kind of liberty …reflected in the writing of Milton, Marvell, and others [asserted] …public virtue and private frugality seemed to be the only way to avoid [luxury causing political decline as  seen in ancient republics]. The best way for a people to maintain their liberties was to guard them carefully and have frequent …elections …to enforce restraints upon their rulers. Robbins made it explicit that Hollis’s peculiar brand of liberty struck a responsive chord in America” (Shalhope, 1972).

While Shalhope (1972) clearly refers to Trenchard’s (1662-1723) political heritage as  “libertarian”, but according to others the first recorded use of the term was in 1789 by William Belsham (Belsham, 1789), after the American Revolution. Woodcock (1967) traces the line of philosophical thought preceding from Winstanley (1649) through Godwin (1793) to the first self-described anarchist, Proudhon (1840). An astonishing number of self-identified “libertarians” I’ve encountered, some who hold positions of authority within the most prestigious “libertarian” institutions are apparently unaware of its kinship with Anarchism, “the ultimate projection of Liberalism and Socialism,” (e.g., Chomsky, Socialist Libertarian) or that “For a century, anarchists have used the word ‘libertarian’ as a synonym for ‘anarchist’, both as a noun and an adjective. …However, much more recently the word has been appropriated by various American free-market philosophers…” (Ward, 2004). Some say this view, in pure and distilled form, casts libertarianism as a license to all imaginable rights with few responsibilities (libertarians quite expectedly dispute this and offer counter-arguments, e.g., Long, 2004). But it is a faux libertarianism, one I call neo-Libertariansism.

Originally, libertarianism was anti-capitalist and opposed accumulation of property. Usage of the term in the US and Canada, with notions of “free-market” “prosperity” reflects the power of business in these countries. “At times, and particularly in the United States, the broadening appeal of libertarian ideas has also led to their adulteration, so that anarchism often appears as only one element in what can be described as a climate of rebellion, an insurrectionary frame of mind, rather than a new revolutionary ideology. ” (Woodcock, PS:1975; Chomsky referenced in Leiter, 2009). Neo-Libertarianism emerged in the 1840s (Woodcock, 1967). Libertarians have been “wont to project,  to look outside their community and see their values in leaders and movements separated by history and geography.” As Woodcock explains,

“However, while it is true that some of the central libertarian ideas are to be found in varying degrees among these men and movements, the first forms of anarchism as a developed social philosophy appeared at the beginning of the modern era, when the medieval order had disintegrated, the Reformation had reached its radical, sectarian phase, and the rudimentary forms of modern political and economic organization had begun to appear. In other words, the emergence of the modern state and of capitalism is paralleled by the emergence of the philosophy that, in various forms, has opposed them most fundamentally.” (Woodcock 1967).

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A mitigation

Twitter, as most of us know, allows “tweets” of 140 characters or less. It can be very challenging to compose a coherent thought, or adequately support an argument, but it’s a challenge millions accept many times a day, all day, all over the globe. And every day some percentage of those challenges result in imprecise language, and some generally fastidious authors get lazy to conserve space.

I did that recently on Twitter when I called the Institute “the Koch’s Cato” and, similarly, when I referred to the Koch’s Heritage Foundation as Cato’s “sister.” “Cousin” would have been accurate.  I also referred to the Cato Institute as “Orwellian” and “demagogues.” Those I got right, as I’ll demonstrate below. First, here’s what needs qualification:

  1. It is widely acknowledged that Cato has retained a nonpartisan, libertarian identity and therefor should not be exactly equated with Koch-funded propoganda/special interest outfits like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (National Journal, 2012-06-19).
  2. Many people know that Cato was originally founded by Murray Rothbard, Ed Crane and Charles Koch in 1974 as the Charles Koch Foundation. It changed its name to the Cato Institute in 1976. It appears less well known that the Institute performs no contract research and does not accept government funding (Cato, 1977, 1994, 2001). The Kochs provided about 4 percent of Cato’s revenue during the past decade (Forbes, 2012-03-11).

