Rise of the Cato Institute

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1977

When businessman Charles Koch learned that Libertarian Party leader Ed Crane was thinking about leaving politics, he asked what it would take to keep him involved. Crane suggested that libertarianism needed a think tank: a public-policy organization that would join political debates with deep research and a crisp point of view. Koch agreed to fund its launch.

The Cato Institute—named for Cato’s Letters, a set of eighteenth-century essays on freedom—opened its doors in San Francisco in 1977. It published newsletters and policy reports and provided radio commentaries. In 1981 it moved to Washington, D.C. Over the next three decades Cato grew rapidly into one of the country’s prominent policy-forming organizations. It is best known for championing free-market policy reforms like Social Security privatization, school choice, and free trade, along with libertarian causes like open-borders immigration, drug legalization, and a dovish foreign policy.

From their founding days, Charles and David Koch’s accumulated gifts to the Cato Institute come to about $30 million. The institute raised a total of $400 million during that period, from tens of thousands of donors. In 2015, Cato had 124 staffers and revenue exceeding $37 million (86 percent of that from individual donors).