The Cato Institute is “America’s largest, longest-lived libertarian think tank.” It was founded in 1977 by Libertarian Party leader Ed Crane, anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard, and fossil fuel mogul Charles Koch, who was radicalized against government regulations and collectivism by his father. Rothbard and Koch came to the conclusion that the libertarian movement needed a revolutionary vanguard modeled on the Bolshevik Revolution to radically restructure American society in their preferred image — and they decided to recruit Crane to help lead it. The three founded Cato to train and empower this “intellectual cadre.”
Cato’s radical agenda informs its policy positions. The Institute wants to “privatize everything” and abolish almost all aspects of the social safety net in American society. It has attacked anti-child labor advocates, labor unions, affirmative action, minimum wage, universal health care, antitrust laws, campaign finance regulations, and public health measures, to name a few. Cato wants to replace public schools, public transit, social security, public broadcasting, the post office, the TSA, and NASA with private industry. It was also one of the originators of climate change denial. Cato has pushed these once far-right ideals into the conservative mainstream over its nearly 50-year history. In 2020, the Cato Institute was ranked the 13th most influential think tank in the United States.
Big business has heavily funded Cato, whose anti-government, anti-regulation free market agenda often aligns with their interests. The Institute has been criticized for accepting money from corporate interests without disclosing their funding sources, particularly when Cato railed against anti-smoking laws while accepting money from major tobacco companies or promoted climate denial and environmental deregulation while receiving funding from the fossil fuel industries.
Outside of its academic literature and policy handbooks, Cato has sought to bring about its far-right libertarian society through Supreme Court activism. Cato has played a role in cases that have advanced their ideology, including cases that gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act, struck major blows to public sector unions, greatly undermined gun control legislation, weakened campaign finance regulations, overturned a law banning illegal statements in political advertisements, and significantly restricted the federal government’s ability to enforce critical environmental protections. Cato filed multiple briefs in the Supreme Court case Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, scheduled to be heard in the October 2023 term. Loper threatens to undermine the administrative state, which has long been an enemy of Cato.
After a high-profile ownership dispute in 2012, the Koch brothers wrested control of Cato away from its ideological co-founders to be more in line with the brothers’ political ambitions. Cato is a member of the State Policy Network, an alliance of think tanks pushing conservative and libertarian policy at the state level connected to the Koch political network and other national conservative think tanks.
Peter Goettler joined the Cato Institute’s board in 2014 and has served as the think tank’s president and CEO since April 2015. Before joining the institute, Goettler was the head of investment bank and debt capital markets for the Americas at Barclays Capital, a position he held until retiring in May 2008. He was also previously a donor to the Institute.
Goettler has contributed to several libertarian and Republican candidates’ campaigns for federal office, including Senator Rand Paul, former Representative Justin Amash, and former Governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson. Goettler also has familial ties to cryptocurrency advocates and Cato has advocated against “regulatory hostility” towards crypto.
Robert A. Levy served as the chairman of the Cato Institute from 2008 until 2022. He also served on the boards of other organizations in the Koch Network such as the Institute For Justice, Foundation for Government Accountability, and the George Mason University School of Law. Levy is also enmeshed in the right-wing network of Leonard Leo, a key ally of George Mason’s Scalia Law School. Levy is also a former board member of the Federalist Society. While a bio for Levy in Cato’s online journal describes him as an active board member of the Federalist Society, he was not listed on the group’s most recent tax filings.
Levy also served as co-counsel in the landmark Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the Court’s conservatives narrowly overturned the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns and established an individual right to possess a firearm in the home. Cato Institute’s online monthly journal described Levy as the “chief architect” of the Heller case. While serving as a senior fellow at the institute, Levy recruited six District of Columbia residents to challenge the capital’s 32-year-old law, an effort that Levy personally financed. Since 2008, the Supreme Court has relied on the Heller decision to limit the government’s ability to regulate firearms, most recently in the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen (2022).
James “Jay” Lapeyre, Jr. was named the chairman of Cato’s board in 2022. Lapeyre was a long-time Cato board member before assuming the chairman role and is the president and CEO of the Laitram Corporation, a manufacturing company. Lapeyre is based in New Orleans and is an active presence in the city.
Lapeyre also serves on the board of the Atlas Society, which promotes the philosophies of right-wing thinker Ayn Rand. Rand’s school of thought, objectivism, claims that property rights trump all others. Rand’s philosophies, which promote unfettered capitalism and claim the rich are virtuous for their success under capitalism, are popular among top corporate executives and at the Cato Institute.
Jeffery Yass was named Cato’s vice chair in 2022. Yass is a billionaire and the founder and managing director of the investment firm Susquehanna International Group. Yass’ business model has pushed legal boundaries to reduce his tax burdens and SIG has repeatedly drawn IRS audits. University of Georgia law professor Gregg Polsky said that Yass’ strategies were “very suspicious and suggestive of potential abuse that should be examined by the IRS.” A ProPublica investigation estimated Yass avoided $1 billion in taxes over 6 years.
In addition to his role at Cato, Yass is a prominent donor to the conservative political network Club For Growth and Yass also seeded a super PAC called School Freedom Fund which supports school-choice candidates.
In 2013, Cato re-published a Washington Times piece written by a former CATO fellow titled “Privatize Almost Everything.” Longtime Cato president Ed Crane once wrote that Republicans’ use of tax cuts and supply-side economics allowed the GOP to avoid directly advocating for spending cuts even while advocating for broad tax cuts. Cato as an organization, on the other hand, does advocate for major cuts to federal spending.
Cato lashes out against the regulatory state in nearly all forms. Cato had advocated attacks on the following regulatory apparatuses:
With financial backing from the fossil fuel industry, Cato has been a leading purveyor of climate change denial and a leading opponent of climate action. Cato’s anti-climate policy views align with its fossil fuel backers as well as its anti-regulatory, libertarian ideology.
As concerns over emerging climate change science grew into a political force in the 1980s and 1990s, Cato positioned itself as an opponent of the potential growth in the regulatory state climate action would require. In 1991, Cato organized a conference titled “Global Environmental Crises: Science or Politics.” Cato’s conference claimed that the growing climate consensus was hysterical, a justification for “a new world order of population control, economic planning and ‘sustainable development,’” invoking a long-standing right-wing conspiracy. One of the speakers at the conference was Patrick Michaels, who would later lead Cato’s climate policy center. Michaels did not have a background in climate science but came from his leading role in a media campaign for fossil fuel companies that attempted to convince Americans that climate change was not real. Vice called the conference one of the first instances of organized climate change denial.
The Cato Institute encouraged anti-climate action forces during the George H. W. Bush Administration and aimed to steer the Republican Party away from climate action as some within the party pushed for it, intrinsically politicizing the issue. Cato’s advocacy for watering down climate science had a profound effect on George W. Bush Administration. For example, in Cato’s 2001 policy handbook, the Institute urged members of Congress to “resist attempts to impose costly reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases in order to limit global warming.”
Cato ran ads that denied the existence of climate change during the Obama administration, falsely arguing there had been “no net global warming” for over ten years. Cato continued to influence the climate policies of the Trump Administration, which went out of its way to weaken environmental protections and deregulate the fossil fuel industry. Cato also opposed federal subsidies for electric vehicles, arguing that such programs would merely enable crony capitalism.
In 2012, Cato founded the Center for the Study of Science. The Institute claimed the Center aimed to provide market solutions to the climate change debate. The Center was headed by Patrick Michaels, and he pioneered the “lukewarming” school of thought. Michael’s “lukewarming” did not deny that man-made climate change existed but did greatly downplay how much warming fossil fuel emissions would cause, and how much harm global temperature increases would cause. Even before the creation of the Center, Cato promoted the “lukewarming” hypothesis. Michaels previously drew scrutiny after he misrepresented Cato’s fossil fuel funding while testifying before Congress to downplay the existential threat of climate change. Michaels claimed that fossil fuel funding only amounted to 3% of Cato’s budget, but would later claim that figure was 40%.
In 2014, a Cato scholar argued that rising carbon dioxide levels were a “cause for celebration” because they represented “the steady drumbeat of human progress” accelerated by the Industrial Revolution.
The Center for the Study of Science was shuttered in 2019 after Cato severed ties with Michaels. Despite the Center’s closure, Cato continues to advocate against climate policy including nuclear power, electric bike subsidies, and climate risk assessment disclosures for businesses. The Institute also continues to downplay the threat of climate change and calls for policymakers to prioritize the market over climate action.
In 2010, Cato vice president for research Jeffery Miron published an essay in Cato’s online publication, Cato Unbound, that claimed that “libertarians should not only oppose Title II [of the Civil Rights Act]; they should shout that opposition from the highest roof tops.” Miron argued that the Civil Rights Act is a “bald-faced assault” on the libertarian principle that “private property is private” and that it snowballed into an assault of all manner of property rights, such as workplace safety laws and public smoking bans. He also disputed the notion that the Civil Rights Act ended Jim Crow, claiming that the legislation’s impact is “easily overstated.”
In a 2016 essay, former Cato board chair Roberty Levy wrote an essay claiming that libertarians can believe in, with ideological consistency, both the right to same-sex marriage and of private businesses to discriminate against same-sex marriage. While Levy admitted that discrimination is wrong, he claimed that legally “discrimination should be permitted in any society that honors freedom of association.” Shortly before that claim, Levy admitted that “prior to the Civil Rights Act, free markets might have produced segregated public accommodations.”
In 2017, Cato analyst Alex Nowrasteh wrote a Forbes opinion piece in the aftermath of the 2017 United The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia which ended in white supremacist violence and the death of a counter-protester. Nowrasteh’s piece argued that since most people killed in terrorist attacks were killed by Islamic terrorists, “partisan spin” on the violence should be ignored. An April 2017 Government Accountability Office report came to a different conclusion than Nowrasteh, claiming that of the deaths caused by violent extremists since September 11, 73% were committed by far-right extremists, vs 27% from Islamic extremists. Less than a week before Nowrasteh’s piece was published, then-President Donald Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of the white supremacist rally.
In 2009, Cato’s online journal Cato Unbound published an essay penned by far-right tech billionaire Peter Thiel. In the essay, Thiel claimed he no longer believed “freedom and democracy are compatible,” specifically citing the “vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women” as reasons for this belief. Thiel called on his fellow libertarians to abandon the world of politics and to instead focus on technological advancement, where “choices of individuals may still be paramount,” to “make the world safe for capitalism.” Thiel became one of Donald Trump’s biggest donors in 2016 and emerged as a key financier of Trump-aligned political campaigns since 2020.
Cato’s ideological opposition to nearly all forms of regulation and public welfare is apparent in its legal track record before the Supreme Court. Cato has filed briefs in cases that undermined the regulatory state, the administrative state, labor, and civil rights. Notable cases in which the Institute filed briefs include:
Cato also filed amicus briefs in significant cases set to be decided by the Supreme Court in its October 2023 term, including multiple briefs in Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo. Loper threatens to undermine the administrative state, or the regulatory authority of federal agencies such as the EPA, FDA, and FCC, requiring all regulatory interpretations to pass through courts first. This would greatly empower the judicial branch and weaken federal regulatory authority, a cause of the modern conservative movement.
In 2019, Cato sued the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in an attempt to prevent the agency from including provisions in settlements that prevent defendants from denying the agency’s claims. Cato’s case was blocked by a U.S. Circuit Court in 2021.
For years, Cato co-founder and longtime president Edward Crane’s poor treatment of women was an open secret among libertarians in Washington. Former employees described Crane as someone who “enjoyed flirting with his attractive, 20-year-old female employees.” In 1999, Cato published a book that recommended “nonadversarial alternatives to reporting [sexual] harassment to corporate or legal authorities” to victims.
In 2012, Crane settled a sexual harassment claim after he allegedly made unwanted sexual comments about then-Director of External Affairs Carey Lafferty. In 2012, “The Edward H. Crane Legal Defense Fund, Inc.,” an LLC, was incorporated in Delaware.
In 2018, three former Cato employees alleged they were sexually harassed by Crane. In addition to the lawsuit, former employees told Politico they remembered instances of sexual harassment while working at the Institute. The former employees said Crane, the “undisputed boss” of Cato, felt “little hesitation” in discussing sexual topics with female employees.
Cato has been repeatedly criticized for accepting money from corporate interests while arguing in favor of policies that benefit their corporate benefactors. Their ties to the Koch brothers have received particular scrutiny. Greenpeace called Cato a “Koch Industries Climate Denial Front Group” and claimed Koch-linked groups such as DonorsTrust gave the Institute nearly $12 million from 1997 to 2017. A Koch Industries spokesperson claimed that the brothers gave Cato over $13 million from 2000 to 2012. Cato has also been criticized for taking donations from Big Tobacco and from the fossil fuel industry lobby including ExxonMobil, Murray Energy, and the industry trade association American Petroleum Institute. Other notable corporate sponsors of Cato include FedEx, Google, CME Group, and Whole Foods.
|Searle Freedom Trust||$500,000||2021|
|Donors Capital Fund||$205,000||2021|
|Sarah Scaife Foundation||$180,000||2021|
|Bradley Impact Fund||$102,000||2021|
|Thomas W. Smith Foundation||$100,000||2021|
Charles Koch was a co-founder of the Cato Institute. Koch was radicalized against government regulation and “corporate welfare” by the business disputes of his father, who blamed corrupt capitalism for legal decisions that ruled against what is now known as Koch Industries. Charles Koch turned Koch Industries into a multi-billion dollar company and himself into one of the richest people in the world. However, he still believed that government regulations and the administrative state undermined individual liberty and the free market and sought to radically weaken the American state to reflect his libertarian values. Charles sought to build a cadre of libertarian institutions to train and organize an ideological vanguard, modeled on the teachings of Vladimir Lenin, that would bring about the libertarian revolution he desired. He renamed his foundation, The Charles Koch Foundation, as one of the first steps toward building that vanguard.
Charles was a main Cato funder, with an Institute spokesperson claiming the Koch family provided 10% of all of the Institute’s funding from its founding until 2012. The Institute noted that Charles provided the entirety of Cato’s funding for its first few years, helping the organization get off the ground. While Charles resigned from Cato’s board in 1991, his brother, David, remained on the board.
Charles Koch was an active member of the far-right John Birch Society. The Society was created by “11 of the nation’s richest businessmen” to fight an international communist conspiracy. The conspiracy had purportedly captured elements of the church, the government, the media, and the education system and wanted to turn America into “a human race of enslaved robots, in which every civilized trait has been destroyed.” The influence of the Birchers is evident in the anti-government extremism of the militia movement, the conspiratorial rhetoric of Alex Jones, and in QAnon’s belief in a secret left-wing cabal that aims to destroy America.
Charles and his brother, David, were notorious for spending “billions” to “advance a radically free-market vision” and pushing the American government to the right through their network of groups including Cato, Americans for Prosperity, the Bill of Rights Institute, and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Charles Koch continues to help finance these organizations through CKF. Through their extensive network, the Kochs’ “family fortune helped mobilize the tea party movement” during the Obama administration, helping to “seed the ground for Donald Trump” with white nationalism, anti-government rhetoric, and conspiracy theories.
Prior to Cato, the Koch family had a storied history of anti-union work. Charles’ father, Fred Koch, was an “early and active member of the Wichita-based DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom, an anti-labor group that was a forerunner of the National Right to Work Defense Foundation.” Through this, Fred Koch succeeded in making Kansas a right-to-work state in 1958.
In 2012, the Koch brothers attempted to launch a hostile takeover of Cato, revealing to the public that Cato was controlled by shareholders divided among its founders. The Kochs attempted to seize a majority stake in the Institute after the death of Cato executive William Niskanen to wrest control of the Institute away from co-founder Ed Crane. Crane and Charles Koch’s relationship had frayed over the years — Crane saw Koch as impatient and too willing to compromise his values for political results, and Crane alienated Koch, icing him out of Cato’s management. Charles Koch left the organization in the early 1990s but saw an opportunity to regain control following Niskanen’s death. While Koch detractors at Cato claimed the brothers’ political ambitions risked watering down the Institute’s ideological purity. Ultimately the Kochs dropped their legal actions, but Crane was removed from Cato and replaced with a new head who was sympathetic to the Kochs’ vision for the Institute. Cato continues to receive major funding from Koch-linked groups such as DonorsTrust to this day.
Cato is a member of the State Policy Network. The State Policy Network is an alliance of over one hundred right-wing advocacy organizations, think tanks, and funding groups seeking to influence policy at the state level. SPN has significant financial ties to the Koch Brothers political network as well as prominent right-wing charities and family foundations such as DonorsTrust, Donors Capital Fund, and Searle Freedom Trust — all of which are major Cato funders.