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.