Perhaps, though, Cato simply wasn’t ripe. Last March, and again in April, the Koch’s sued the Institute and attempted to reverse “what they called a “board-packing scheme” to weaken their influence. ” (Bloomberg, 2012-04-10) Robert A. Levy, chairman of Cato’s board, knows that skewing brand-name research and scholars in support of political advocacy groups is what the Kochs do (NYT, 2012-03-06). In the final week of June 2012 the dispute was settled. On Monday June 25, 2012 parties announced Crane would be replaced by former BB&T Corp. (BBT) chairman John A. Allison, and stated they believe the agreement assures “…that Cato is not viewed as controlled by the Kochs” but will “…be a principled organization that is effective in advancing a free society” But “Under the terms of the agreement, Cato will cease to be a stockholder corporation and instead will be governed by the members, who will double as institute directors and who will elect their own successors, the parties said.” and “The initial Cato board will include 12 long-term directors including David Koch, three other Koch designees and Allison, who holds the option to nominate one or two additional directors. 3

Whether the Kochs provide 4% or 94% of Cato’s funding, is there anyone anywhere who denies that the policies Cato advocates will make the Kochs more money, that the brothers are aware of this, and they’ve demonstrated their resolve to see this continue, by whatever means are available?

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Where-ever publick spirit is found dangerous, she will soon be seen dead. – Thomas Gordon #35. Saturday, July 1, 1721. Of Publick Spirit.

“Citizen of the World,” the American colonial farmer

John Fea paints a rich picture of the social life of the colonies circa 1773 by following several days in the journal of Philip Vickers Fithian, a resident of rural New Jersey. This educated and upwardly mobile son of a farmer, mild-mannered candidate for the Presbyterian ministry, headed off to Princeton to the College of New Jersey and became radicalized. On December 22, 1774 Fithian donned feathers and war paint, and burned all the tea that had been surreptitiously offloaded there by the captain sailing the Greyhound for the East India Company, who hoped to avoid being turned away in Philadelphia, and having his cargo rejected (Stockton, 1896/2003). Fitihian wasn’t the first nor the last young colonial in the latter half of the 18th century to be radicalized by a liberal education from Princeton. In the decade before the American Revolution “…Princeton was becoming a political training school… a school attended by future revolutionists, founding fathers, supreme court justices, and even by a future president. Men like Luther Martin, William Paterson, Oliver Ellsworth, and James Madison… The results were suggested by the attendance figures for the Constitutional Convention: sixteen percent of the delegates were Princeton men.” (Haskett, 1949).

John Fea (2003) translates Fithian’s desire to be part of a “republic of letters,” a trans-Atlantic exchange of ideas “…was above all else a rational republic, with little tolerance for those unable to rid themselves of parochial passions. Participation required a commitment to self-improvement that demanded a belief in the Enlightenment values of human potential and societal progress. The best citizens of the republic maintained primary loyalty, not to family, friends, faith, or land, but to an international commonwealth of humankind” (464). The republic of letters had a long tradition in France, where “…The ideal was that all members of the community were equal, or at least that everyone had an equal chance for advancement. But that same ideal dictated that one must advance on the community’s terms.” There were inevitably “greats” among them, but “…Since their greatness stemmed in large part from their communal service, to use them as a model—accurate or not—was to promote the cohesion of the Republic” (Goldgar, 1995) .

Cato’s Letters (Trenchard & Gordon, 1720-1723)

“Cato’s Letters,” says Clinton Rossiter (1953), “…was the most popular, quotable, esteemed source for political ideas in the colonial period.” An estimated half of colonial libraries owned bound copies of the 144 essays that were published from 1720 to 1723, over 10 years before the birth of many Founders, a full 20 before Madison (1751) (op. cit.). I report honestly, I was only able to do a cursory search of current US history textbooks (and in most cases I was unable to see or search their indexes), the AP US History exam, and journals, but I found almost no mention, and absolutely no description, of these definitive writings. If James Madison is the “Father of the Constitution,” surely Trenchard and Gordon are “Fathers of the Revolution.”

