[Author's note: Although I wrote it before the election, I embargoed this essay until today, lest anyone think I was advocating for a political party or for an electoral victory. The sentiments expressed below are unrelated to any partisan agenda.]
Billionaire businessmen and philanthropists Charles and David Koch have come in for a lot of criticism lately, and in all the best places: among others, in The New York Times (both Paul Krugman and Frank Rich), in New York Magazine, and in an improbably long piece in the The New Yorker. The charges in all the accounts are the same. The Kochs are “covert” bankrollers of the Tea Party, shadowy “tycoons” funding a relentless campaign to discredit President Obama and his policies, and, more generally, financial supporters of numerous initiatives whose real goals are to help them line their pockets—all either in secret or behind a false mask of charity and patriotic rhetoric. According to critics, when the Kochs talk about “individual liberty” and “free markets,” what they really mean is “get the government off our backs so we can make even more money.” And people supported by the Kochs who espouse similar notions are just puppets pulled by the strings of the Kochs’ billions.
As someone whose work has sometimes been supported by the Koch Foundation, the criticisms directed at the Kochs are thus also directed at me, as they are at the other professors, students, academic institutions, charitable organizations, and others that have benefitted from the Kochs’ giving over the years. If the Kochs really are this bad, however, am I required, in good conscience, to abjure any and all connection to them?
Luckily I don’t have to answer that question: The charges are in almost all cases either false or grossly misleading. They may fit a narrative typical of a Hollywood movie, where evil rich businessmen connive to manipulate others for their own benefit, but conspiracy theories like those rarely match reality. The Kochs themselves have responded to the various allegations, but there are at least two clear reasons why the allegations must be either false or misleading.
The first relates to the Tea Party movement. Attending a Tea Party rally or listening to people sympathetic to the movement, one cannot help but be struck not just by how articulate they are, but how genuine. They mean what they say, and conviction like that simply cannot be bought. By contrast, paying people to claim they believe things that they really don’t is a rather dicey affair: It is almost always transparent, and mercenary offers like that appeal to only a small number of people in any case. But the Tea Party phenomenon is astonishing precisely because it is not orchestrated from the top. Indeed, its decentralized, bottom-up character is one of the keys to its success. The hundreds of thousands of people who have attended rallies nationwide have done so because they have sincere beliefs on which they decided to act.
The second reason that charges against the Kochs are false or misleading relates to their alleged influence in higher education. The Kochs have given millions of dollars over several decades supporting students, professors, academic institutions, and nonprofits that are either sympathetic to their worldview or at least willing to give it a fair hearing. Yet what proportion of professors today subscribe to the Kochs’ view? Less than one-tenth; probably more like one in twenty. How could this be, if the clandestine reach of the “Kochtopus” is so far and wide?
Consider what they are up against. According to the New Yorker article, Charles and David Koch “have given over one hundred million dollars to right-wing causes” since 1980. That sounds like a lot, but it averages only about $3.5 million per year. Generously adjusting for inflation, assume it is the equivalent today of even $10 million per year. That is enough to pay the full salary and benefits of perhaps seventy professors in the country per year. That would be seventy out of some 1.7 million, or a vanishingly small .004%.
Considering, moreover, the substantial predominance of left-leaning political and economic worldviews on today’s campuses, one begins to see why the money the Kochs are donating hardly warrants the hyperventilating rhetoric it is receiving. For better or worse, theirs is a small minority view on college and university campuses, and the money they give is dwarfed by the resources that left-leaning faculty, centers, programs, and institutions regularly devote to discrediting positions like theirs and to advocating contrary views.
But putting aside money and numbers, what of the Kochs’ ideas themselves? The Kochs support limited government, free markets, protections of private property, individual liberty, and peace. This is approximately the political-economic vision of America’s founders. Perhaps that is a “radical” view in the minds of an average New York Times columnist, but it still resonates with many Americans who understand that that vision has enabled more freedom and prosperity for the average person than any other system of political economy ever tried. It is moreover an inspiring moral vision: human beings as unique and possessing a dignity that requires both individual freedom and personal responsibility, and a system of social institutions that leads to prosperity and peace.
These are the ideas that are so ominous and threatening?
Charles and David Koch are those rare specimens who take their convictions seriously enough to put their own money where their mouths are. One might in the end disagree with their vision, but for standing up for what they believe, and for being willing to shoulder their part of the burden of maintaining a free society, I say they should be not vilified but applauded.