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CATO's Strangely Narrow View of Liberty Doesn't Include Staying Alive

David Callahan

The CATO Institute styles itself as the nation's leading defender of personal liberty, but don't count on these libertarians to watch your back in the face of any threats you may face from powerful private actors. No, CATO is only worried about threats posed by public entities. 

That's strange, because the obvious difference between public and private actors is that we the people actually have democratic control over what government does, at least in theory. Yet we have no control over the decisions made by private businesses -- decisions that can have huge implications for our well-being.

For instance, thousands of people die each year from occupational injuries and illnesses that are often the result of employers cutting corners. Thousands die from environment-related cancer caused by businesses improperly disposing of toxins and creating deadly health hazards. Tens of thousands die each year from medical mistakes and flawed prescription drugs -- errors that often result from the negligence or greed of hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry. A recent study found that air pollution causes 200,000 deaths a year in the United States. A big reason there is so much pollution is because industry continues to oppose more emissions controls. 

Oh, and the agriculture, food, and restaurant industries work every day to get us to consume food and beverages that are directly linked to obesity, diabetes, and premature death. 

Americans can't vote to directly change the behavior of any of these private entities that are hurting us every day and depriving so many of us of that most essential prerequisite of liberty, which is health and life. We can impose regulations, but that's not the same as changing behavior and it doesn't necessarily keep us safe. Just ask the families of the 29 coal miners killed in West Virginia in 2010 thanks to the negligence of Massey Energy and despite elaborate regulations.  

Overall, you'd think that the really urgent work to preserve liberty would focus the greatest attention on the most dangerous and least accountable forms of power, and then work down from there. 

CATO takes the exact opposite approach. In defending personal liberty, it focuses nearly all its attention on more minor threats to our freedom that come from public entities that are already overseen by legislators and, often, internal inspector generals -- and which are ultimately accountable to voters. 

To be sure, there is plenty of important work to be done here to preserve liberty. Government does require vigorous oversight and CATO does an admirable job on this front in several areas. For instance, CATO monitors police misconduct across the United States and reports on brutality and corruption cases that the mainstream media often ignores. CATO has also been a leading opponent of the Patriot Act, pushing back against attacks on personal liberty in the name of national security. And it has been a reliable foe of draconian drug laws. 

But none of the threats to personal liberty posed by government overreach are nearly as lethal as the well-documented threats posed by corporate malfeasance. How many Americans are actually killed by brutal police every year? How many of us died as the result of the Patriot Act? How many die because of the overreach of various regulatory agencies?

Not many is the answer. Nothing compared to the thousands who die each year because some corporation or hospital is cutting corners to boost its bottom line. 

Again, if actually being alive and healthy is the most important form of personal liberty, CATO has its priorities backward. 

Of course, what's even more twisted about CATO's work is that, by equating limited government and free markets with liberty, it is actually increasing the threats to the lives and health of Americans.

Sure, there is plenty of cumbersome regulation out there and CATO can easily score points by pointing out the stupidity of this or that form of red tape. But in trying to roll back these regulations, CATO puts our personal liberty at risk. 

Let's not forget why many of these regulations were put in place to begin with: to save lives and ensure health. OSHA was created in response to huge numbers of workplace deaths and illnesses -- problems which have fallen dramatically since the agency was created. The FDA was created in response to widespread deaths from food borne diseases and then strengthened in the wake of horrible drug disasters, like Thalidomide. The EPA was established at a time when air pollution caused far more death and illness in the U.S. than it does today. 

CATO has a strangely narrow vision of freedom. Basically it seems to mean that you can run a business with no red tape, pay minimal taxes, smoke or shoot up whatever you want, not have your email read by the NSA, and not be hassled by the cops for no reason.

I'd agree with some of those goals. But I can't fathom why not being killed by corporations isn't also on that list -- indeed, at the very top of it.