The pre-Revolutionary colonists were by no means against government. Government that protects life, liberty and property, provides for its citizens and makes life easier is successful government, and causes a society to succeed: “And therefore whatever state gives more encouragement to its subjects than the neighbouring states do, and finds them more work, and gives them greater rewards for that work; and by all these laudable ways makes [the] human condition easier than it is elsewhere, and secures life and property better; that state will draw the inhabitants from the neighbouring countries to its own…” (Gordon, #67, Feb. 1722).  Moreover, they thought critically about government, understood the responsibility implicit in big republican ideas like government by the people; i.e., they knew that people make both better governments and worse ones. They were politically astute; above all they knew the power of well chosen words used in specific styles and arguments. Cato’s Letters reveal a clear understanding of the technique, dubbed “doublespeak” centuries later by George Orwell (emphasis mine):

 NO. 13. Saturday, January 21, 1721. The Arts of misleading the People by Sounds. (Trenchard)

“…I will own, however, that government makes more fools, and more wise men, than nature makes; and the difference between nation and nation, in point of virtue, sagacity, and arms, arises not from the different genius of the people; which, making very small allowances for the difference of climate, would be the same under the same regulations; but from the different genius of their political constitutions…

 “…Yet even in countries where the highest liberty is allowed, and the greatest light shines, you generally find certain men, and bodies of men, set apart to mislead the multitude; who are ever abused with words, ever fond of the worst of things recommended by good names, and ever abhor the best things, and the most virtuous actions, disfigured by ill names. One of the great arts, therefore, of cheating men, is, to study the application and misapplication of sounds—a few loud words rule the majority, I had almost said, the whole world…”

In Volume 2, #67 (February 24, 1722) Gordon describes the woes of places in history “where a few have liberty, and all the rest are slaves” then proceeds to describe an antidote—which may sound very much like a market economy: “And nothing can free mankind from this abject and forlorn condition, but the invention of arts and sciences; that is, the finding out of more materials and expedients to make life easy and pleasant; and the inducing people to believe, what they will readily believe, that other things are necessary to their happiness, besides those which nature has made necessary. Thus the luxury of the rich becomes the bread of the poor” (op. cit.). But it is decidedly not an unfettered free market and in no uncertain terms Gordon reveals, as he and Trenchard do frequently throughout the letters, his deep distrust of markets and the selfish men they often described as dominating them, “…unworthy men, who, by faction and treachery, by mean compliances with power, or by insolently daring of authority, having raised themselves to wealth and honours, and to the power of betraying some considerable trust, have had the provoking sauciness to call themselves the government…” (Trenchard, #13, Jan 21 1721) Great men in governments of the people must behave differently: “all the projects of men in power ought to refer to the people, to aim solely at their good, and end in it.”

Trenchard argued for social justice, his and Gordon’s letters were against the corruptions of money and power.

NO. 20. Saturday, March 11, 1721. Of publick Justice, how necessary to the Security and Well-being of a State, and how destructive the Neglect of it to the British Nation. Signal Instances of it. (Trenchard)

…Men who are advanced to great stations, and are highly honoured and rewarded at the publick cost, ought to look upon themselves as creatures of the publick, as machines erected and set up for publick emolument and safety. …and that blind fortune alone has given them their present distinction…

…There is no analogy between the crimes of private men and those of publick magistrates: The first terminate in the death or sufferings of single persons; the others ruin millions, subvert the policy and oeconomy of nations, and create general want, and its consequences, discontents, insurrections, and civil wars, at home… But amongst the crimes which regard a state, peculatus, or robbing the publick, is the greatest; because upon the careful and frugal administration of the public treasure the very being of the commonwealth depends…

Almost 300 years ago Trenchard and Gordon described a political climate very much as we see in Washington today. An unfettered ability to aggregate wealth was widely understood to lead to subversion. Today we see financial tricksters carry on with impunity, back-to-back wars,  the creation of “think tanks” and special interest groups, we see revolving doors between government and lobbying groups. We hear educated otherwise reasonable people repeating nonsense (e.g., the health care debate’s “death panels”) and supporting positions contrary to their own interests, as Trenchard and Gordon wrote in 1721:

NO. 17. Saturday, February 18, 1721. What Measures are actually taken by wicked and desperate Ministers to ruin and enslave their Country. (Trenchard)

…It is the business and policy of traitors, so to disguise their treason with plausible names, and so to recommend it with popular and bewitching colours, that they themselves shall be adored, while their work is detested, and yet carried on by those that detest it….

