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Making America Work : RED WHITE AND SMALL : Ed Crane’s Cato Institute Is a Think Tank That Believes the Country Would Work Better if There Was Less Government

Staff writer Nina J. Easton's last article for the magazine examined the activists of the '60s and '90s, their similarities and differences

When Ed Crane decided to trade in the Cato Institute’s colonial townhouse on Capitol Hill, with its Oriental rugs and English hunting prints, for more-modern quarters, he could have leased any one of the scores of chic vacant offices in downtown Washington. But Edward Harrison Crane III--founder of the nation’s most prominent libertarian think tank--is a man of vision, say his supporters. And a bullheaded ideologue, say his detractors. So it seemed natural that Crane should take a page straight from an Ayn Rand novel and plunk a giant, $14 million steel-and-glass ice cube down on a blighted corner in the city’s Northwest quadrant.

The design of the six-story building was so ambitious, its cost so out of sync with the market, that colleagues still snicker about the man’s “ed"-ifice complex. But Crane was determined to make the point that Cato’s vision of rooting out government from most aspects of American life is as futuristic as his building’s design. That for all its 18th-Century Jeffersonian talk of government as a “necessary evil,” Cato’s view is relevant to the complexities of the 21st Century. That the American public’s belligerent anti-Washington mood is, in fact, quite progressive.

In the 1990s, America is being wrenched by a cultural war, and it’s not the one posited by Patrick J. Buchanan, with his images of prayerful soldiers standing up to the forces of amorality and Woody Allen. Today’s cultural war has erupted over government, between those who see it as a clumsy, overgrown but generally benign force and those who view it as an potentially evil oppressor, gunning down basic human rights. Cato, the pseudonym taken by a pair of Revolutionary pamphleteers who lived in fear of King George’s sword, has been thrust onto the front lines of what is aptly dubbed “the small-government movement.”

When, shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton condemned hatemongering on the airwaves, he was aiming directly at the small-government movement. “There’s nothing patriotic about hating your government,” he said in early May, “or pretending you can hate your government but love your country.” The President could have been talking about Cato, where some thinkers are fond of using that love-your-country, hate-your-government line.

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Although Crane takes pains to distance himself from extremists in the small government movement, particularly the private militias, the thread of government-as-Darth Vader runs through Cato’s work: in a Cato-published book by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that depicts a threatening trooper on the jacket alongside the words “Is Your Property Safe From Seizure?”; in a recent column by Cato policy analyst Dave Kopel that blames the rise of militias solely on an “increasing militarization, lawlessness and violence on the part of federal law enforcement”; in Crane’s own insistence that government “is not reason, it is force.”

Cato’s roots are solidly libertarian, an outgrowth of Rand’s philosophy that blesses individual freedom and curses collectivist controls of the state. Unlike some of its conservative allies Cato’s skepticism toward bureaucracies is consistent. If government can’t be trusted to help poor children and their mothers, why should it be any better at knitting a safety net for the elderly? Or deciding what drug, legal or illegal, we should ingest? Or running our children’s schools? Or, for that matter, solving civil wars overseas? Cato’s hypocrisy radar is finely tuned: As congressional Republicans debate which poverty programs to cut or fold, the libertarian think tank is shoving proposals that eliminate “corporate welfare"--farm, timber and utility subsidies--in their faces.

In the 17 years since Crane founded Cato on San Francisco’s Bay Street, the institute has made the case that government’s function is to protect life, liberty and property. Period. Or, as humorist P. J. O’Rourke, a Cato H. L. Mencken research fellow, put it in a recent speech: “I don’t know what’s good for you. You don’t know what’s good for me. We don’t know what’s good for mankind. . . . There is only one basic human right--the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.”

Crane describes Cato’s philosophy this way: “Are you going to put your faith in people being able to work these things out on their own or are you going to put your faith in getting some bureaucracy involved?” A widely acknowledged genius at raising money for his $6 million think tank, the one-time money manager describes Cato’s vision as “the politics of humility.”

