Careful what you think at some think tanks

CAREFUL WHAT YOU THINK AT SOME THINK TANKS…. The Cato Institute, a leading institution for conservative libertarians, will no longer be the home of some high-profile scholars, who may be part of yet another think-tank purge.

Brink Lindsey, who helped oversee Cato research, and Will Wilkinson, the editor of “Cato Unbound,” are both headed for new professional homes. Dave Weigel highlights the larger context.

I asked for comment on this and was told that the institute does not typically comment on personnel matters. But you have to struggle not to see a political context to this. Lindsey and Wilkinson are among the Cato scholars who most often find common cause with liberals. In 2006, after the GOP lost Congress, Lindsey coined the term “Liberaltarians” to suggest that Libertarians and liberals could work together outside of the conservative movement. Shortly after this, he launched a dinner series where liberals and Libertarians met to discuss big ideas. (Disclosure: I attended some of these dinners.)

In 2009 and 2010, as the libertarian movement moved back into the right’s fold, Lindsey remained iconoclastic — just last month he penned a rare, biting criticism of The Battle, a book by AEI President Arthur Brooks which argues that economic theory is at the center of a new American culture war.

I’m not privy to the internal personnel discussions at Cato, so my take is obviously speculative. But Cato was home to two widely-read, well-respected “liberaltarians,” and both are out, just as the think tank becomes even more conservative? One need not be a conspiracy theorist to suspect an ideological purge.

But what’s especially interesting to me is how often we’ve seen moves like these in recent years. David Frum was forced out at the American Enterprise Institute after failing to toe the Republican Party line. Bruce Bartlett was shown the door at the National Center for Policy Analysis for having the audacity to criticize George W. Bush’s incoherent economic policies.

In perhaps the most notable example, John Hulsman was a senior foreign policy analyst at the right’s largest think tank, the Heritage Foundation. Hulsman was a conservative in good standing — appearing regularly on Fox News and on the Washington Times‘ op-ed page, blasting Democrats — right up until he expressed his disapproval of the neoconservatives’ approach to foreign policy. At that point, Heritage threw him overboard. Cato’s Chris Preble said at the time, “At Heritage, anything that smacks of criticism of Bush will not be tolerated.”

A few years later, Cato seems to be moving in a very similar direction.

Intellectually, modern conservatism is facing a painfully sad state of affairs.