…They will be ever contriving and forming wicked and dangerous projects, to make the people poor, and themselves rich…

…They will engage their country in ridiculous, expensive, fantastical wars, to keep the minds of men in continual hurry and agitation, and under constant fears and alarms…

...They will create parties in the commonwealth, or keep them up where they already are; and, by playing them by turns upon each other, will rule both. By making the Guelfs afraid of the Ghibelines, and these afraid of the Guelfs, they will make themselves the mediums and balance between the two factions; and both factions, in their turns, the props of their authority, and the instruments of their designs…

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A Republican Language
The Founders and the Sons of American Revolution, who would have been Trenchard and Gordon’s sons or grandsons, understood that the American experiment required a distinctive language of its own. John Adams wrote to Congress from Amsterdam in 1780, “the form of government has an influence upon language” and language influences “not only the form of government, but the temper, the sentiments, and manners of the people.” (John Adams, 1780, quoted in Howe, 2006:77) Thomas Paine, Noah Webster, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson all called for an Americanized English to purge political language of “every vestige of monarchy.” Benjamin Franklin rejected language reflecting class distinction, arguing for language that promoted equality. (op. cit.:77-79) These sentiments are why, for example, we say “Mr. President,” and not “Your Excellency.” The questions that emerged, such as the meaning of public virtue,the obligations of citizens towards the greater good, how much democracy a republic can safely contain—and how all that related to individual freedoms—these have been at the heart of American political discourse since the beginning of the American experiment in republican government (op. cit.,:81-91).

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Rhetoric: the art of persuasion:
The new Cato’s Letters generated by neo-Libertarian “think tank” The Cato Institute are very different. For example, #12 “The Rise of Government and the Decline of Morality,” essentially an assertion these two things are interdependent. As Aristotle tells us there are 3 parts to any persuasion. “The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself” (Rhetoric, 1356a). By setting up “Cato” as an Institute and giving its footsoldiers titles like “Vice President of Academic Affairs” a group arguing for fewer laws curtailing their economic activities is trying to cover the first base, the credibility of the speaker. The frame of mind all Cato publications attempt to set, using words and phrases such as “dependent,” “meddling,” “sacrificed freedom,” “undermines incentives,” or “intervention” is self-righteous anger. Dorn’s argument in neo-Letter #12 is representative, and is essentially that “…economic and social legislation over the past 50 years has had a negative impact on virtue”(Dorn, 1996). To make this point Dorn and other promoters of unfettered free markets employ mainly what Aristotle called “rhetorical enthymemes.” In an enthymeme, part of the argument is assumed. If you use a word your audience already accepts as a negative, such as “dependent,” the audience fills in the blanks.

Dorn’s article contains virtually no references and makes a litany of unsubstantiated assertions. Dorn helps the audience synthesize a mythical definition of “American virtue” by appealing to collective memories of white European immigrants at the turn of the century. “At the turn of the century, there was no welfare state,” says he. Dorn claims white Polish immigrants came to this country, or to Baltimore anyway, with a morality and apparently a natural inclination towards founding building and loan associations. By 1929 60% owned their own homes. Predictably Dorn glosses over the socialist implications of “pooling resources to help each other…” (Dorn, 1996).

Dorn knows next to nothing about Polish immigrants, however, who arrived in North America before the Mayflower, or if he does he would prefer the rest of us don’t.  They had skills. They were labor activists who in 1619 staged the first strike in the New World (Seidner, 1976). Many Polish immigrants originally had no intention of staying, and many returned to Poland, having made enough to advance their standing in the old world (Lopata & Erdmans, 1995).