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Anytime someone with a string of degrees offers up a plan to improve society, Crane says, it’s best to turn and run, just as the American public did when Clinton’s Ivy League brain trust churned out a 1,000-page plan to reform the nation’s health-care system. “We should be respectful of cultural evolution and avoid getting overly enthusiastic about our rational faculties to make things better,” Crane adds. “The complexity of society is so great that, invariably, government planners are going to make things worse.”

Cato nearly lives up to its post-election media image as the hottest think tank in town. On any given day, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas might be visiting for lunch. Or Cato staffers might be plotting strategy with House Majority Leader Dick Armey, another Texan, and his staff. Cato’s constitutional law briefs cross the desks of conservative Supreme Court justices and their clerks. In one week in February alone, Cato staffers logged appearances on seven radio and TV shows, eight op-ed pieces in major papers and citations in 22 news stories.

Although the label “libertarian,” with its images of fringe third-party candidates and peevish Rand devotees, has not caught on with the American public, pollsters say the country retains a strong streak of this economically conservative, socially tolerant sentiment. A national Gallup Poll last year classified 22% of voters as libertarian. Crane has tried various ways to solidify that base. In the mid-'80s, he pushed his program as the ideal Yuppie cause. Now he is trying, unsuccessfully so far, to rename his institute’s ideas “market liberalism"--which may make him the only person in Washington who actually wants to adopt the label liberal .

But even Cato insiders acknowledge that glowing media reviews of late tend to exaggerate the institute’s links to the new Congress. Crane and his colleagues are hard-pressed to come up with a single member of Congress who endorses the entire libertarian philosophy. Even one of the institute’s most prominent board members, Federal Express founder Frederick W. Smith, says he doesn’t buy the program lock, stock and barrel.

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Most Republican members of Congress embrace Cato’s budget-cutting ideas but treat its more quixotic views--drug decriminalization or sharp military reductions, for example--with the bemused tolerance that families reserve for troublesome relatives: “Oh, that’s just Aunt Mildred. She gets that way after too much rum punch. Don’t let her spoil the party.” Cato’s policy directors testified before congressional committees 20 times in the first month of the current session, though members hear what they want to hear. Cato fiscal-policy specialist Stephen Moore was invited to condemn the crime bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee, provided that he didn’t talk about legalizing drugs.

Besides, the folks at Cato are just plain too impolitic to exert influence in the traditional Washington sense. When Clinton’s first surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders, suggested that drug decriminalization should be studied, Washington insiders started placing bets on her departure date. Crane sent her a letter of support. Crane’s office wall is lined with the requisite standing-with-the-President photos. Except, he has slapped a yellow “Post-it” sticker over George Bush’s face. Crane has never forgiven George Bush for wanting to be President more than he wanted to change Washington.

While most of Cato’s conservative allies treat House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) like the Messiah arrived, Crane steps right up to the plate. “One of the things that disturbs me about Newt,” he says, “he has this feeling that he sees something about the future of society that nobody else sees. I think that’s kind of scary.”

Crane may not be whispering in Newt’s ear, but he and his staff are making the case for small government in all the other important places: high-profile op-eds, talk shows, news spots, books, a parade of speeches and seminars in their giant ice cube. When House Budget Chair John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) was wrestling with ways to balance the budget, Republican strategist William Kristol suggested that he take a look at Cato’s 358-page “Handbook for Congress.” Kasich immediately called out to his staff to secure a copy. “They are not just interested in saying how things should be. They figure out how to get there,” Kristol says of the Cato Institute.

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Right now, Cato’s plan for cutting the federal government centers on three issues: individual savings accounts designed to reform the health-care system; privatizing Social Security and abolishing the federal income tax system in favor of a sales tax. Medical savings accounts are likely to be high on Congress’ list if it revisits health care. And talk of radical tax reform is gaining ground.

