David Koch, Political Philanthropist
David Koch, whose death last week was promptly mocked by people who are moralists on other topics, is said to have had two legacies: One is his philanthropy, including his support of the arts and medical research. The second is his political spending, which allegedly shifted American politics to the Right. If the latter is true, it is only because the political spending was itself philanthropic.
That is, in fact, the best way to understand it: Koch spent probably hundreds of millions of dollars—money that could have gone to planes or paintings or other accoutrements of the ultra-wealthy—trying to convince his fellow citizens to agree with him on politics.
The case that he was a partisan Republican and far-Right ideologue interested only in the profits of Koch Industries is belied by the fact that he ran on the Libertarian ticket against Ronald Reagan, abstained from supporting Donald Trump in 2016, supported same-sex marriage, criticized George W. Bush’s foreign policy, and funded efforts for criminal justice reform.
The case that he was sinister, in turn, rests on the dual claims that his politics coincided with his interests and that the money he spent promoting his views determined rather than influenced voter behavior.
The first standard—a coincidence between interest and politics—would disenfranchise virtually all of the American electorate. It would make it sinister for union members to vote for pro-labor candidates, elderly voters to support defenders of entitlements, and parents to favor proponents of education.
The second standard condescends to the same people for whom critics of Koch and his brother Charles purport to speak. It assumes that they are powerless to resist advertising, so that money spent necessarily purchases votes. These votes, in turn, are not ballots cast by individuals with free will but rather pass-through mechanisms for the views of advertisers.
This is hardly a tribute to the average American voter. It is also false, and if it were true, it would undermine the case for self-government in the first place. James Madison cited the “great republican” necessity for the people to “have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom.” Note that turn from an intelligent people to wise leaders. There is a difference. People with “intelligence” do not do whatever advertisers tell them. Instead, they have the wits and humility to recognize the need for, and presence of, wisdom that may exceed their own.
Koch also stands accused of buying politicians and then operating the strings on which they dance. If this is so, we have leaders with neither “intelligence” nor “wisdom.” Rather, they are tabulae rasae with no views before their donors come along with chalk and tell them what to think. On this view, a person gets to the point of running for, or serving in, Congress with no views on such issues as climate change or criminal justice until the Koch brothers hypnotize him with money and tell him what to think.
This makes no sense. Why did the candidate run for Congress in the first place? Most members take a pay cut to serve, so deterministic self-interest does not explain it. Most members of Congress toil in relative obscurity—quick, name 10 percent of the body—so the motive cannot be reduced to fame, either. It is certainly true that members of Congress are increasingly undiscriminating partisans, or reflexive opponents, of the President. But the Kochs sat out this President’s election.
In fact, the supposedly causal link between contributions and positions is virtually impossible to establish because it is unclear empirically whether money follows candidates’ positions or candidates’ positions follow the money they receive. The evidence is all over the place on this question, but what we can say with certainty is that if the latter is true, we are in what Madison called “a wretched situation.” What we can say intuitively is that donors probably spend their money on candidates who agree with them in the first place. And what we can say analytically is that to the extent donors are writing on blank slates, it is probably with respect to obscure issues in which the people should not permit their government to dabble if they do not want it to become corrupted.
It is certainly the case that Koch Industries has benefited from the lack of consensus, and therefore inaction, on issues like climate change. But that lack of consensus has less to do with donors obscuring obvious answers than with the fact that the proposed answers impose burdens not just on corporations but on consumers, too. It is defensible to argue that voters are wrong on this issue or others. But it is unquestionably the case that neither voters nor their leaders have arrived at the persistent consensus the constitutional regime demands for major change.
Moreover, even assuming Koch Industries has benefited from the brothers’ political spending, the sinister scenario must assume that there was no more remunerative way to invest hundreds of millions of dollars than an unsure gamble on voters who cannot—unless republicanism was a bad idea in the first place—be controlled simply by advertising.
The S&P has surged by a factor of more than 25 since 1980, when David Koch ran for Vice President on the Libertarian ticket. In the same period, the White House has changed parties four times. So has control of the House of Representatives. The Senate has switched twice as many times. An index fund would have been a more profitable and stable home for hundreds of millions of dollars over that span than the unpredictability of politics. Add to this the fact that the Kochs’ spending was only a fraction of political outlays during that period, and the odds that such an “investment” would yield profit become even longer.
We are relentlessly told that too much money is spent on politics and that the Kochs accelerated this trend. The latter is unquestionable, but there is no objective standard for the former. On the contrary, to the extent money spent on politics is spent fueling debate about ideas, it seems to be a gauge of republican health. In any case, as George F. Will has reminded us, the money we spend on politics is about equal to what we spend on potato chips. Is there an objective index by which we spend too much on snack food?
David Koch’s real sin, of course, was his support of Republican causes. Democrats tend not to say George Soros or Tom Steyer are corrupt. (Republicans are scarcely more consistent on this score: They tend to say the Kochs are virtuous while Soros is venal.) Nor does anyone say David Koch was corrupt because he donated money to cancer research when he was battling cancer. Yes, the research benefited people other than himself, but if his political views were sincerely held, he believed this about his political spending, too. He is best remembered as a philanthropist for the arts, medical research, museums, public architecture and, among myriad other causes, politics.