In fact, the turn of the 20th century is generally regarded as the beginning of the Progressive movement in America, largely in repsponse to the excesses of industry. In his a-historical rush to invent a past that suits his argument Dorn fails to consider that, while Poles generally came voluntarily, Baltimore had generations of freed slaves who often had no skills or were forced to take unskilled jobs to make room for skilled whites (Polish immigrants?) (Fuke, 1997). One of Dorn’s measures of “moral decay in America are the prevalence of out-of-wedlock births.” At the turn of the century Dorn romanticizes unwed mothers were handled mainly by religious institutions in partnership with all levels of government. Although she speaks of turn-of-the-century Indianapolis not Baltimore Mary Mapes makes the point that public/faith-based partnerships were a good fit that lasted well past the 1930s, and adds “This history calls into question the once widely held belief that the voluntary sector must necessarily contract in size as the welfare state expands.”  (Mapes, 1999).

In one ludicrous leap Dorn reveals both his obsession with attacking  liberal fantasms of his own creation and his low opinion of his audience’s intelligence, asserting that in 1960s Baltimore “the way to survive is not to take responsibility for one’s own life and family, but to vote for politicians who have the power to keep the welfare checks rolling.” In the long history of Baltimore’s annexation both national parties quickly saw the advantages of the suburban and rural votes and did all they could to garner their votes. As for Dorn’s utterly simplistic notion that 40 years of “growing government” and “welfare” caused Baltimore’s urban troubles in the 1960s, Joseph Arnold provides some historical perspective (emphasis mine): “The century and a half of intense belligerency between Baltimore and Baltimore County, largely over suburban territory, provided an important historical perspective on current city-suburban problems which plague not only Maryland and the South, but the whole nation.” (Arnold, 1978).

This Cato’s letter, as all Cato Institute’s propoganda does, paints a nostalgic, incomplete, innacurate portrait designed to stoke the emotions and mislead the listener. The Cato Institute’s scientific strength is in the psychology of division and deception; their socio-political analyses, as should be obvious from the simplistic language, are meaningless blather to be memorized and repeated by the types of dullards who see them as affirming or vindicating the opinions they already held when they sought out the Cato Institute to affirm and vindicate their opinions!

What’s in a name?
The Cato Institute (which we have accepted is not as closely associated with the Koch brothers as Heartland Institute, Heritage Foundation, James Madison Institute etc., who all use this technique) make a great point of calling public education “government schools.”  Do the same people drive on “government roads” walk their dogs in “government parks” or borrow books from “government libraries?” No, of course they don’t. Frank Luntz is described as “a Republican strategist and one of the nation’s foremost experts on crafting the perfect political message.” Luntz is responsible for changing “taxing” the rich, which Americans support, to “taking from” the rich. Luntz has been largely successful in removing the word “entrepreneur” and substituting it with “job-creator.” Luntz feared, especially after Occupy Wall St., that Americans were changing their views on capitalism, seeing it as “immoral.” “I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either ‘economic freedom’ or ‘free market,’ ” Luntz said. (Yahoo News, 2011)

The free-market dogma of the Cato Institute is distantly removed from the spirit of the Cato’s Letters of Trenchard and Gordon, which are widely regarded as representative of pre-Revolutionary Colonial American political thought. Philosophically and politically, the Fathers of the American Revolution were nothing like the so-called Libertarians of 21st century North America, who have much more in common with the “tyrants” “boasters” and “knaves” Trenchard and Gordon regularly disparage for their greed and lack of “publick spirit” (e.g., #35). They did not despise government, only tyranny of the minority, and they believed equally that role of a government limited by common sense and the mutually negotiated contracts was both to protect the lives, liberty, and property of its members but also to regulate and limit the ability of power to aggregate in the hands of a few.

The United States of America owes its very existence to 18th century  France, the French Enlightenment, the Republic of Letters, and the liberal education so many movers and shakers of the period acquired at the College of New Jersey in Princeton. Fithian’s journal indeed discusses how his father suspected he might be indoctrinated there (Howe, 2009). Our nation’s history shows how he was inspired there.