“Six months ago, I would have said none,” Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) says when asked about the chances that the IRS would face the guillotine in this century. “Now it’s not something people laugh about.” As for the nation’s pension system: “I think there is a fairly good chance we’ll have a form of privatized Social Security.”

It’s worth remembering that Crane was on the term-limits bandwagon when it looked more like a horse-drawn cart; before the Supreme Court narrowly overturned congressional term limits in May, 23 states had passed laws capping the terms of their U.S. representatives and senators. Even his decision to risk an expensive new building is now widely considered a shrewd move. “In Washington, perception is reality,” says Cato senior fellow Doug Bandow. “And people perceive it as an important place. They recognize it as a signature building.”

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The beauty of Cato’s libertarianism--and, critics say, its fatal flaw--is its obstinate consistency. So while the think tank’s influence in Republican-dominated Washington stems from its conservative economics, Crane’s opposition to government intrusion takes him across the political spectrum. He’s a card-carrying member of the ACLU, a former advisory committee member for the marijuana legalization group NORML, and, to boot, a darling of right-wing entrepreneurs who want to reduce taxes and regulation. He’s also a champion of immigrants, arguing that anyone who braved the high seas in an orange crate deserves to become a U.S. citizen.

Cato is closely aligned with Charles Murray, the social scientist who argues that government-aid programs contribute to the breakdown of the family and who most recently co-authored the controversial race-IQ book, “The Bell Curve,” which his pal Crane harshly criticizes. And Cato has close ties with two Nobel laureate economists: Milton Friedman and the late Austrian F. A. Hayek, author of the conservative bible “The Road to Serfdom.” But Cato’s palm-tree winter garden recently served as the setting for a book party honoring ACLU President Nadine Strossen. And former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder--a Democrat whose photograph, like Strossen’s, graces Cato’s walls--is one of the think tank’s favorite politicians. Cato’s chairman, William A. Niskanen, was a top economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan, but Cato board member Richard J. Dennis funds Democratic campaigns and causes, and former Democratic Rep. Timothy J. Penny of Minnesota has just joined as a fellow.

The typical Cato staffer is a white male baby-boomer who spent a little time in the Young Americans for Freedom or some other right-of-center cause in college but ultimately was drawn to something more daring. For a generation that, however conservative, remains viscerally drawn to the ‘60s-'70s youth culture of rock ‘n’ roll and anything goes, Cato is just a little more hip, a little less Establishment, than, say, the strait-laced Heritage Foundation. When Cato sponsors a seminar titled “The United Nations: Peacemaker, Farce or Menace?” it’s hard for the David Letterman generation to resist.

The top staff includes gay writer David Boaz, best known for his work promoting school choice, who likes to tweak the religious right over its obsession with homosexuality--as opposed to divorce--as a danger to family stability. Devout Christian Bandow, who writes a syndicated column, argues that the government has no business “trying to make me a moral person. If the ultimate judgment is up to God, why should I trust sinful intermediaries to make these decisions?” Atheist Sheldon Richman keeps his kids home from school in the belief that rules such as bathroom passes are too “authoritarian.”

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Roger Pilon long ago traded in his bass, guitar and rock band for pin stripes, a Ph.D. in philosophy and a law degree to pontificate on the constitutional protections of “boorish” behavior in private life, whether it’s failing to hire minorities or burning the American flag. Edward Hudgins quotes Aristotle in making his case that private ownership builds character, while Michael Tanner uses Louis Farrakhan speeches to bolster his position that inner-city blacks would be better off without government-funded welfare. And the omniscient Steve Moore has been labeled “brilliant” on the air by one of his biggest fans, Rush Limbaugh.

In most offices, passionate chatter around the water cooler is inspired by management’s plans to cut benefits or by poorly concealed romantic liaisons. At Cato, an unsuspecting visitor might get treated to Ed Hudgins’ repartee about the “parasitic bureaucratic class” (teachers unions) or Jerry Taylor’s indignant barbs aimed at the “hysteria” of environmentalists. The place nearly went into a tizzy toward the end of Newt’s first 100 days when the Speaker had the gall to write in Newsweek that government “does some things well.” Just in case anyone should need a reminder about the potential evils of government, photos of the Great Wall of China are plastered in more than one office. (You know: “Today, Clinton’s health-care plan; tomorrow, totalitarianism.”)

