Objecting to Political Activity

Jane Mayer has a bone to pick with the David and Charles Koch, bil­lion­aire broth­ers who spend (some of) their money sup­port­ing lib­er­tar­ian causes and fight­ing gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion. Their spend­ing, she seems to think, is cen­tral to the Obama administration’s cur­rent (extended) bout of polit­i­cal mis­for­tune. She also insin­u­ates they’ve used their money dirt­ily, some­how improp­erly influ­enc­ing the polit­i­cal process. But, though she spends nearly 10,000 words in her New Yorker arti­cle pick­ing through their his­tory and fol­low­ing their money trails, it’s not clear that there’s much there there. What there is is a lot of spend­ing money to sup­port causes that Mayer appar­ently finds dis­taste­ful, a few (seri­ous) lapses by the broth­ers’ cor­po­ra­tion, and absolutely noth­ing (apart from quo­ta­tions from Democratic Party oper­a­tives) to sug­gest that the Kochs have man­aged to man­u­fac­ture a polit­i­cal move­ment out of thin air. And there is absolutely noth­ing in her arti­cle to sug­gest that the Kochs have engaged in inap­pro­pri­ate or ille­gal polit­i­cal activity.

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She recounts how the two broth­ers took the oil com­pany that their father left to them (and two other broth­ers, whom David and Charles bought out), and, after renam­ing it Koch Industries in their father’s honor,  turned it into the second-​​largest pri­vate com­pany in the U.S., with hold­ings that include “oil refiner­ies in Alaska, Texas, and Minnesota, . . . Brawny paper tow­els, Dixie cups, Georgia-​​Pacific lum­ber, Stainmaster car­pet, and Lycra.” WIth their money, they’ve taken to donat­ing funds to orga­ni­za­tions that share their views. Among them are the Cato Institute, a non­par­ti­san lib­er­tar­ian think tank, the Mercatus Center, an eco­nom­ics think tank based at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, and the Institute for Justice, a lib­er­tar­ian public-​​interest law firm that spends its time fight­ing “emi­nent domain abuse” and oner­ous bureau­cratic red tape.

Though Mayer accuses the broth­ers of “[sub­si­diz­ing] a pro-​​corporate move­ment,” even she acknowl­edges that their money hasn’t been lim­ited to their own finan­cial interests:

The Kochs have gone well beyond their imme­di­ate self-​​interest, . . . fund­ing orga­ni­za­tions that aim to push the coun­try in a lib­er­tar­ian direc­tion. . . . Many of the orga­ni­za­tions funded by the Kochs employ spe­cial­ists who write posi­tion papers that are sub­se­quently quoted by politi­cians and pun­dits. David Koch has acknowl­edged that the fam­ily exerts tight ide­o­log­i­cal con­trol. “If we’re going to give a lot of money, we’ll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent,” he told [an inter­viewer]. “And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things we don’t agree with, we with­draw funding.”

It’s not clear what the prob­lem is with this. It’s per­fectly fine for indi­vid­u­als or orga­ni­za­tions to try to affect pub­lic debate. The wealthy and pow­er­ful are not denied that right, and Mayer notes (and does not object to) George Soros’ Open Society Institute spend­ing up to $100 mil­lion a year in the U.S. George Soros hap­pens to sup­port greater social wel­fare spend­ing, and the Kochs don’t agree. Are they pro­hib­ited from spend­ing money to sup­port freer mar­kets just because it would ben­e­fit them?

As Joseph Lawler notes, the lan­guage she uses to describe the Koch broth­ers is awfully extreme rel­a­tive to the activ­i­ties she’s describ­ing. In response to Mayer’s descrip­tion of David Koch’s pro­mo­tion of lib­er­tar­i­an­ism as “[fund­ing] stealth attacks on the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, and on the Obama Administration in par­tic­u­lar,” Lawler asks

If that is how you describe peace­ful, law­ful activism, then what words are left to describe, for instance, the actions of al Qaeda, which funded an actual stealth attack on the fed­eral government?

Though Mayer weaves a good story, she mostly weaves it by insin­u­a­tion of polit­i­cal impro­pri­ety, unfounded by evi­dence. (She does cite main­te­nance and safety fail­ures at Koch Industries in the 1990s, some seri­ous, includ­ing a leak that led to an explo­sion that killed 2 peo­ple. Safety fail­ures are lam­en­ta­ble and should be cor­rected, and Koch Industries should com­ply with the law and face con­se­quences when it fails to. But any large orga­ni­za­tion is bound to make mistakes—sometimes seri­ous ones; such mis­takes don’t dis­qual­ify the cor­po­ra­tions from defend­ing their own interests.)

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Update: Lots of folks have com­mented on Mayer’s piece. And, appar­ently, Koch Industries saw fit to link to my blog post. I’m happy for the atten­tion, and just in case anyone’s won­der­ing, noth­ing (and no one) prompted my post but the ques­tion­able innu­endo in the New Yorker piece.

—Nathan, August 30, 2010 at 9:52 p.m.

