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Cato University: A Student’s Perspective
August 13, 2002
by Ollivia M. Sexton

Walking into the luxurious Westfield’s Marriott resort in Chantilly, Virginia is an experience all in itself. The marble floors, the valet parking, the Chateau Versailles exterior and the shimmering chandeliers are the first impressions one has as Cato University awaits.

Cato U, as the seminar is commonly known, is a subsidiary of the Cato Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank known for its libertarian, free-market analysis of public policy. Going on the reputation of the Institute, expectations for this seminar are high, indeed.

Scholarships are provided for a selected number of students who demonstrate that they have a keen interest in and reasonable desire to learn about libertarianism. For those who are not students the fee is less than practical for seven days of exquisite lodging, gourmet meals and gracious hospitality, not to mention that the price alone, outside the confines of Cato University, might pay for only one of the immensely sought-after presenters. According to the schedule it will be a week of lectures, speeches, white tablecloth dinners, receptions and friendly liberty-minded folk.

The line up of experts coming to talk to this group of 150 is long and distinguished ranging from Don Boudreaux (Chairman, Department of Economics at George Mason University) to Robert Levy and R.J. Smith (Senior Fellows at the Cato Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, respectively) to Stephen Davies of Manchester University and keynote speaker Walter Williams. The participants enrolled in the seminar, like the speakers, are from around the country and globe. Representing a variety of occupations, the attendees have one thing in common: a desire to expand their knowledge of "liberalism" in the classic sense of the word. Prepared only by the introductory package, which included a wonderful assortment of pro-liberty reading materials mailed to each attendee before arrival, those enrolled were in store for something phenomenal.

It seems that some of the attendees know one another. Perhaps they have traveled together before to one of the other Cato conferences. Their contagious smiles and eager laughs lead onlookers to think that they have made this conference an annual part of their lives. Couples, individuals, professionals and students, academics and laymen listen intently to each expert with open minds and questioning spirits. Simply, the inspiration of Cato U is the diversity of people, the interaction among them, the intrigue in their eyes and their willingness to learn and question. There is no indoctrination. This is a week of learning, understanding, clarifying, debating. The experts, although brilliant, are not there to test or convert, but to convey. Convey what they believe to be the best way for society to function. Convey the best way for individuals to recognize how important their civil liberties are and how vital it is to keep them ever-present in daily life.

The days are filled with lectures from 13 of the most interesting and prominent free-market, libertarian minds, dare I say, in the world. The topics range from economics ("Trade and the Comparative Advantage" and "The Economics of Public Choice"), to history ("History of Liberty, History of Power" and "Origins of Limited Government"), to constitutional law and free market environmentalism. And the best part: how interrelated these seemingly dissimilar disciplines became as the week progressed. Law, history, philosophy and economics are intricately woven together in the study of classic liberal thought.

There are four distinct aspects of the conference, and in particular of the lectures, that will be the focus of the rest of this article: first, a personal encounter with the ideas of associations as an alternative to government involvement; second, Don Boudreaux’s answer to an insightful question regarding free-trade; third, R.J. Smith’s Free-Market Environmentalism; fourth and finally, Randy Barnett’s analysis on the legitimacy of the Constitution.

Associations and the Freedom to Choose

One night I found myself talking of liberty with my roommate, also a student at Cato U on scholarship. She asked me how I thought it possible that associations could take care of what government is responsible for at present. She asked me what I thought the logical role of government should be. I found myself excited to answer these questions that I formerly would purposely avoid. After two days at Cato U I had some concrete answers to the instincts I had felt for so long. I answered the first by saying, ‘if people were not taxed and were able to give their money to the charities and groups that they found themselves interested or passionate about, then those groups with narrow focuses (for instance, the environment, education, Hispanic rights, or immigration) could handle their respective issues. Instead of having the government, this huge, cumbersome-under-its-own-weight institution, there would be smaller, more specific organizations that people would willingly give their money to because they care about the issue for which that institution is responsible. And the issues will vary. For those who care passionately about the environment, there would be something akin to the World Wildlife Fund or Sierra Club. For someone like my roommate at Cato U, who advocates against the misuse and exploitation of Mexican illegal immigrants, there would be an association she could support. She would do it because she legitimately cares about the cause and wants to help. She would do it because the organization to which she gives her money is directly responsible to her. Non-profit associations are accountable to their donors for the money that they contribute. These organizations have to show where that money has gone and what benefits can be seen from the donations.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with the government. The government does not have to and, in fact, cannot show where the mandatory donation, otherwise known as taxes, has gone. Officials may point to a freshly tarred street on the other side of town, or the welfare housing that is poorly maintained and say that is where your money went. Realistically, tax dollars are all piled into a pot and used to pay for anything those in charge deem necessary. In contrast, voluntary associations are created and maintained by those who care about the issue, not a civil servant climbing a bureaucratic ladder, and all the funds are shown to have been used for that particular issue. The problem with government control, of course, is that there is no process of checks and balances. No accountability for each dollar. No control for the consumer/donor.

