Justifications For Inequality: The Neuroses Of Kochland

One of the brothers Koch, David, has shuffled off this mortal coil, and the pious few looking at his passing may well think he is making it tough for camels passing through needles.  As part of the Brothers Koch, he presided over a corporate empire that did its pinching best to wrest control from the purses of public accountability in the US republic.  At his death, he was the eleventh richest person on the planet, on par with his dominant brother, Charles.

David K, however, went beyond the narrower spending interests of brother Charles, the one with the sharpest of eyes for business who elevated the family’s Wichita oil company into a mammoth entity worth $110 billion.

The pet projects of right wing think tanks and campaign funding for libertarian causes did interest David, but he wished for more. Medicine and the arts tickled his interest, turning him into a philanthropist.  His particular funding-from-high approach was something that was bound to earn praise in some cases: the powerful can be benevolent to the arts and various good causes, even if it comes with a presumption of innate inequality.  Take the New York ballet, which can count some $100 million in donations from the family, and such institutions as the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Such recipients spent little time philosophising about the origins of the loot.  As President Theodore Roosevelt said dismissively of John D. Rockefeller’s establishment of a foundation to manage and disseminate his wealth, “No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.”

DK New York TheaterIt was precisely such gestures that made David Koch a difficult one to pin down, at least for a certain breed of conservative.  Kevin D. Williamson of the National Review, for instance, has suggested that this particular Koch brother could not be meaningfully slotted into a niche of blue-blood conservatism, being himself “a supporter of gay rights, abortion rights, drug legalisation, and much else that does not fit very comfortably on the current ‘right wing’ agenda”.

Politics generates its own distinct tics; Charles and David were left heavy with the anti-socialist sentiments of their bruising father, Fred, who supervised the building of refineries in a Soviet Union hungry for petroleum engineering.  This was a temporary measure: when the Soviets felt competent enough to proceed without his help, Fred Koch wound his disgruntled way to a more accommodating Nazi Germany, where his firm, Winkler-Koch, prospered from 1934.  (This latter point is not mentioned on the website of an organisation Fred joined as an early national council member, The John Birch Society.)

A form of natural selection in the family was encouraged, with Charles edging David out in the pecking order.  David would find his way.  MIT engineering, basketball for which he showed more than an aptitude for, and presidency of Koch Engineering, and executive vice-president of Koch Industries in 1981.  While brother Charles always took primary polling in building the empire, turning Fred’s bricks into family marble, it was David who proved a consistent ally in subsequent family disputes, notably against mischievous brother Bill.

To study the Kochs is to study the US republic as an ailing patient saddled with profound neuroses.  To that end, few studies on the Kochs, or any other US corporation, match Christopher Leonard’s Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America.  “The Koch brothers derived their wealth through a patient, long-term strategy of seizing opportunities in complex and often opaque corners of the economic system.”  That toenail growing patience was underpinned by an ideological observance of free-market economy, specifically those of the Austrian school.  Out of this worship of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek came Market-Based Management, not much short of a cult’s affirmation.

The name Koch is associated with the realisation of political platforms and the disruption of others.  The same year David found himself running as vice-president, Richard Fink, long considered the steering force of the “Kochtopus”, suggested a three stage process in the field of activism. The idea would be germinated by intellectual hothouses and allowed to flourish.  Selected think tanks would treat these ideas as a convertible and exportable commodity: the activists and advocacy groups, suitably bankrolled with Koch cash, would fashion such raw material, using it to pressure elected officials.

David H. Koch Plaza At The Metropolitan Museum Of Art Unveiling
(L-R) Mitchell Silver, New York City Parks Commissioner, Congresswomen Carolyn Maloney, David H. Koch, Julia Koch, Emily K. Rafferty, President of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Congressman Jerrold Nadler attend the unveiling of the David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 9, 2014, New York

As Jane Mayer, a keen student of the Koch phenomenon has noted, the brothers “built a kind of an assembly line to manufacture political change.” In Dark Money, she would call it “a libertarian production line, waiting only to be bought, assembled and switched on.”  Some conservatives preferred to simply see such operating means with gushing envy: the Kochs, according to an admiring Jim Geraghty, were engaged in “effective activism”, targeting “state legislatures, local tax initiatives and the political races that aren’t ‘sexy’.”

That production line had its favourite targets: the supposedly galloping away power of the state (by the end of the 1970s, abolishing the Energy Department had become a platform of the Libertarian Party), unwanted regulations, and fetters on corporate behaviour. In recent years, a clearer picture of the Koch contribution to a big ticket issue – climate change denial – has emerged.  This has been characterised by an insatiable, and uninterrupted hunger, for natural resources.  As David Koch explained to the Society of Petroleum Engineers in Alaska in 1980, the US, “in its own self-interest should be actively promoting development of natural resources in Alaska and assisting in placing more land in private ownership.”  Good for Koch; good for the United States.

In 1991, a coterie of individuals who have become part of the usual suspect list of climate change scepticism, underpinned by the need for continued environmental exploitation, gathered at a Cato conference titled “Global Environmental Crisis: Science or Politics?”  The theme was clear enough: plunder as there was no danger of perishing; extract as they was no fear of environmental degradation.  Meteorologist Richard S. Lindzen was a headline act, dismissing global warming as having “very little evidence at all”.  According to Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigation Center, such gatherings proved indispensable in stifling any chances of a carbon tax.

David Koch
David Koch

In 1980, David Koch attempted a foray into US politics, an effort to come from behind the screen of power. In a sense, it seemed to contradict the secrecy and opacity of the Koch modus operandi: to influence US politics was to do so in the foggy background of assiduously gathered intelligence, targeted donations and backroom manipulations.   Running as US vice-presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, with Ed Clark as the mainstay, did not come to much: the brothers ultimately knew that their mark would be best made as puppet masters rather than openly elected puppets. Inequality, smoothed by various disgorges of largesse, would always be key.