Hundred-​​million-​​dollar man

Gerald steps on the bus, a smile beam­ing amidst a salt-​​and-​​pepper beard that grace­fully com­pli­ments his smooth, chestnut-​​toned skin. He holds his right hand in the air, proudly show­ing off what he imag­ines to be a lot­tery ticket, dis­play­ing it to the bus and to his com­pan­ion. The bus dri­ver, rec­og­niz­ing the card in Gerald’s hand as a one of the city’s sub­si­dized bus passes, looks at Gerald for three-​​and-​​a-​​half beats, then turns his eyes back to the road as he presses the but­ton clos­ing the front door of the bus.

Gerald’s com­pan­ion hasn’t moved his feet. He stands on the side­walk, shout­ing, “Hundred mil­lion dol­lar man! Have you seen my friend? He’s a hun­dred mil­lion dol­lar man!” The bus begins to move, and Gerald, head held high, shuf­fles down the aisle before deposit­ing him­self in a seat near the back door of the bus.

You’re gonna make it, Gerald!” the friend calls out. The friend’s words are inaudi­ble, since the win­dows are sealed against the hot after­noon sun, but his enthu­si­asm is appar­ent from the move­ment of his fists punch­ing the air as he shouts his prophecy.

Seated and look­ing for­ward as his friend passes from view, Gerald’s city-​​man habits try to kick in, telling him to kill the smile, even if he’s thrilled to death. But his beam­ing smile can only be tamed ever-​​so-​​slightly, just enough to show every­one that he’s really try­ing. In case they’re look­ing. And he hopes they’re look­ing. Because he doesn’t care if they’re look­ing. He’s a hundred-​​million-​​dollar man, after all.

Gerald rides the bus, his would-​​be lot­tery ticket rub­bing against his quadri­ceps like some­thing more substantial—perhaps a credit card—in his pocket. He can’t help but think about that lot­tery ticket. He has all but for­got­ten the book that he nes­tled in the crook of his left arm and pressed against his rib cage. The title is obscured by his arm, but the publisher-​​author declares itself in clear, gold-​​foil let­ters that stand out from the for­est green, faux leather cover: Alcoholics Anonymous.

Gerald’s smile can’t be con­tained the whole ride home.

Season’s end

It became fully appar­ent today that sea­sonal changes are upon us here in the Nation’s capital.

Signs that sum­mer is draw­ing to a close:

  • School starts today, or so Channel 4 told me on the ellip­ti­cal this morn­ing. (Apparently—and sadly—that calls for more cops on the Metro.)
  • Wearing a short-​​sleeve shirt meant my arms felt a bit of crisp­ness in the air this morning.
  • The shindig I went to on Saturday was called a “late sum­mer gar­den party.”
  • The jew­eler I walked by saw fit to hang this in the window:

  • or as a cucumber

    It’s August, so nat­u­rally I expect winter-​​themed dec­o­ra­tions at all fine estab­lish­ments. (Perhaps the pro­pri­etor was try­ing to be ironic by hang­ing snowflakes in August. I’ll grant you that. But when goose­bumps rise on my arms because of the bite in the air, the irony doubles.)

Principles Against Interests

Should you sup­port poli­cies that go against your per­sonal pref­er­ences? For exam­ple, if you hap­pen to like opera or clas­si­cal music, would it be wrong to oppose gov­ern­ment fund­ing of the arts? I hap­pen to be just the sort of opera lover who doesn’t like that his favorite art form suck­les heav­ily at the gov­ern­ment teat. (A side note: It has been heart­en­ing to see the Metropolitan Opera exper­i­ment with new ways of get­ting opera to the masses—like live HD broad­casts of mat­inée per­for­mances at movie theaters—to make it more rel­e­vant and more likely to sur­vive with­out gov­ern­ment fund­ing in the future.) If gov­ern­ment sup­port for opera were cut, I would be dis­mayed because opera would be less avail­able than it is right now, but deep down I would be pleased. I don’t want to sub­si­dize music I don’t enjoy (I’m look­ing at you, Mr. Death Metal), and I don’t expect oth­ers to pay for my music, either.

Eric Morris, a UCLA trans­porta­tion scholar who writes for the Freakonomics blog, points to him­self and Randal O’Toole as exam­ples of peo­ple who oppose poli­cies that align with their per­sonal pref­er­ences. Both of them are train enthu­si­asts: the sorts of fel­lows who play Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon and have model train tracks in their base­ments. Despite their pref­er­ences, they both oppose gov­ern­ment sup­port for high speed rail in the U.S. O’Toole, a senior fel­low at the Cato Institute who inspires strong feel­ings in the plan­ning com­mu­nity, points to his train love to explain that no, he doesn’t just hate trains. Instead, he explains his oppo­si­tion to fund­ing for rail projects this way: “I don’t expect tax­pay­ers to sub­si­dize these pref­er­ences any more than if I liked hot-​​air bal­loons or midget submarines.”