The language these self-promoters use, such as “government schools” and “school choice” is loaded and incendiary, crafted to stir emotions and divert from reason. Those who speak in such terms are disingenuous, and should not be invited to the table until they cease and desist from such wilful diversions. At Cato, “Freedom” means freedom for the privileged, “liberty” means those who already have the most are at liberty to make the rules work so they will acquire more. The authentic Cato’s Letters said this: “…In every country, and under every government, particular men may be too rich. “

Among the darkest perversions The Cato Institute prepetrates are its attacks on science and education. Benjamin Franklin is perhaps the most touted revolutionary American who explored science and invention, but it is very important to note that the revolutionary period in the British-American colonies coincided with the Scottish Enlightenment. During this period Scotland reaped immeasurable benefits by establishing  free trade with England and “Europe’s first public education system since classical times. Under these twin stimuli, Scottish thinkers began questioning assumptions previously taken for granted; and with Scotland’s traditional connections to France, then in the throes of the Enlightenment, the Scots began developing a uniquely practical branch of humanism.” No further evidence of The Institute’s agenda-affirming cherry-pick of history is required: they love Hume’s free trade but ignore his science and humanism.  The Cato Store features a library of climate science denial of potential benefit to the fossil fuel industry, their benefactors. The genuine Cato’s Letters said this: “Ignorance of arts and sciences, and of every thing that is good, together with poverty, misery, and desolation, are found for the most part all together, and are all certainly produced by tyranny. – G #67”

The debate over public virtue and individual rights is older than the nation, but no Founder would have advocated letting his neighbor’s house burn because he hadn’t paid his insurance. Incendiary right wing rhetoric of the type contrived by Cato and the wholly owned Koch subsidiaries to which it is related is a blight on the national discourse. As Americans we must always criticize government, but we can never hate it—it would be to hate ourselves. The authentic Cato’s Letters said this:  “Where-ever publick spirit is found dangerous, she will soon be seen dead. – G #35”

Definitions of morality necessarily contain values, and free people necessarily must ask, “Who defines morality and virtue? Whom do the resulting definitions benefit? How are such decisions made? Who decides?”


This essay is dedicated to Neil Cameron of Montreal, PQ, who taught me to prefer source materials and make up my own mind—especially if the topic is US history and politics.

1 “Taxed Enough Already,” a favourite slogan of the so-called astroturf (“corporate funded” or “faux-populist”) group. Such a spelling takes a small step towards diminishing the utterly wrong association with “The Boston Tea Party of 1773,” and event in American history during which anti-corporate rebels destroyed the property of The East India Tea Company, a private corporation many Patriots believed would “rob them blind.” The issue was not taxes, but representation; they wanted their tax dollars to go to local services, not to subsidize an offshore private corporation. One patriot, George Hewes, who boarded the ships and dumped the tea later explained it was the corporation’s habit of using close ties to the monarchy to alter laws. The TEA Party, in stark contrast, is largely funded and organized by the very people who use extraordinary access to manipulate laws in favor of large corporations today. The Patriots of Boston Harbor, 1773, wanted a stronger democracy, while the TEA party seems to focus on resisting and obstructing the acvtions of a specific president.

See this article for details and scholarly references.

 2 For an economist’s assessment of the see, for example, Roubini: Supporters of a Gold Standard Are ‘Lunatics and Hacks’ By Peter Gorenstein, Daily Ticker – Wed, Nov 23, 2011 http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/daily-ticker/roubini-supporters-gold-standard-lunatics-hacks-181958239.html

3 http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-06-25/cato-koch-brothers-settle-suits-over-control-of-think-tank-1-.html

References and further reading

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Belsham, William (1799) Essays, philosophical, historical, and literary, London: G.G. and J. Robinson, 526 pp.

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Broderick, Francis L. (1949), Pulpit, Physics, and Politics: The Curriculum of the College of New Jersey, 1746-1794, The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Jan., 1949), pp. 42-68

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Cato Institute (1994) Restated Articles of Incorportion, archived at D. B. A. Press retrieved 2012-06-22.

Cato Institute (2001) 2001 Annual Report http://www.cato.org/pubs/papers/25th_annual_report.pdf retrieved 2012-06-22.

Dorn, James A. (1996) The Rise of Government and the Decline of Morality, online, Cato Institute http://www.cato.org/pubs/catosletters/cl-12.pdf retrieved 2012-06-23

Herring, Susan C. (1999) The Rhetorical Dynamics of Gender Harassment On-Line The Information Society: An International Journal Volume 15, Issue 3, 1999 pp151-167 Taylor & Francis.

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