Cato’s Slippery Slope: How the Institute of Liberty Squashed Freedom of Speech

Once upon a time there lived a scholar named Andrei Illarionov, a prominent free market economist who at some point became a senior economic advisor to the Russian government at the end of the 1990s. Yet, in the early 2000s, he quit on the new Putin regime.  Illarionov became disgusted with the growing authoritarianism of his boss, who was slowly but surely squashing private businesses, increasing the powers of the secret police (who are the untouchable ruling elite in current Russia) and enlarging governmental bureaucracy.

Andrei Illarionov

The place that gave Illarionov a chance to pursue his scholarship and to further exercise his criticism of the Putin regime was Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, DC that hired him in 2006.  Hiring a prominent dissident scholar who quit a lucrative and well-paid governmental position and who was raising his voice against the autocratic regime is very commendable and very libertarian.  Furthermore, after securing his position, Illarionov returned to Russia a few times, where he took part in the antigovernment street protests, firmly supporting anti-Putin opposition forces. 

The professor also became active in social media and on YouTube, drawing millions of viewers on various Russian-language channels and sites.  Besides, he regularly published his pieces in a personal LiveJournal. I liked and agreed with some of his assessments, especially the ones that analyzed the 1990s reforms in Russia, and Putin’s crony capitalism.  I also became drawn to his insights into existing threats to the values of Western civilization coming from the current US and European woke mainstream that increasingly breeds intolerance, “tribalism,” racial animosity, erodes the rule of law, and undermines constitutional values.  At the same time, some of his other assessments aroused my skepticism.

As a popular social scholar, Illarionov became part of current debates in the Russian-speaking internet community, speaking on topics ranging from the Putin regime to the notorious corona and to the woke cancel culture that currently suffocates American pollical, intellectual, and cultural life.  Some people agreed with him, whereas other rebuked him – a normal process in a normal democratic republic.  And everything was OK in the life of the scholar until January 6, when the “storming” of the Capitol building took place and when suddenly the Cato Institute decided to quickly get rid of him.

Now I must expand on what Illarionov said about the January 6 event. This is not to convince the reader whether he was right or wrong but to give some context to the story that will be unfolded below.  For this reason, I ask you to bear with me.  First, the scholar dared to question the validity of the voting in the five swing states and suggested in his Russian-language blog that the whole “storming” business and the passivity of Washington DC officials and the Capitol police, several of whom let the “insurrectionists” in, somewhat reeked of the so-called Reichstag fire – an incident that had opened doors the ascension of totalitarianism in Germany in 1933.

Then, in the same posting he dared to come up with a few other “uncomfortable” statements. For example, Illarionov remarked that, if we went by the one person-one vote rule, the winner of the US elections was clearly Joe Biden; yet, if one went by the constitution (the electoral college), the results of the elections in swing states were rather murky, considering the lax corona mail-in voting rules that were railroaded into our society at the last moment.  By refusing to even consider Trump elections lawsuits, the US court system failed to play the role of an independent umpire and missed the opportunity to validate the quality of the presidential elections in the eyes of people.  Illarionov stressed that, since about 40% of American voters, including 73% Republicans, questioned the results of the swing states’ elections, it was essential to take extra legislative and judicial steps to check and verify those results to regain the popular trust into US electoral, judicial, and political system rather than to simply jump to announce the winner of the 2020 elections.

The scholar also shared his personal experience of being in downtown Washington on January 6 among tens of thousands of protesters who were walking along the Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol and who were insulted by tiny groups of BLM supporters who shouted obscenities at the demonstrators. The latter either responded with such phrases as “Join us” or warned each other by saying, “No violence,” and “Don’t touch them, they want to instigate a fight.”

Illarionov also drew our attention to another “uncomfortable” fact: none of the “insurrectionists” who broke into the Capitol building used weapons against police. Later, FBI confirmed that among all arrested for “storming” the Capitol no one faced firearms-related charged and no arms were recovered.  It was in fact the Capitol police that shot one of the protestors: a veteran air force officer named Ashlie Babbitt; Illarionov nevertheless found it necessary to add that a Capitol police officer was hit in his head by a fire extinguisher, which turned out to be a fake information spread by the mainstream media, including New York Times.  In reality, the man died after the incident and the cause of his death was completely different.  Yet, the mainstream media and democratic legislators for the whole month cynically exploited the original “fact” of his death to amplify “insurrectional” dimension of the January 6 break-in and present the officer as a martyr for the cause of democracy.