Morris goes on to raise the ques­tion of prin­ci­ples ver­sus preferences:

Is sup­port­ing poli­cies that go com­pletely counter to one’s own per­sonal pref­er­ences to be admired or abhorred? Some might find it eccen­tric, and it cer­tainly is a minor­ity trait. My expe­ri­ence has been that most peo­ple in this world assume that oth­ers share their likes, and if they don’t, they will do so with just a lit­tle per­sua­sion. In some cases this may be true. But regard­less, this is cer­tainly a con­ve­nient out­look because it means there is a happy coin­ci­dence: the best path to doing self­less good for oth­ers just hap­pens to be pro­mot­ing pub­lic poli­cies that cater to one’s own self-​​interest.

To be hon­est, I’d never quite thought of the pos­si­bil­ity that sup­port­ing poli­cies that go counter to one’s per­sonal pref­er­ences might be abhor­rent. On the con­trary, I find it admirable, and a sign that the sup­port is well-​​thought-​​out and that the pol­icy prob­a­bly deserves a closer look. After all, it’s a rar­ity for some­one to oppose his own pref­er­ences, because arriv­ing at such a posi­tion  involves (a) admit­ting that  one’s pref­er­ences are a lit­tle off and (b) poten­tially depriv­ing one­self of the plea­sure that would come from see­ing one’s pref­er­ences come to fruition. I sup­pose it’s pos­si­ble that some­one might be knee-​​jerk anti-​​preference, but that pos­si­bil­ity seems slim. Am I unusual in think­ing that way?


Matthew Yglesias uses an unli­censed bar­ber—himself—and seems to man­age just fine with­out it. I did the same thing for roughly two years, and lived to tell the tale. But should Yglesias or I try to sell our ser­vices to other peo­ple, he or I would run straight into the D.C. Barber and Cosmetology Board, which requires 1,500 hours of train­ing. What does one spend 1,500 hours of cos­me­tol­ogy train­ing doing? 40 hours learn­ing how to sham­poo­ing (mas­sage sham­poo into hair, rinse, repeat); 50 hours learn­ing per­sonal hygiene (wash your hands after using the restroom); 150 hours study­ing anatomy, phys­i­ol­ogy, bac­te­ri­ol­ogy, pathol­ogy, chem­istry, and elec­tric­ity (use clean equip­ment between cus­tomers); and another 1,260 doing other sim­i­lar tasks. Learning to cut hair? 100 hours.

One shouldn’t have to spend 100 hours of learn­ing how to cut hair—plus 1,400 hours learn­ing other related (and unre­lated) subjects—before offer­ing to cut oth­ers’ hair for money. Yes: there are poten­tial dan­gers in using sharp tools and caus­tic chem­i­cals around peo­ple. But it seems unlikely that 1,500 hours of train­ing is nec­es­sary to train a would-​​be hair­styl­ist not to run with scis­sors and to fol­low the instruc­tions on the perm box. All jok­ing aside, though, the dan­ger is rel­a­tively low, and what dan­ger there is is already addressed through the harm to rep­u­ta­tion and the civil lia­bil­ity that would fol­low sloppy or dan­ger­ous work. I have some­one else cut my hair now (Ryan P. at Bang Salon Metropole, in case you want to know), and I wouldn’t go to some­one who hadn’t had some train­ing, but that’s because I think a trained hair­styl­ist can con­sis­tently make my hair pre­sentable. I couldn’t care less whether the Barber and Cosmetology Board has seen fit to give some­one cre­den­tials; being employed at a rep­utable salon that would only hire some­one trained is enough for me.

Jonathan Adler points out that major sup­port­ers of licens­ing regimes are often the very folks who would ben­e­fit from lim­it­ing poten­tial competitors:

Licenses restrict entry and reduce  com­pe­ti­tion, enabling  those with licenses to cap­ture more rents.  This is actu­ally the case with most licens­ing regimes, even those that appear to serve a greater pub­lic inter­est than bar­ber licenses.  Though I doubt Yglesias would go this far, I would argue that it’s rare that a licens­ing regime of this sort is put in place with­out the sup­port of those who stand to ben­e­fit eco­nom­i­cally, and that many pub­lic spir­ited ratio­nales, includ­ing health and safety, are a smokescreen.

Adler goes on to note that licens­ing and inspec­tion often becomes a tool for char­ac­ters who exploit their abil­ity to grant or deny licenses and note or ignore infractions.

It’s also impor­tant to remem­ber that the cre­ation of a licens­ing, per­mit­ting and inspec­tion, or other reg­u­la­tory regime hardly guar­an­tees pro­tec­tion of the pub­lic inter­est, even if the sys­tem was not cre­ated for rent-​​seeking pur­poses in the first place.  Government reg­u­la­tors and inspec­tors are peo­ple too, and may shirk their respon­si­bil­i­ties, become cor­rupted, or oth­er­wise fail to safe­guard the pub­lic inter­est.  In many major cities, licens­ing and other local reg­u­la­tory regimes are oppor­tu­ni­ties for cor­rup­tion and graft.

Barber licens­ing, then, seems not only unnec­es­sary and harm­ful to com­pe­ti­tion, but also prone to abuse: more trou­ble than it’s worth.