The Cato-ites’ offices are rife with contrarianism. “There are too many people in this world who think there are too many people in this world” says a poster above Richman’s desk. So are their lives outside the office: Pilon got into a war of words with his son’s fourth-grade teacher because the woman was promoting--horrors!--recycling. (Cato makes the case that recycling is not economic and its benefits a myth.) Somehow, though, you can’t help but imagine these guys are really objecting to the idea of some bureaucrat forcing them to separate their Miller cans from their Pepsi bottles).

One of the more explosive internal controversies was Crane’s decision to ban smoking inside the ice cube. The smokers finally came around when it was pointed out that this was a politically correct libertarian position: It’s proper for private owners to set whatever rules they please about their property. And besides, there’s a lovely outdoor walkway available.

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We are barreling through the streets of Washington, inside Crane’s van that carries the license plate THNK TNK. Crane left California 15 years ago, but the vanity plates--like the palm trees in the atrium--are a reminder of his birthplace. This is our first meeting, and as he swings through rutted streets on his way to host a weekly TV show, Crane remains reserved, at once suspicious and curious.

Hearing tales of Crane from others, including his black-clad, Generation X public affairs director, Anna McCollister, I half expected him to look like some ‘90s version of Jerry Garcia. He’s a product of UC Berkeley who ran for campus office at the height of the Free Speech Movement on a platform of abolishing student government. He showed up at the first Libertarian Party convention in 1972, and he speaks with genuine fondness for the black-garbed anarchists and Ayn Rand followers waving their extension cigarette holders that he met there. He pines for California, which he considers--in contrast to Washington, at least--"the real world.” Six years ago, he secured a marriage license from one of the most entrenched, oppressive socialist bureaucracies on earth, China, simply because, he says, “it was a challenge.”

But the man hunched over the steering wheel gives no hint of the puckish side of his personality. With his pressed suit and trimmed hair, a middle-aged paunch sneaking up around his athlete’s frame, Crane could be mistaken for, say, Ed Meese’s younger brother. Colleagues call Crane an “Alpha male” and refer vaguely to his “zest for life,” but now he’s settled down as the father of three children in a Virginia suburb.

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We park in front of right-wing strategist Paul M. Weyrich’s small TV network, National Empowerment Television, and Crane makes his way onto the set, rehearsing his spiel with Hudgins. Crane’s booming broadcast voice opens the show while a young woman in plaid skirt works a TV camera adorned with a small American flag. This week’s “Cato Forum” focuses on labor law and features an academic and Cato staffers debating the arcane hiccups in policy.

As the one-hour show comes to a close, it’s time for the Cato president’s commentary, and that’s when the real Ed Crane begins to surface. Into this, the heart of Washington’s flag-waving, Newt-hugging conservative lovefest, Crane throws a wet blanket: “This week provides the best evidence yet that the Republican party is not quite ready to lead the revolt against big government . . . .”

Later that day, over lunch, Crane’s mischievousness starts leaking out, taking the edge off what some Washington insiders describe as a propensity toward pomposity. “So you grew up in L.A.?” I ask in our first meeting. “That’s arguable,” he responds gravely. “But I thought . . . .” “I mean it’s arguable that I grew up.” “What did you study?” I ask later. “I didn’t.” Pause. “But I have a degree in business from Berkeley and an MBA from USC.”

The best glimpse into Crane’s sometimes-twisted sense of humor was his decision to tie the knot with live-in girlfriend Kristina at the People’s Marriage Bureau No. 11 in 1989. This gave Crane an opportunity to prove economist Hayek’s thesis that the broader the reach of a government, the more arbitrary its decisions will become. “My thinking was that any system as bureaucratized as China has lots of ways around the rules,” Crane explains. His tour of the American and Chinese bureaucracies began with an AIDS test in Washington--which was certified and stamped and notarized up the bureaucratic chain of command--and ended many well-placed $5 bills later with a Chinese certificate of marriage.

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As Crane talked about his life, I began to realize that I had missed the point of all those early stories about Crane: For all of his playfulness, for all his comfort with the eccentricity of others, this was a man born to wear a suit. (He claims to be on the only Libertarian Party member wearing one at the 1972 convention.) It’s an important fact of Crane’s life that not only did he avoid taking part in the Free Speech Movement but that he was turned off by what he calls Mario Savio’s “collectivist” rhetoric.

When his fraternity brother, former California insurance commissioner John Garamendi, describes Crane as a “child of the ‘60s,” he means that Crane was part of that vast overlooked middle--so quintessentially Californian in its easy embrace of outsiders and its skepticism toward authority. For Crane, the shaggy-haired leaders of the Free Speech Movement unfolding on Sproul Plaza in 1964 were a spectacle to be caught in between class and football practice.

This son of a doctor grew up in 1950s Los Angeles, comfortably part of the ethnic mix at Dorsey High School, where he was the only white guy on the basketball team and was troubled by the racial intolerance of his father. He transferred to Inglewood High, spent his college freshman year playing football at the University of Redlands and then went on to UC Berkeley, where he joined Sigma Chi. Crane and his fraternity brothers governed less by rules than by ridicule, recalls Brian Smith, now Cato’s vice president for administration. “Humor was a large part of what we did. You either sank or swam on your ability to protect yourself with it. But part of that rule by ridicule involved trust. We all trusted one another.”

Even then, Crane had a disdain for politicians that prompted him to propose abolishing student government because it “was a plaything, a training ground for future politicians.” Today, what some Washington insiders extol as Crane’s careful and principled distancing from both political parties, others say is an extension of his personality: Crane doesn’t suck up to politicians. insists one colleague, simply because he doesn’t consider them worth sucking up to. “I just never understood why people should control other people’s lives,” Crane says.

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In the mid-1970s, he set aside a successful career as a money manager to work full time as the Libertarian Party’s national chairman. In 1980, he was instrumental in the presidential campaign of Ed Clark, a former California gubernatorial candidate. Although the nearly 1 million votes cast for Clark proved to be the party’s biggest moment, Crane concluded that federal election laws make it impossible to establish a viable third party.

With the financial backing of Wichita industrialist Charles Koch, Crane had already launched Cato in San Francisco in 1977. He also had published the magazine Inquiry, a brief attempt by the libertarian movement to court the political left through a strong dose of civil libertarianism and anti-military themes. It didn’t take Crane long to figure out that to be effective he needed to move the think tank to Washington. “If you’re outside the prevailing parameters of the debate,” he says, “it’s important for people to see you didn’t have horns on your head.”

In the glad-handing world of national politics, he has a reputation as someone who goes out of his way to make enemies. “Ed is the kind of guy, if you agree 90% with him, he’ll find the 10% that you disagree with. It’s kind of an endearing trait,” says Cato fiscal director Moore. Ironically, in Libertarian Party circles in the early 1980s, Crane and the Koch brothers--David Koch had run as Clark’s vice president and remains on the Cato board--were considered sellouts, too eager to make their views palatable to Washington’s policy wonks. Today, Cato insiders--securely a part of the Washington establishment with their New York Times op-eds and scholarly policy papers--quietly dismiss the Libertarian Party as just a wee bit wacko.

A relentless pitchman, Crane is adept at persuading wealthy entrepreneurs to open their checkbooks for Cato. “To this day, I’ll get into an argument, and I always think of how Ed would explain it,” says Anita Anderson, a former girlfriend who now runs the mail-order house Laissez Faire Books. His recruitment of Federal Express founder Fred Smith and Tele-Communications Inc. President John Malone were considered coups, since neither had been part of the Washington think-tank world.

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Still, Crane is comfortable enough with the likes of these wealthy tycoons to challenge their views even when stumping for their dollars. “Ed may step over the line sometimes, but by and large people respect that,” says Howard Rich, a former New York investor who is now president of U.S. Term Limits. Adds Federal Express founder Smith: “When Ed says something, you have to listen to him. He’s not someone who deals with unfounded positions.”

The businesses that contribute--including Federal Express and TCI--typically have a financial interest in the less-regulation, lower-tax program that Cato promotes, though Crane notes that 70% of his budget comes from individuals. Charles Koch, who turned his oil and gas inheritance of millions into billions and earned comparisons to TV’s “J. R. Ewing” for his Machiavellian family feuding, has substantially cut back his funding. But brother David remains on the board and a large contributor.

Other donors include Samuel Husbands of Dean Witter; Mark Babunovic, currency options executive for Chase Manhattan Bank; John Blokker, former vice president and general manager of Hewlett-Packard and now president of Luxcom Inc.; Arthur Cinader, owner of J. Crew; Harry Hoiles, part owner of Freedom Newspapers, and corporate raider T. Boone Pickens Jr. Among the corporate contributors are a heavy dose of oil concerns, such as Exxon, Shell Oil, Tenneco Gas and the American Petroleum Institute; tobacco and alcohol companies like Joseph A. Seagram & Sons and Philip Morris Companies Inc, and such financial interests as Prudential Securities, Chase Manhattan Bank and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. But Cato’s marriage to business interests isn’t always a predictable or happy one. The conservative John M. Olin Foundation, run by former Treasury Secretary William Simon, withdrew its $100,000-plus contribution because of Cato’s vocal opposition to the Gulf War.

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Cato-ites believe that society would progress more smoothly toward fairness and tolerance, economic competition and environmental responsibility without government intervention. Civil rights, they assert, would have developed naturally, without coercive legislation, once government’s own racist policies were destroyed. Therefore, in Crane’s view, state- and municipality- sponsored Jim Crow laws promoting segregation were unjust and unconstitutional, and the federal courts acted correctly in striking them down. But federal attempts to force private citizens and enterprise to accept and promote diversity have exacerbated racial tensions. “We didn’t spend very long in the colorblind period,” says Cato executive vice president Boaz.”

“And I guess slavery was on the way out in the 1820s, too,” responds Will Marshall, president of Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank. “How can you tell someone they have equal citizenship, but they can’t live somewhere because they’re black?”

The doctrine of free association--that businesses should be able to hire whom they want and the terms of the work contract should not fall under government purview--is central to the Cato philosophy. Over and over, whether the topic is race or pay or work conditions, staffers argue that if employees don’t like the situation, they have bargaining power in their ability to leave. In the Cato world, without government subsidies and protections to prop up big business, the economy would be so vibrant and so decentralized that there would be plenty of choices available to workers.

The ACLU’s Strossen says that although she supports Cato on civil liberties, she parts ways with the think tank’s conviction that government--as opposed to the free market--poses the gravest threat to individual liberties. “They always see government coercion in the negative, but government can act affirmatively to further human rights,” she says. In contrast, “To let employers have that degree of control is anathema to individual rights. Employers have more power to deprive people’s liberty than government.” She adds that of the 300,000 or so complaints that the ACLU receives each year, the majority accuse employers of civil liberties violations.

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Cato’s thinkers assert that Social Security drains the economy of savings and is turning out to be a financial bust for workers now entering the labor force. Crane calls it “a giant Ponzi scheme, a fraud.” Moore fantasizes about the day that Generation-Xers show up to the Capitol to burn their Social Security cards, much like their parents burned their draft cards.

“Social Security is the belly of the beast,” Moore says. “Ask any liberal to name a program that works and they’ll immediately point to Social Security. It’s a symbol that the New Deal works. If we can bring down that empire, the rest of the empire will crumble soon after.”

Crane and his colleagues long ago left behind any Randian talk of the “virtue of selfishness” or “greed is good.” Instead, they make the case that, left to their own devices, most individuals will act in a spirit of goodwill and community. Drawing heavily on the work of Charles Murray, Crane argues that government poverty programs merely bureaucratize “a very positive charitable instinct” on the part of most citizens and place “a giant magnetic field over the moral compass” of the poor, “saying you’re a sucker if you work for chump change.”

While critics say it is unrealistic to expect the voluntary sector to address adequately the huge swathes of need in this country, Cato health and welfare director Tanner contends that the private charity can be more flexible, personal and, in the end, more successful in lifting clients out of poverty. “People will fall through the cracks” if welfare is eliminated, Tanner says. “A lot of people will suffer. That’s something I agonize about. But the situation is so bad now, if you don’t make a change, far more will suffer.”

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Halting the war on drugs would also help cities rebound, Cato staffers assert, insisting that criminalizing drugs has spawned a violent subculture similar to what existed during Prohibition. In arguing that drugs should be treated as a medical and moral issue rather than a legal one, they are joined by such conservative figures as former secretary of state George P. Shultz, economist Milton Friedman, sociologist Thomas Sowell, columnist William F. Buckley Jr. and the Bar Assn. of New York City. But Cato insiders are the first to concede that their position remains politically unpalatable.

Crane views the IRS as an intrusive, arbitrary agency whose functions would never be missed. He supports replacing the corporate and personal income tax structure, along with capital gains levies, with one retail sales tax designed to be progressive. He asserts that this move would not only boost the economy by taxing consumption rather than savings, but that it would also provide a psychological boost “to the American people, who would suddenly find themselves living in a nation where it was none of the government’s business how much money they made or how they made or spent it.”

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At one end of the Cato spectrum, chairman Niskanen likens government to fire: “Dangerous but potentially useful.” At the other end, Boaz asserts that a “true patriot loves his country and hates his government.”

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That may reflect the true sentiment of many of the Founding Fathers, rebelling as they were against an oppressive monarchy. But Americans historically have been more conflicted about their feelings toward government. They turn to it in times of crisis, as they do in earthquakes and hurricanes and, now, terrorist attacks. They turn to it to force social progress, as they did during the struggle for civil rights. And they turn to it to level the playing field, as they did in a host of attempts to feed, house, train and employ the poor.

Crane’s view that unfettered personal liberty will lead to a more fair and just society is dismissed as “utopian” by outspoken critics such as E. J. Dionne, Washington Post columnist and author of the influential book “Why Americans Hate Politics.” Cato’s philosophy, says Dionne, fails to address America’s life as a community, rather than just a collection of individuals. “We don’t just live in a household,” Dionne adds. “We live in a society.”

Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute insists that the answer to government’s troubles in the 1990s lies not in dismissing it but rather in rewriting the terms of its contract with the citizenry to demand personal responsibility and reciprocity, such as work in return for welfare checks or college aid. “We live in an incredibly complex, postmodern, postindustrial era,” Marshall says. “Government is inescapably one of the tools we use to organize our lives.”

But if the Will Marshalls of the world cannot rescue government from its current ill grace with the American public, Ed Crane is certain to broaden his audience. “Liberals and progressives need to take their critique seriously,” says Dionne. “The purpose of the state should not be to oppress individuals. it should be to expand choice. The libertarian impulse could go further if government continues to fail.

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With that possibility high on his mind, Crane sits atop his grand ice cube, turning back a page in history while stubbornly insisting that the cries of the American Revolution will move the country forward. “What is unique about the American experiment is that we left the Old World,” he says, “where the individual was treated like dirt. And here all of a sudden is a society where people are supposed to be treated with dignity--that existence as an individual means something. There is nothing inconsistent about that and concern for your fellow man. If you respect yourself as a human being, then you have to respect the value of human life in general.”


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