By now you have probably seen the article in the Wall Street Journal written by one of the “notorious Koch brothers” (as a colleague of mine put it), in which he explains why he “is speaking out.” After all the feverish hate speech directed his way over the last several months, including in particular the insinuation that he and his brother were somehow orchestrating Gov. Scott Walker’s actions in Wisconsin, it was probably time that we heard from Mr. Koch himself.
I find the suggestion that the Koch brothers are orchestrating anything silly. It is not that they do not have their viewpoints; they obviously do. It is not that they do not seek to promote their viewpoints; they obviously do that as well. It is not that they do not contribute to organizations with political ambitions consonant with their own; again, this is obvious.
What I find silly is the inference from those facts to the conclusion that people in Wisconsin or elsewhere are doing what they are doing because of the Koch brothers. This gets the causality exactly backward. The Kochs do not cause people to behave in a certain way or believe in a certain thing; rather, they look for people who are already behaving and believing in ways that they agree with, and they support them.
I, for example, was at one time the “Charles G. Koch Senior Fellow” at the Fund for American Studies (I am now a Senior Scholar), which means that the Koch Foundation sponsored some of the work that I did for TFAS. But I did what I did, said what I said, and wrote what I wrote because I believed it. I am happy to have someone supporting my work, but whether anyone did or not I would still have the beliefs I do and try to do the same work. Donor support allows me to do more of it than I otherwise would, but it does not alter the character or substance of what I do. I would not have it any other way. Neither, I am sure, would the Koch Foundation.
But even that is putting it too strongly. I give talks, I lead discussions, and I teach classes all sponsored by TFAS, and thus in part by the Koch Foundation, but I do not ask permission from the Koch Foundation to teach what I want to teach; I do not ask them to review my talks; they give me no advice about what books or articles or historical figures to discuss; and they do not ask to vet my views on any philosophical, economic, or policy-related issue. Instead, I have made proposals to them about projects I wanted to work on for which I asked support, and in some cases they have agreed to support me.
That’s it. Nothing sinister, nothing underhanded, nothing untoward; no secret meetings, no strings pulled, no threats, no “offers I couldn’t refuse.” In fact, that is exactly the way that almost every other grant-making entity in America works. It sometimes happens, I suppose, that donors will approach people or institutions and say, “we’ll give you $x if you do A, B, and C”; but even in those cases, people and institutions with integrity will accept only when the “A, B, and C” are consistent with what they are interested in doing anyway. Certainly that is true for me.
It makes me wonder whether one of the most flummoxing things about the Koch brothers to their detractors is precisely the fact that the Koch brothers really believe in their ideas. They actually believe in the beneficial powers of free markets, of limited government, and of regimes based on private property and voluntary contract. They genuinely believe that these institutions would benefit not only themselves, but, as if by an invisible hand, everyone else as well.
It turns out not only that they have a lot of empirical evidence on their side, but also that some other people have independently reached similar beliefs. Perhaps detractors of the Kochs find it hard to imagine that thinking persons could come to economic or political conclusions that differ from theirs, which is why they seek for a shadowy master-manipulator villain to explain it all. Sorry to disappoint: Sometimes people who are neither ignorant nor benighted nor bigoted nor unintelligent nor toadies nor acting in bad faith nevertheless disagree with you. I’m afraid you’re just going to have to deal with that.