These issue-based associations would not have a guaranteed income. Like the Cato Institute, they have to be accountable to their donors every year and show what they have done with the money that was given. This is a system of checks and balances. If Cato does not produce desirable outcomes, people can choose to no longer give their support. It keeps Cato on its toes. It keeps associations accountable. This same principle of accountability applies to any other association for any other cause insofar as the contributor has the freedom to choose (clearly not the case with government taxation).

The Social Side of Free Trade

Don Boudreaux, during his lecture on "Trade and Comparative Advantage", was asked what he considers a common criticism of his thesis that opening up boarders to free-trade and allowing foreign products into the country, even if they undercut the American prices of those products, will not hurt the economy. In fact, he believes it will improve the economic environment. The criticism is as follows: What happens when someone in one’s local geo-political area can produce what someone in a foreign country can, but for a margin more because of minimum wage laws and other restrictions? In other words, in the social and political atmosphere of the US at present (meaning a state with welfare, subsidies etc), does your [Boudreaux] thesis hold water? Is there not a problem when the Americans producing the product are out of work because the foreign country can export the product and sell it in the US for less?

To this insightful question Don answers cleverly by telling the story of the man who created the Polio vaccination. The point of the story is to image a case where the man who created the vaccination was told he cannot distribute or sell it because if the debilitating disease was annihilated then those workers who make crutches or wheelchairs, those workers who were hired to care for the increasing number of Polio patients in hospitals would be out of work. Indeed this is absurd, but for more than one reason. Failing to introduce a vaccination which would save lives to protect some jobs can be seen as criminal. But failing to progress and allow customers the very best value for their money and highest possible quality of life is also wrong, especially when what is stopping the movement forward is fear of change. Once one job is lost to another market, a new one is opened up by that foreign market. Understand, the loss of jobs in a particular industry due to foreign trade is relevant, but not catastrophic.

Boudreaux’s point is that employment shifts. There is no need for jobs to be static. Indeed, it is more comfortable for the particular families, perhaps even a community that is dependent on an industry, but it is not better for the society as a whole. It is not better that many have Polio so that a few can continue to make crutches. Likewise, it is not better that many have an inferior quality of life because a few are unwilling to move with tides of change. The economy is growing and shifting. Those who try to encourage stagnation will either disrupt natural market progression producing negative repercussions for many, or get lost in the shuffle.

Another Approach to Environmentalism

It may be very difficult to believe that turning to the government to regulate commerce and lifestyle in an effort to save the environment is not the most efficient and reasonable approach to combating pollution. After all, these are social problems that need an agent of social control to deal with them, right?

During his lecture on Free-Market Environmentalism (FME), a phrase he coined in the 1970s while developing an approach to save the earth using the open market and libertarian principles, R.J. Smith spoke of how the key to saving the environment, and protecting wild life and lands, is enforcing private property rights. Because the subject is often ignored, R.J.’s discussion of how the market became to be known as the cause of pollution will be of particular interest in this paper.

What is missed with many FME publications is what R.J. calls the myth of environmental degradation and its relationship to Capitalism. What he explains is the history of how Capitalism came to be wrongly perceived as the cause of environmental degradation.

It is assumed that the market is responsible for the supposed ruin of the environment, for the first discovery of any significant degree of air pollution coincided with the eruption of the industrial revolution. As both the capitalist market and the industrial revolution began in the west at approximately the same time, the free and open market, which was a cornerstone of the western political/economic system, was seen and remains to be seen as the source of degradation.

This perception is, in fact, a misperception. It was not the market that caused the pollution, for as R.J. explains in communist Poland the problem of acid rain was much more profound.

R.J. believes that if individuals own land and it is not managed by a government body acting on the behalf of "everyone" (an impossible endeavor, for not everyone in a society can agree on one common goal), then there would be less pollution. Granted, there was a heightened degree of effluence with the induction of the industrial revolution, but the levels of acid rain never reached the point of stripping gold off of Cathedrals as was the case in communist Poland - a place where the government was supposed to manage property for everyone and thereby eliminate pollution.