Perhaps unwittingly, the statement from the family on David’s passing suggested the triumph of a certain type of raw American value, distant, unattainable, and ultimately hostile to the commonweal.  Life is nasty, brutish and short, but it has the softening of moneyed self-interest.  “David liked to say that a combination of brilliant doctors, state-of-the-art medications and his own stubbornness kept the cancer at bay.”  How good of him, and his family, to embrace a view of the evils of state-sponsored health care and welfare; to the rich go the lecturing spoils.

Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor and semantic gymnast for President Donald Trump, was keen to do his bit of weeding of negative opinions.  “David Koch,” he peevishly tweeted at Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, “was a good man who had a different ideology than you or to some extent me.  But it’s cruel to attack a dead man who was doing what he believed was best for our country.  Stop demonizing.”

The case here is less one of demonization than sorrow.  The success of Koch Industries, and even taking into account David’s calculatingly philanthropic streak, has signalled a failure, and failing, of the US republic.  The citizen has been anatomised; the corporation reigns with impunity.  Charles, and his philosophy, remains ascendant.

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5 Comments
  1. I see that the crew at Oriental Review have followed Rothbard rhetoric, if not his ideology. “Koctopus” is a play on “octopus”, and that was a favorite Nazi propaganda theme (Jews treating the world as an octopus treats it’s meal). I must admit that at the quantum level, I was a marginal influence toward the Rothbard rebellion and Koch alienation from the LP. Full disclosure, I run the LP Defense Caucus, an anti-Bush faction of the Libertarian Defense Caucus.

    Let us start with their long-dead father, Fred Koch. He received a first-rate education at MIT, but was legally harassed by Lilliputians, the larger corporations,who sicked their slick attorneys on Fred, driving him to turn to the Soviet Union for employment. He was involved in design of a refinery plant in Hamburg; but this was in 1934, when Hindenberg was president until August 2, and before the mass exterminations. As a Jew, Fred would not have helped Germany if he had known what would happen.

    Fred and his sons were/are not paper-pushers or salesman; rather, business and engineering entrepreneurs. They improve quality of life at lower cost to consumers around the world, by creativity and intelligence. Let us embrace rational self-interest, rather than try to fit human nature into a Procrusteam bed.

  2. Israel over the past few days has conducted a series of military operations in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and the Gaza Strip .“Explicit attack”: how Israel attacks Iran’s allies

    “Explicit attack”: how Israel attacks Iran’s allies

  3. Kevin is a fraud,,,goose stepper.

    The Koch brothers are not Jewish. They are descended from William Ingraham Kip, a Protestant missionary who traveled to California in 1853 and was elected California’s first Episcopal bishop in 1856.

    Kip’s granddaughter Mary Burnet Kip was the mother of Mary Clementine Robinson. Robinson married Fred C. Koch, and the two had four sons: Frederick R. Koch, Charles G. Koch, David H. Koch and William I. Koch. When news organizations refer to “the Koch brothers,” they typically mean Charles and David, the two still associated with Koch Industries. Politically, the Koch brothers give large amounts of money to evangelical Christian and conservative Catholic groups.

    Libertarians are just Republicans with a mask.

    The planet constantly preducing Oil, as bacterialogical process….no peak oil.

    Binoy good article.

  4. Ed, thanks for the information about William Ingraham Kip, the great-great frandfather of the Koch brothers. However that was from their maternal side; the first Koch to emigrate to the US was Dutchman Harry Koch, and he married a woman of Jewish ancestry, I believe through Petronella de Swart. So, I was mostly wrong about the Kochs being Jewish.

    Their “Koch” family name is Dutch, not German, hence these Kochs are not related to the Nazi with the same last name. Perhaps that false association, and the high proportion of cultural Jews (such as Rothbard) within the libertarian community, led to my assumption. Certainly, the Koch brothers were closely associated with Murray Rothbard, until they had a falling out, and the Kochs pulled out of the LP and emphasized CATO. Certainly there are a lot of secular Jews in the libertarian movement, and this sub-group has the hghest average IQ and achievements in the real world.

    Concerning your allegations that Libertarians are just Republicans with a mask, that is mostly false. At most, there is a type of self-described “libertarian” that could be described as “Libertarian lite” for their alliances with some Republicans. That is to the credit of the Republican brand name, while the Democrat brand name has been tarnished by it’s associations with the Confederacy and Jim Crow, and later, communists and socialists.

    The people who attend Libertarian Party physical conventions are the ones who elect the LP board, and neither really understand libertarianism. Those of us who have studied the history of classical liberalism, trace it’s origins to the Greco-Roman era.

    Unfortunately, the libertarian movement in the US was virtually wiped out by a few columnists during the inter-war period, who identified “libertarian” and opposed US entry into WW2. Some, such as my friend the late Samual Edward Konkin III, idealized this crowd, which includes James J. Martin, Charles Beard, and collaterally, even the notorious Skorzeny of the World Anti-Communist League. This apoctyphal strain of “libertarianism” is today associated with Ron Paul and non-interventionism. The libertarian movement was revived, post-WW2, by Mises, Friedmans, and Rand; none of them categorical non-interventionists.

    As I point out in my treatise on classical libertarianism in world history, categorical non-interventionism is a departure from Greco-Roman liberalism, a departure which reached apotheosis in the Treaty of Westphalia (which viewed the sovereign as owner of all the property within his domain, hence providing a moral shield against being deposed).

    Categorical non-interventionism has been used as a fig leaf and is not always the real reason for opposing military action against Nazis or Communists.

  5. Kevin your above comment….just proved my point.

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