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.

6 thoughts on “Objecting to Political Activity

  1. Sorry to say but at least Geroge Soros has no qualms about let­ting peo­ple know what he stands for and what his money is going to. The Kochs like to hide in the shad­ows... They fund the marches and teh demon­sta­tions but hide out of sight so no one ones it is them. Well i for one will no longer be buy­ing any Koch related prod­ucts. I have printed out a list that i will keep and will go other ways when it is time for shop­ping. If the Koch broth­ers think they are doing noth­ing wrong why dont that come out of the shaw­dows and defend their work them­selves. The rea­son why...They real­ize the back­lash could result in peo­ple not buyign their prod­cuts any­more. why else would you try to keep a known car­cino­gens like formaldihyde off the known car­cino­gens list...becasue it adver­sly affects their bot­tem line.

  2. Simon, I hope you real­ize that all of the spin of Ms. Mayer was done using pub­lic infor­ma­tion. She gen­er­ated no new data, only spin. It is also pretty laugh­able to say that the Kochs hide out of sight or don’t let peo­ple know what they stand for when one ran as a VP can­di­date on the Libertarian ticket and another pub­lished a book out­lin­ing his beliefs.

  3. It is astound­ing to me how indi­vid­u­als in our media-​​mad soci­ety make no attempt to fact check before they repeat what they have read in mag­a­zines or heard on TV and radio. The only rea­son the Kochs are per­ceived as covert is that they have never wasted one cent on self pro­mo­tion, unlike Soros and other more “media friendly” busi­ness­men. To the Kochs, self pro­mo­tion via PR and media pro­duces no real prod­uct of any long term value to their com­pany, their employ­ees, them­selves, their fam­ily or soci­ety, so they sim­ply do not invest their prof­its in self-​​promotion and pub­lic­ity. In today’s soci­ety, the aver­age indi­vid­ual has become so intel­lec­tu­ally lazy that they expect pri­vate cit­i­zens like the Kochs to play the self-​​promotion game as a rule, and deliver their self-​​serving PR every doorstep. Ironically, the fact that the Kochs never have and never will is even MORE evi­dence of their devo­tion to their openly stated prin­ci­ples. Perhaps if Mr. Simon had taken the time to read Charles Koch’s inspir­ing book, “The Science of Success” when it came out years ago, he might under­stand that by mak­ing a boy­cott list, Mr. Simon is doing in part what the Kochs advo­cate as free-​​market Libertarians, which is to cast their vote in the mar­ket­place. Unfortunately, if you are vot­ing based on dis­in­for­ma­tion and igno­rance, as opposed to the actual prod­uct value, per­sonal integrity, sound sci­ence, fact-​​based research and respon­si­ble behav­ior, you are only con­tribut­ing to the prob­lem and not the solution.

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