It cannot be stated, then, with any degree of verifiable truth that the market or capitalism caused pollution. If this was the case, then evidence of great amounts of pollution in Poland and other communist countries would not be explainable. What accompany free-markets are private property rights. And private property rights are only ascertained and respected with a political/economic system based on individual liberty and individual responsibility.

Is the Constitution Legitimate?

The third lecture of the week was Randy Barnett’s entitled "Natural Rights and the Constitution". In this talk, Randy outlined the problems associated with taking the legitimacy of the Constitution for granted. As a fundamental document upon which much of the libertarian principle is grounded, the Constitution is perceived as sacred and, therefore, deemed legitimate. Assuming consent is a prerequisite for a legitimate contract, and knowing that expressed consent was not given by each living and non living American to whom the rules of the Constitution apply, then legitimacy cannot be taken for granted. The preamble to the Constitution reads, "We the People…"; but which people comprise the "we" who gave this document their consent? I did not agree to the terms of the agreement. In fact, no one who has lived under its rules since the 1770’s could have possibly given their consent. So, how can the Constitution as a legal document be legitimate?

In the second of his three talks, Barnett answered this question and solved the problem of Constitutional legitimacy by proposing that the Constitution should be seen as laying out rules to govern the associations to which citizens choose to belong. By becoming members of certain groups, individuals consent to limits on their freedom. By narrowing the jurisdiction of consent to distinct associations, unanimous consent of all Americans becomes unnecessary. As Randy put it, "unanimous consent is impossible because [people] think of it too broadly". When one joins a church, a firm or an association there is narrow jurisdiction on consent. Simply, the individual who wants to join gives her consent thereby making legitimate the limits on individual freedom deemed necessary by that particular association.

An instance of how this alternative Constitutional structure would work can be exemplified by police and legal systems. Each person living in America would choose from a given number of legal systems and police outfits. When they consent to join the system of their choice, they are subject to the rules laid out by that organization and, legitimately so, for the person has expressly consented to the contract. This, of course, is not the case with the current Constitutional structure. Presently, only tacit consent can be given to the Constitution. It is important to note, as Randy emphasized in his talk, that consent presupposes a choice not to consent, which further questions the legitimacy of the Constitution by undermining the principle of tacit consent.

In essence, then, every aspect of the Constitution would be the jurisdiction of an association or organization that individuals freely join and thereby consent to.

This solution negates the form of "high exit costs" that Randy identified as extremely problematic for the legitimacy of the Constitution. In other words, the costs of not agreeing with the rules one is subject to under the Constitution are too high, therefore, the person is not given a true choice. Put plainly, the cost of exit - leaving one’s family, job, home, country - is too high a price making the choice of not consenting unjust.

Randy Barnett’s discussion of Constitutional legitimacy was perhaps the most intellectually complex of the topics discussed during the week. Indeed, questioning the premises upon which one’s beliefs lie is a practice not undertaken by enough of the politically involved. It shows a certain amount of intellectual maturity and professionalism that libertarians engage in such deep inquiry.

These are only brief discussion of three provoking lectures presented during the week. There were dozens more. Even for those who consider themselves absolute, unwavering libertarians this conference is an experience where one can reaffirm her beliefs, hear the questions and criticism of fellow citizens, and consider the academic quandaries pondered by academia.

The scholarship students were asked to write a thank you letter to the sponsor who made it possible for the students to come to this seminar. In my letter I wrote some very revealing words that sum up the Cato University experience. I feel they will make a perfect conclusion to this tribute to my week at Cato U:

"This week has been equivalent to taking the best professors, the best courses, the best interactions between students and teachers of my entire university career and rolling them into six days. In a word, it was phenomenal."

"This is, quite literally, the most inspiring, fascinating, brilliant group of intellectuals I have encountered in my four years a university. I feel like I now have the ideas, principles, and arguments in my portfolio so that I may convey my beliefs coherently, logically to others."

Looking at Cato University through a retrospective lens, I see that those elegant first impressions – the chandeliers, the marble floors, the Chateau Versailles exterior were not the essence of the week, just luxurious accessories. Rather, the lasting impressions are of the brilliant minds, the thoughts learned, the moments of engagement, the knowledge acquired and in the words of the director, Tom G. Palmer, "the pursuit of liberty".

Thank you Cato.

Ollivia M. Sexton is a 2002 Cato University Alumna and a graduate cum laude of Queen’s University, Canada. She is currently a Legal Researcher for the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, D.C., and a law student (Environmental Law, JD) at Vermont Law School.

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