A few days after Illarionov came up with those and other LiveJournal remarks, popular Politico condemned him , distorting his utterances and ascribing to him what he never said. Politico insisted that the scholar denied the results of the US elections and argued that January 6 event was a trap set by police following a deliberate provocation by BLM activists with a silent agreement of Democrats.  Ironically, after Cato rushed to ditch Illarionov, it was revealed that, besides Trump supporters who rushed into the building, there was indeed an Antifa and BLM sympathizer, a provocateur named John Earle Sullivan, who too took part in the “storming” of the Capitol.  Sullivan was arrested for vandalism and directly inciting violence while being inside the building. Dressed in a “Trump garb,” he was caught on tape by encouraging the right to be more assertive and aggressive. But the story does not end there. An additional and cruel irony was a publication in Time magazine, a mainstream liberal publication, which literally bragged about how Democrats, “decent” Republicans, Big Tech, and their radical Antifa and BLM informal allies worked together in a united “shadow campaign” to orchestrate changing election rules, purging media of “wrong” opinions, and enhancing mass street protests to “fortify” the elections in the “correct” direction for the greater cause of “saving democracy.”

What was stunning in that situation was not Politico’s public condemnations and bot the content of the scholar’s utterances but a reaction of the Cato Institute, Illariniov’s employer, that too denounced the scholar and began an internal investigation of what he said about the 2020 elections and how he said it, which led to his immediate dismissal a few days later. 

The whole Illarionov incident reveals not only how quickly our intellectual mainstream has degenerated for the past year by moving fast forward toward the elimination of the constitution’s first amendment.  What is the most appalling here is that it was the administration of the libertarian think tank that, instead of dismissing outright any attempt to penalize the scholar for what he said and how he said it, followed the lead of an academic snitch, initiating an investigation and purging him in a lightning speed.  It is hard to figure out what drove the minds of the Cato scholar-bureaucrats when they made an instant decision to crucify Illarionov for saying things they did not agree with. Did Cato fear that, being in the den of the DC “deep state” area where 91% of people vote Democrat, they could be cut from the available publicity venues and networks they established in the Washington area?  Or could it be a simple opportunism – a fear that Cato could become a target of the woke mob if it did not throw the sacrificial lamb to the pack of the cancel culture wolves?

I never heard about progressive scholars losing their jobs over calling Trump an illegitimate president and insisting that the 2016 elections were a fraud perpetrated by massive Russian interference; in fact, it was an acceptable mainstream discourse for the past four years.  Moreover, neither academic nor state and federal bureaucrat was penalized by losing his or her job for endorsing BLM, whose mass rallies last summer were responsible for urban pogroms (destructive property damages in the amount of more than $1 billion, 25 people killed , and 2037 police officers wounded). No academic or politician was disciplined for raising funds to bail out “racial justice” rioters that were looting and burning stores, court houses, smashing statutes, and intimidating people. Both the left and the right know full well that, except spent time, public posturing as a “civil rights activist” or “minority advocate” hardly cost a person anything morally, politically, or financially.  In fact, in government and especially in academia, which is currently held in tight grips of the left hegemony (I have borrowed the latter word from the leftist jargon), such posturing can be an excellent career booster.  The first analogy that comes to my mind in this case is the officially endorsed and politically correct activism, which motivated millions of opportunists and would-be young apparatchiks in “good” old socialist countries of Eastern Europe and Soviet Union. 

I am sure many in academia carry the abovementioned activities on their sleeves as the badge of honor.  In fact, as early as 2011, in several universities, left-leaning instructors began incentivizing students by trying to make a participation in demonstrations for “progressive causes,” including the 2018 Kavanaugh hearings, part of their social science course work and offering students brownie points in a form of extra credits. By the way, among the leftist protesters who “stormed” the Capitol that year, 227 were arrested for obstructing the hearings and harassing congress people they did not like.  Nobody (and rightly so) ever thought about treating them as insurrectionists, and their only penalty was meager fines of $35 to $50. Better than anything, such state of things tells us about who currently represents the power elite in the country and who really calls the shots in our political, intellectual, academic, and cultural mainstream. 

The Illarionov incident is not something extraordinary. It is unfortunately a manifestation of the systemic (another favorite word of choice among the current left) impact of the cancel culture or, putting it simply, an ideological witch hunt, in our cultural and intellectual mainstream.  The cancel culture flourished in earnest last summer, when those people who refused to endorse urban pogroms and false BLM claims about thousands of unarmed black people being murdered by white police were routinely silenced, ostracized, and fired.  National Association for Scholars recorded 128 of cases in US and Canadian universities, where people with predominantly conservative and libertarian views (along with several leftist academics!) were silenced by their schools when they expressed “incorrect” opinions on various racial and political issues. Among them one can find, for example, Professor Gordon Klein, UCLA, who “incorrectly” responded to a request to postpone final exams for black students in his online course (in the wake of the George Floyd death) by saying that he intended to treat everybody equally irrespective of their skin color.  Legal scholar John Eastman from Chapman University made a mistake to speak at the January 6 rally that prompted the university to force him into retirement.  In its turn, Duquesne University immediately fired its professor of educational psychology Gary Shank for using N-word in his class to simply illustrate how the word was used in the past: the professor wanted to make a point about the progress of race relations in US! Even though several of the fired people were restored in their employment, the draconian McCarthyism-like message is very clear: toe the line or else. 

Petrified of potential accusations in racism and bigotry, corporations, universities, state institutions, just in case, literally bow down to the aggressive woke mob, morally disarming themselves and the whole society, planting in our midst the atmosphere of fear and self-censorship that reeks of Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China during their “best” days. Not infrequently, for the past months, we have been witnessing the communist-style practices when “progressive” people have been routinely denouncing their colleagues and relatives (on many occasions retroactively for past “sins”) for being “reactionaries” and “racists.”  Moreover, most recently, the cancel culture practice has reached grotesque proportions, when family members report to FBI their relatives if they happened to be participants of the Trump January 6 rally.

The Cato Institute that shut down Illarionov should remember the famous “First they came after” confession credo from German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) who referred to the cowardice and compliance of German intellectuals and clergy during the time of national socialism. And sure enough, we already have radical voices among Democrats who have suggested to phase out and deprogram not only conservatives but also libertarians. If current woke censorship and self-censorship escalates further, tomorrow there might be nobody left to protect Cato.  This liberty institute claims that it works to enlighten our society to “better understand and appreciate the principles of government that are set forth in America’s Founding documents.”  Something tells me that the woke mob, which does not care about these founding documents, will not spare the cautious and politically correct preachers of constitutionalism.

Andre Van Doren, a humanities scholar of a Polish-American extract, who is interested in the issues of political economy and culture. He can be contacted at borismoriarti@gmail.com, the list of his publications can be found at https://muckrack.com/andre-van-doren-1

3 thoughts on “Cato’s Slippery Slope: How the Institute of Liberty Squashed Freedom of Speech

  1. This does not surprise me. I used to be employed by Flint Hills Resources, a Koch Brother’s company. Written into their company’s legally binding policies are very anti-liberty wordage. Contrary to this, the non-binding rhetoric which is rolled out to employees on a regular basis speaks otherwise. I was fired after refusing to be arbitrarily searched when walking into work one morning (meaning, no probable cause). No one ever really reads the employment agreements which are signed at the very end of the hiring process, after mentally, one is “sold” on taking a job. In my case, the policy regarding the company’s right to search employees included the phrase, “including, but not limited to . . .” which meant that there was no limit. To test this premise, I asked the corporate Compliance Officer of Koch Industries in a phone conversation, “So, could a pregnant employee, therefore, be stripped and given a cavity search before entering her workplace?” She reacted harshly to that question, but did not answer. When I called her the next day, she transferred be to one of Koch’s corporate attorneys. He would not say what the limit was, either. Corporations are governed by civil law, commercial contracts. If you want your liberty back, stop signing and agreeing to these contracts

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