The Koch Brothers and Justice

by Michael Sean Winters

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Charles Koch wants your shackles. In a speech to his Donor Summit this weekend, opened to the press for the first time, Politico reports that Koch claimed, “we aim … to remove the shackles preventing all Americans, especially the disadvantaged, from pursuing their dreams.” He likened his efforts to those of the civil rights movement’s leaders, to the suffragettes, to the abolitionists, and, of course, to the generation of patriots who fought the Revolutionary War.

Politico did not report whether the donors in the room were given tricorn hats to wear, so that they could look the part Koch had sketched, fearless revolutionaries willing to take on the powers of the age on behalf of justice. Indeed, his mention of justice struck one as odd: Justice and liberty are as often in tension as in agreement in any society, and most especially in American society. Certainly the justice Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sought required the curtailment of certain private actors, as well as local governments, in perpetuating racial segregation, and the fight was held on precisely such grounds. Libertarian darling Sen. Rand Paul was still voicing concerns about the Civil Rights Act’s requirement that private businesses abide by its anti-discrimination provisions as recently as six years ago when he was running for the Senate.

Nor does it surprise that Mr. Koch failed to recognize that the efforts of the civil rights leaders, and the suffragettes, and the abolitionists, all culminated in government action. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act set out regulatory and legal schemes to dismantle segregation, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote and the 13th Amendment confiscated the “property” of slaveholders by making slavery illegal. Its companion, the 14th Amendment, guaranteed Equal Protection to all persons in the United States. Whatever else these amendments and acts were, they were not market solutions.

Mr. Koch may want to remove the shackles of government regulation, but he certainly wants to tie the American people up with far worse chains, the chains of a libertarian ideology that, in fact, has little in common with the earlier examples of justice-seeking movements he cited. In Mr. Koch’s worldview, every expression of communitarian solidarity is perceived as a march down the road to serfdom. In the Koch worldview, free markets are the champion of human freedom, and market-oriented solutions are the only ones to be trusted, yielding a crimped, fact-free, formal understanding of freedom that is content to rest with the observation that the rich and the poor alike are both free to forage for their dinner in the dumpster.

And, if you listen to anyone from the think tank the Kochs founded, the Cato Institute, you will know that their libertarianism is deeply and unapologetically ideological. There is no field of human experience that they do no submit to their ideological analysis. Facts, certainly, are never permitted to get in the way. And, so, a right-to-work law that makes a mockery of the right to organize is seen as an expression of freedom and right. Taxes, which are the price we pay for a civilized society (and sometimes for a barbaric one, as George Will pointed out yesterday when discussing government funding of Planned Parenthood), is a price too high, a confiscation, a violation of personal property rights. Free trade agreements that give large multinational corporations special legal recourse to make sure their capital moves freely, while purporting to set labor standards even though such standards are unenforceable on the ground, such agreements are “free” even though capital ends up with all the benefits and labor is reduced to a commodity. 

No one should be fooled by Mr. Koch’s encomiums to American history – “History demonstrates that when the American people get motivated by an issue of justice, that they believe is just, extraordinary things can be accomplished, and that’s the message for all of us.” History, too, is the enemy of a libertarian ideologue. He is no Burkean. History is supple, complicated, multi-faceted, it resists the breezy, always binary, classifications between freedom and slavery that drive our friends at Cato, it is the story of good intentions going wrong and bad intentions unintentionally yielding good, it reveals cultural nuances that defy economic explication. The world of history is not the world of the ideologue. Mr. Koch cites it as rhetorical window dressing, not to make a point.

A final observation. Mr. Koch’s attempt to place himself in the long line of justice-seekers fails to note that the abolitionists, and the suffragettes and the Civil Rights movement leaders, were all relatively powerless, taking on powerful, entrenched interests. (The Revolutionary War leaders are a more complicated group in terms of relative power.) The Koch brothers just put almost $900 million on the table to influence the political landscape this year. Perhaps they think that money will permit them to speak truth to power, but tt is hard to speak truth to power when one is powerful. Very powerful. I suppose we should be glad that the Kochs have decided to concern themselves with reforming our criminal justice system. Perhaps it is a good thing that they talk now about poverty as a problem in our culture. But, I am suspicious, and not without reason. Money corrupts, and it corrupts nothing so much as the moral imagination.  

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters