Weeks ago I was called by Jane
Mayer, a writer for The New Yorker
asking me questions about the Koch (pronounced ‘Coke’) brothers Charles and
David.  She was doing an
investigative piece on their political influence, had seen my Beliefnet piece
on Charles Koch
,  and wanted to ask me more questions about what I knew.  It was an interesting exercise trying
to remember events from my teens and early 20s, and I often had to emphasize
that I no longer remembered events with a great deal of certainty.

Some time after she concluded her
interview, a fact checker for the magazine called me to make sure everything
she had written was accurate.

I waited for the article to come
 with a mix of ego and curiosity. 
In particular, I wanted to see if she treated her subject fairly.  My own personal memories of Charles
Koch are friendly ones, though it seemed to me he and I had grown farther apart
in different directions from a common starting point (largely due to his
influence, at the time  for the
good) in the early 60s.  To the
best of my knowledge I think she did. 
Certainly the small changes I would make in her descriptions of what I
told her are tiny matters of nuance. 

I also Googled around to find if
there were any reactions to the New Yorker piece, and found one by Mark
,  a conservative who lambasted her article
as an unfair smear job. I think Hemingway is completely wrong.  Hemingway was misleading at best in how
he characterized people I knew about whom Mayer’s article quoted, such as
conservative  Bruce Bartlett.  He also objected to Mayer’s easy
reliance on people associated with George Soros for one relatively minor
point.  I have no position on the
openness of Soros’ giving, but he has always been far more in the public eye
than the Kochs.  More damningly,
Hemingway addressed absolutely no substantive points – but that kind of
omission has become a staple of what passes for modern ‘conservatism.’ Far from
being a reasoned objection by a careful journalist, his piece impressed me as a
very selectively edited and misleading attack on Mayer.  It’s ultimate impact was to convince me
Mayer was probably correct on issues about which I knew little. 

Mayer’s account of the Koch
brothers, an account where I play a rather small background part, raises four
issues that I have often discussed on this blog, only one of which is narrowly
political.  They are

Empathy and Political Positions

Big Government vs. Limited Government

How Theory can Blind Us

How Power Corrupts and Transforms the Power Seeker


I recently speculated that a key
difference between normal people who are conservative compared to normal people
who are liberal is the ease with which they can empathize with others. Liberals
fall closer to empathizing with “humanity,” conservatives to empathizing with
“my friend George.”  This is not translatable
into a simple good/bad dichotomy because there are strengths and weaknesses in
both orientations.  The closer we
are to someone the more we know about their situation, and so sticking to
helping the concrete “my friend George” over the abstract “humanity” is often
wise.  But many issues require next
to no concrete knowledge to know there is a need, such as for small pox
vaccinations in Africa or opposing arbitrary detention everywhere.  Significantly, the UN with its liberal
supporters, may well eradicate smallpox, history’s greatest killer, and Amnesty
International has far more liberal than conservative members, as does the ACLU
with its defense of American’s liberties. 

David Koch has given $125 million
to M.I.T. for cancer research, over $40 million to the Sloan Kettering Cancer
Center, $15 million to New York Presbyterian Hospital, $20 million to Johns
Hopkins, and $25 million to Houston’s M. D. Anderson Center, all in support of
cancer research, particularly for prostate cancer.  This is wonderfully generous.  Koch became interested in this kind of philanthropy after he
was discovered to himself have prostate cancer, and was operated on.  Koch had personal experience with the
disease and the fear and suffering it invokes, and so has acted generously to
assist others.  But the article
gave no examples of more abstracted kinds of charitable giving. 

My point is not to criticize Koch’s
charitable actions, not at all. It is to make an observation about patterns of

Mayer’s article gives a troubling
account of his involvement with the production of formaldehyde, a carcinogen,
which his company has successfully prevented from being regulated as such.  If her information is accurate – and
her conservative critics have so far ignored the case – this is a black mark on
David Koch’s empathy that goes some distance in explaining why only truly
powerful and wrenching experiences are sometimes needed to open their
hearts.  I wonder whether Koch’s
position on formaldehyde would differ if it was linked to just prostate cancer in particular.

Big Government vs. Limited Government

Americans have almost completely
lost from sight a crucial distinction underlying the political thinking behind
our founding.  All our Founders
were as one in arguing that the Constitution created a limited government.  That is why the first ten amendments,
our Bill of Rights,  declares limits on what government may do: it may not establish a state
religion, it may not abolish freedom of the press, it may not make unreasonable
searches and seizures, may not ban firearms, and so on.

Left far more vague is what
government can do if people want it to act.  In fact James Madison explicitly said that if at some future
date citizens trusted the federal government more than they did the state
governments, it should expand its power
– as it did during the Great Depression. (I would link to the appropriate
passage in The Federalist
, but I am moving and almost every book
I have is in a box.)

Constitutionally, limitations on
political power are more important than limitations on size.

Modern ‘conservatives,’ and too
often ‘realistic’ rightwing libertarians, have stood this principle on its
head.  Limitations are unnecessary
so long as government is ‘small.’ We saw this attitude big time with
‘conservative’ and often ‘libertarian’ support of George Bush’s wholesale
attacks on limits on Executive power. 
Constitutional limits on how arbitrarily government can treat citizens
have continued to be eroded by Barack Obama – and while ‘conservatives’ and
libertarians are as one in their hatred of his presidency, they never object to
these actions.

The Kochs, long principle financial
supporters of libertarian and classical liberal thinking (which I long
considered myself to be and still have great sympathy for) have made a habit of
supporting right wing Republicans and others who do not care less about limits
on power over citizens – genuine people – but argue incessantly for limits on
how the power is used to regulate private industry – the ‘market’.  I think the Kochs personally are still
largely libertarian in their self-image – but by confusing limits with size
they are unintentionally undermining their own principles.

Theory Blinds

In terms of their personal fortunes
and business success, this strategy may well work, but its very success
apparently blinds them to the dramatic narrowing of their moral vision, a
vision I know once motivated Charles Koch. (I never knew David but read they
agree on most everything political.) 
“Freedom” is increasingly defined down to “free enterprise” whereas
“socialism” is increasingly defined to mean anything government does that
doesn’t kill foreigners.  And even
that can be contracted out. 

The article quotes David Koch on
the impact of global warming “The Earth will be able to support enormously more
people because far greater land area will be available to produce food.”  This is an amazing statement for a man
claiming to be a classical liberal or even more, a libertarian.  Existing farmland will be rendered less
fertile because of heat and perhaps drought so that more northerly lands will
hopefully become more fertile.  And
David Koch tells us he opposes redistribution? 

By this logic the existing
generation is simply a resource for a hypothesized greater future of New
Capitalist Man. This is utopian thinking that would fit the dreams of a Soviet
era ideologue.  It is not the
position of a person who puts freedom, justice, or property rights ahead of
quantitative measures for production – a Stalinist kind of logic, ironically.

Anyone who understands much about
soil knows that it takes a long time for poor soils, such as exists in the
North, to become decent agricultural land.  What happens in between warming and good soil?  Will there be enough rain?  What happens to people whose homes are
flooded by rising waters?  Do they
merit recompense?  By classical
liberal, and particularly by libertarian standards, supporting measures that
destroy their land is aggression against people.  Pollution constitutes trespass, regardless of whether it
helps others.  Of course we can
adapt.  But we have long adapted to
very unpleasant societies, and that did not justify them.  Koch seems to confuse crude social
Darwinism with what he calls libertarianism: so long as we adapt, it’s good.

Power Corrupts

Turning to another theme that
fascinates me, the New Yorker piece
gives an interesting example of how power corrupts.  The Kochs realized, correctly I think, that traditional
libertarian principles were unable to win at the ballot box.  They therefore decided to build a
popular base outside the ballot box.

Their reasoning apparently went as
follows:  Most people are unready
for the whole truth, incapable of understanding it, and so must be approached
where they currently are, not where we’d like them to be.  Therefore we had best cultivate those
parts of our society which are most “anti-government.”  The modern Tea Party movement is one

I am sure that the Kochs do not
agree with the Tea Party movement’s most authoritarian personalities, its
frequent religious self-righteousness, and similar excesses, but they think
they can channel it’s least libertarian energies into constructive channels to
fight “the state.”  Yet the Tea
Party movement is not so much anti-government as anti-government they do not
control.  This is most explicit in
the Neo-Confederate South, which has been anti-Washington only because they do
not control it.  But this problem
goes more deeply than that.  
It is significant that the “red states” generally receive far more from
government than they pay in taxes, whereas the opposite tends to be the case in
the blue states.  Alaska, hardly
Southern, is a poster child for this issue. 

In order to play a major role in
conservative Republican, and now Tea Party, activities the Kochs must shape
what they do to fit popular priorities, almost none of which are
libertarian.  People may wear an
Adam Smith tie, but their policies are internationally aggressive, which makes
government less limited faster than anything else.  Most are uninterested in lifting the government’s hand
regulating marriage, marijuana, abortion, religious bigotry, and a whole host of other issues
involving personal behavior.  But
their anger can be channeled towards the abstraction “big government” which in
practice means fighting on behalf of corporations against “regulations.”

To keep their political impact the
Kochs have to subordinate their values to the views of people who simply do not
care about freedom.  In doing so it
seems to me they have become more puppets of power than its puppeteers.  As the old Maine saying goes “You can’t
get there from here.”

But as Charles Koch would once have
agreed, freedom means being able to do anything that does not aggress upon or
injure another.  This is most
definitely not a Tea Party value, not at all. Like his brother who thinks
fertile soil sits around waiting warming in the arctic, perhaps Charles
believes that once they have power, Tea Partyers will see that the benefits
they get from government are no more worthwhile than the policies they
oppose.  So long as this fantasy
lasts he has the sense of being in charge, rather than their using him as he
uses them, but it lasts only so long as the Tea Partiers are weak.

Under the circumstances I hope he
has this fantasy for some time to come…

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