A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported that the billionaire Koch brothers had more or less endorsed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for president. At a Manhattan fund-raising event, David Koch had indicated that Walker should be the Republican candidate, and even suggested that he and his brother would personally offer financial support to the Governor. It wasn't surprising, after all of their history.
Shortly afterwords, however, this enthusiasm was backtracked, and both brothers denied any endorsement of Walker. “Let me be clear, I am not endorsing or supporting any candidate for president at this point in time,” said David Koch, while his brother, Charles, said they liked five candidates who have the right message and a “good chance of getting elected,” in an interview with USA Today. The five considerations were Walker, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio.
So it's a race! The Koch brothers want a candidate with the right message and a good chance of being elected. But what is that message? What kind of of ideology would they like to see in the 2016 Republican presidential candidate, and what would a Koch-backed presidency really look like?
One thing is for sure, they will be spending a great deal of money to get this lucky politician elected -- earlier this year, it was revealed that the Koch-backed group Freedom Partners would be budgeting about $889 million for the 2016 elections, which is nearly twice what Mitt Romney spent from his campaign accounts in 2012. This massive number is a scary one, and it is becoming the new normal after 2010’s Citizens United decision.
To some, this runaway spending seems to be for the sole purpose of buying influence inside the government to limit oversight over Koch Industries, which has history of disregard for safety and environmental standards. But in truth, these brothers are not typical crony-capitalists, and Charles said this much in his USA Today interview:
“We are doing all of this to make more money? I mean, that is so ludicrous....I don't know how they can say that with a straight face...we oppose as many or more things that would benefit us than would hurt us.”
This claim is doubtful, as his political philosophy is highly beneficial to billionaires like himself -- but this doesn’t mean he is being dishonest either. Indeed, Charles and his brother are not just businessmen hoping to use the government for their own self interest, but fanatics. They are worshipers of the free market, and to them, the government is the sole evil in this world, just as private industry was the sole evil to communists.
This extremist ideology, which they are hoping to inject into American politics in 2016, can be traced back to their upbringing. Their father, Fred Koch, was a early member of the anti-communist John Birch Society, which was so paranoid that it claimed both Democrats and Republicans, including President Dwight Eisenhower, were secret operatives for the communists. Fred had become a dedicated anti-communist after working in Stalin’s Soviet Union in the early thirties, and witnessing the brutality of his regime -- which is understandable. Anyone witnessing the paranoid purges of 1930’s Soviet Union is bound to come out paranoid themselves. But the young Koch brothers grew up with an increasingly paranoid father, afraid of the “collectivists” who were creating the same Stalinesque nightmare in America.
The choice was simple: Either you were a collectivist like the Soviets, or an individualist like a capitalist businessmen. This is why conservative individuals like Eisenhower were labeled communist operatives -- because they had given in to a mixed economy and refused to dismantle programs like Social Security. Today, David and Charles have a similar kind of mentality -- either your a collectivist, and a threat to American prosperity, or you’re a individualist who believes in the free market. There is no in between. And as we shall see, their favorite candidates for president also reflect this paranoid zeal.
So, the Kochs are aggressive anti-collectivists like their father -- but what kind of society do they really support? Last year, Charles wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that revealed his political philosophy. The first thing that should be noted, however, is his dismay for the so-called character assassinations that he feels he has been subjected to:
“Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.)”
This is somewhat ironic. Character assassination is not a strategy unique to the left or right -- if anything it is a tactic that the American right has increasingly made its own over the years. Think of all the petty attacks that have been launched against Obama over the years. His birthplace has been disputed without a shred of evidence other than the color of his skin; he has been compared to Hitler, called a socialist, a Muslim. Indeed, one of the Kochs' favorite candidates, Ted Cruz, has accused Obama of being an apologist for Islamic fundamentalists, and has even implied that the president was a communist. This is exactly how Fred Koch and the John Birch Society operated in the sixties, calling everyone who they disagreed with a Communist operative. It seems character assassination is a Kochian tradition.
But this is just a strategy to promote ideology, and their ideology is of the libertarian persuasion -- placing the free market on a pedestal above all else:
“A truly free society is based on a vision of respect for people and what they value. In a truly free society, any business that disrespects its customers will fail, and deserves to do so. The same should be true of any government that disrespects its citizens. The central belief and fatal conceit of the current administration is that you are incapable of running your own life, but those in power are capable of running it for you. This is the essence of big government and collectivism.”
Where to begin. In Koch’s “free society” -- which presumably means a society without government regulation, oversight, worker protection, or social programs -- he imagines a sort of utopia where everyone will be respected by private industry. Of course Koch does not believe that businesses are naturally altruistic; he subscribes to the invisible hand that Adam Smith wrote about in 1776. “Any business that disrespects its customers will fail” in a free society, according to Koch. This is quite an assumption. What exactly is disrespecting a customer, according to Koch? And what about everyone else; other people in a society who do not happen to buy from a company, but are affected by their operations.
Koch seems to believe (or claims to believe) that consumers are always rational and well-informed individuals, as well as moral. In todays global market, full of multinational corporations and conglomerates, this is an extremely naive assumption. History shows that human beings are not always rational, and indeed tend to be completely irrational in markets. A look at the stock bubble of the nineties or the real estate bubble of the 2000’s shows that consumers and investors tend to be both irrational and uninformed. In the nineties, companies who made zero in profit were being valued in the billions, as if the internet had created a new market where revenue and profit no longer mattered. In the 2000s, people took on levels of debt that they had no chance of paying off, and agreed to adjustable mortgages that would later drown them in debt. The housing bubble was fueled by aggressive and predatory lending, consumer ignorance, and dangerous financial innovations -- and it occurred after a great deal of financial deregulation in the eighties and nineties. In Koch’s “free” society, the government has no role in regulating finance, and in the nineties and 2000s the government followed this advice. New financial innovations, mainly derivatives, were untouched by regulators, and a bubble of toxic mortgage derivatives managed to bring the global economy to its knees.
Beyond consumers, Koch manages to leave out society at large. A look at Koch Industries history reveals just how little he seems to care about this. Back in the nineties, Charles implemented his “market-based” management style. This form of management basically eliminates the strict hierarchal structure of a business, and treats every employee as an entrepreneur, rewarding or punishing them based on the actual value they bring to the company.
This management style created fear within the workforce, which made the company recklessly shrug off safety and environmental concerns when it hurt the bottom line. In other words, profit over people. Former Koch Industries employee Kenoth Whitstine testified about this company culture. After once telling a manager about his concerns for an unsafe pipeline, he was told that it was more profitable to risk a possible lawsuit than to repair it.
This careless culture ended up killing two teenagers in 1996. After being offline for three years, a pipeline was started up again, and minimally repaired so as to limit expenses. The Koch’s would later regret this when it leaked butane into the air, and killed Danielle Smalley and Jason Stone after their truck ignition set off the flammable cloud of invisible gas. Smalley’s father would later be awarded $296 million for wrongful death, the largest award in American history at the time.
The “market-based” management style that Charles Koch implemented at Koch Industries was constructed from the free market faith that he promotes today by spending billions of dollars on political influence -- and the Koch’s ideal candidate would represent this everyman-for-himself philosophy by promoting the market over all else (including workers rights, social welfare, environment, health, etc).
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Clearly, all of the aforementioned candidates under consideration preach similar ideals, but who can be considered the most Kochian? