On My Libertarian Catholicity

Since the late 1970s, I have been working in some capacity with think tanks and similar organizations that one might view as interested in education, research, and advocacy in the broad area of classical liberal, libertarian, and free-market thinking. One does not have to follow such organizations very long to discover that they differ in various ways, so much so that some of them—or, at least, some of their friends and supporters—look on others with a very jaundiced eye. A few might even appear to be sworn enemies.

My position, from which I have never deviated, despite strong temptations to do so on certain occasions, has been to steer clear of such intramural squabbling except in one regard—support for unnecessary war, which I consider so terribly misguided and destructive of life and liberty that I cannot tolerate it. In my mind, the great enemy of freedom, decency, and humanity is the state, not other classical liberals or libertarians. Much energy is wasted in inter-group mud slinging that could be expended  better in efforts to expose the state’s many evils and to bring the libertarian perspective to the fore among the many people who have yet to encounter, understand, or value it.

Over the years I have worked off and on with about three dozen different think tanks and similar groups as a compensated writer, editor, lecturer, and conference participant. With some of them I have worked steadily or frequently; with others I have worked only once or a few times. However, to my knowledge, none of these organizations has been so displeased with the work I have done for it that its managers have cast me officially into ideological outer darkness. So, I apparently remain on civilized speaking terms with all of them, and hence, with only two or three exceptions, I would, if the terms suited me, be willing to work for them again.

To satisfy my curiosity, I have combed through my resume to identify the various think tanks and similar organizations for which I have worked in the capacities noted previously over the past thirty-five years or so. Here is the list I’ve compiled, with the organizations listed in no particular order:

  • Hoover Institution (Stanford University)
  • Cato Institute
  • Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy
  • Reason Foundation
  • Institute for Humane Studies
  • Sequoia Institute
  • Liberty Fund
  • Ludwig von Mises Institute
  • Intercollegiate Studies Institute
  • Charles G. Koch Foundation
  • Independent Institute
  • Heritage Foundation
  • Free Enterprise Institute
  • Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation
  • Competitive Enterprise Institute
  • Foundation for Economic Education
  • Foundation for Teaching Economics
  • American Enterprise Institute
  • Future of Freedom Foundation
  • Center for Study of Public Choice (George Mason University)
  • Young America’s Foundation
  • Liberales Institut der Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung (Germany)
  • Liberální Institut (Czech Republic)
  • Universidad Francisco Marroquín (Guatemala)
  • Mont Pelerin Society
  • Mercatus Center (George Mason University)
  • Fundación Libertad Panamá (Panama)
  • New York City Junto
  • Property and Freedom Society (Turkey)
  • Federalist Society
  • Center for Creative Alternatives (Hillsdale College)
  • Manhattan Institute
  • National Center for Policy Analysis

Perhaps other people who do the same kind of work that I do have charted an equally catholic course in their relations with such organizations, but at the moment I cannot think of anyone who has done so.

For young economists and other professionals just getting involved in the world of classical liberal, libertarian, and free-market research, education, and advocacy, I recommend this course of action. Of course, those who follow it will find that they often disagree in some regard with what appears to be an organization’s stance, but they ought to understand that finding an organization with which they invariably agree is well-nigh impossible if they are genuinely independent thinkers. At least, I have never found myself in universal agreement in any case, although some organizations have made me feel a great deal more comfortable than others.

Often people who are unfamiliar with how such organizations function assume that each of them has an official line that it seeks to promote and that therefore anyone who works with an organization must adhere to this line in every regard. I have never found such comprehensive agreement to be either demanded or supplied. No organization has ever told me what to say or how to say it. I have invariably spoken my mind as freely in doing this sort of work as I have in any other situation, such as university teaching. Moreover, it should be obvious to any but the most slipshod observer that the usual case in think tanks is that their researchers, writers, and affiliated scholars have some disagreements; that is, the organization in fact enforces no rigid official line. Of course, each has its boundaries. Free-market think tanks do not sponsor advocacy of socialist central planning or the nationalization of private property, for example. Yet, in most such organizations, a substantial amount of internal diversity exists within these broad boundaries. And such is hardly surprising: anyone who has lived among scholars and researchers knows that they are somewhat prickly about their ideas and harder to herd than cats.

Besides encouraging young economists and other professionals to adopt a catholic stance in regard to working with various groups, I encourage outsiders who encounter squabbling among the various groups’ adherents to look askance on such free-market or libertarian in-fighting. Not that all sides are equally right; far from it. But spending a great deal of time and energy in such fraternal squabbling is a poor use of one’s personal resources. And, most important, it does little or nothing to lead one any closer to the ultimate goal of exposing the state’s destructive character more fully and spreading this knowledge to a wider audience.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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