Two weeks ago, Charles Koch returned to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to defend himself. One has to wonder if the Journal was the best choice. After all, readers of the Wall Street Journal are probably not the one's attacking him. They are the choir, so to speak.
"I have devoted most of my life to understanding the principles that enable people to improve their lives." He began.
Unfortunately, the fundamental concepts of dignity, respect, equality before the law and personal freedom are under attack by the nation's own government. That's why, if we want to restore a free society and create greater well-being and opportunity for all Americans, we have no choice but to fight for those principles. I have been doing so for more than 50 years, primarily through educational efforts. It was only in the past decade that I realized the need to also engage in the political process.
Then, not to waste much time, he launched into his own ad hominem assault on those who disrespect him and attack is character on an (almost) daily basis. "A truly free society is based on a vision of respect for people and what they value.... The central belief and fatal conceit of the current administration is that you are incapable of running your own life, but those in power are capable of running it for you. This is the essence of big government and collectivism."
For my own part, I did not know I was a collectivist until Wayne Berman told me I was. After all, as a Wharton grad and somewhat of a free market economist. But as is so often the case these days, you are either with us, or you're against us. So I was just a bit taken aback as I was walked into Wayne's office -- truly an inner sanctum of Republican power -- and he introduced me to one of his business associates. "You should know David, he is a collectivist, like you."
A half century ago, every day on my way to school, we drove past the small, red brick building in Belmont, Massachusetts, that was the home of the John Birch Society. That was in the 1960s, and the John Birch Society did not have a big following in the area, but that was not necessarily the case in my own family. My maternal grandfather, Bob Byfield, was an acolyte of William F. Buckley, and as such was a fellow traveler of sorts with the Birchers.
Wayne's comment took me back. Collectivism, totalitarianism, and communism. These were the central enemies of America that my Grandfather wrote about. Now the enemy was inside the tent, and it was me. Collectivist is no insignificant label, it is a moral slur. You are morally bankrupt, and you are my sworn enemy. You are not just un-American, you are anti-American.
Thus, the irony of Koch's response. "Instead of encouraging free and open debate," he bemoans, "collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination." Take that, you totalitarian commie Nazi.
The fatal conceit of Charles Koch's defense of himself is that he uses the term "fatal conceit" at all. It is a phrase that reeks of philosophical, intellectual arrogance, that shuts off the free and open debate that Koch suggests he so admires. There has been no free and open debate in our politics since the advent of the Tea Party. I am not suggesting that Koch or the Tea Party ended free and open debate, but they most certainly have not espoused it as a value, as Koch suggests.
"Rather than try to understand my vision for a free society..." Koch goes on, "Our critics would have you believe we're 'un-American' and trying to 'rig the system.' Rig the system, sure. Un-American? Not so much. Rigging the system is why we have lobbyists, it is why we have K Street. Our First Amendment right to petition Congress to redress grievances has morphed into the right to petition Congress to grant us special favors and smite down our enemies.
Koch's vision of a free society is clear. It is not that complicated. And I understand the perspective that the rules and practices of more regulated society undermine the values and freedom that he asserts as higher order values. In that world view, unemployment insurance, minimum wages and other income support programs undermine the survivalist imperative that keeps poor inner city families in Los Angeles from moving to the central valley to do the agricultural labor work now done by migrant laborers. I understand that he believes that the children of those families would have a stronger desire to get an education to improve their lot in life, restoring the work ethic that Koch sees having been lost.
I understand Friedman's principles of how market forces can winnow out failing banks, companies that make bad cars. All of that. And as Bob Byfield's grandson, I have read The Road to Serfdom. Really, back in the old country, my other grandfather's forebears were probably serfs.
Koch suggests at the outset he has devoted his life to understanding the principles that enable people to improve their lives, but along the way he has forgotten that these are just theories. I understand the philosophical roots and economic theories that underpin his world view, but I do not agree with them. That does not make me a collectivist, a totalitarian or a communist, just one citizen in a free democracy who disagrees with his perspective, and opposes his conclusions.
As much as Koch imagines himself a herald of liberty and a "free society," his politics have been just one more uninspiring assault on the poor and the middle class. And that is Koch's Achilles heal. Robert Welch, a founder of the John Birch Society along with Charles Koch's father Fred, is widely quoted as having said that "both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians." When Charles Koch describes his 50 years of advocacy work, his words suggest that he has continued down this path.
"A furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians." Who better to have brought us NAFTA, bank bailouts and the massive corruption of political campaign finance?
Writing in the Wall Street Journal in early 2011, Charles Koch emphasized this theme.
Government spending on business only aggravates the problem. Too many businesses have successfully lobbied for special favors and treatment by seeking mandates for their products, subsidies (in the form of cash payments from the government), and regulations or tariffs to keep more efficient competitors at bay. Crony capitalism is much easier than competing in an open market. But it erodes our overall standard of living and stifles entrepreneurs by rewarding the politically favored rather than those who provide what consumers want.
He reiterated this view in his recent piece.
Far from trying to rig the system, I have spent decades opposing cronyism and all political favors, including mandates, subsidies and protective tariffs -- even when we benefit from them. I believe that cronyism is nothing more than welfare for the rich and powerful, and should be abolished... If more businesses (and elected officials) were to embrace a vision of creating real value for people in a principled way, our nation would be far better off -- not just today, but for generations to come. I'm dedicated to fighting for that vision. I'm convinced most Americans believe it's worth fighting for, too.
But Americans for Prosperity -- the main Koch-funded political organization -- has completely disdained these broader, unifying themes, and instead rushed to the vanguard to defend traditional Republican power in the Blue vs. Red political wars. The Kochs appear to be captive of their family history as titans of the far right-wing, and seemed incapable of any effort to bring Americans together around real, common interests or values in post-economic collapse America. Early on, the Tea Party and Occupy movements shared common rhetoric around the conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians, but principled hatred of the left made it impossible to seize the moment to create a movement that might bring the left and right together around real, common interests, to take on the entrenched power of the center.
And that is the shame of Charles Koch. He may believe his own words, but he has not acted on them. He claims in his writing to see two broad areas of abuses of government. One area includes those programs such as Medicare, Social Security, healthcare and public pensions that by and large support Americans who are far less well of than he and his family. The other area includes the corporate welfare and crony capitalism that he alludes to above. But his political agenda has been completely one-sided. The full brunt of the Koch political enterprise has been focused on those things that benefit retirees, school teachers and the poor. There may be an occasional nod to too big to fail, but that side of the Koch agenda has been rhetoric alone, and barely that.
That is the true indictment of Charles Koch. Un-American is a slur slung from right at the left. If he feels stung by that label, he should take comfort that it is just someone trying to steal the rhetoric that Birchers and others have used to such effect, for so long. Charles Koch is most definitely American, but unfortunately he has not been as special an American as he imagines. He describes himself as a man standing on and fighting for principles, to be engaged in a great battle for the future of freedom, but in the end his has been a one-sided pursuit of a narrow, partisan agenda.
Charles Koch made a choice to focus his energy on the destruction of income support programs for the poor, the safety net for older Americans and the retirement security of school teachers. Somehow he wants to be applauded for that, even as he has left alone the entrenched infrastructure of crony capitalism and corporate welfare. How does that comport with his claim to stand up for moral principles? Where do the words of Isaiah, St. Augustine and Pope Francis stand relative to Hayak and Schopenhauer the pantheon of philosophers he likes to cite?
If Charles Koch does not like being called names, he should stop calling other people names. If he wants to be respected, he should try respecting others. And if he wants to be admired for seeking to lead America to a higher ground, to a better place, he should try to act on his own words, and not just focus his vaunted war chest on those Americans who are most vulnerable. If he doesn't wanted to be treated like a caricature of himself, he might start by not acting like one.
Alternatively, as a Republican insider who was bemused by Charles Koch's fit of pigue reflected, "Anyone who really cares or worries about what others say about them should shut up and sit down. Otherwise fight the fight and deal with it."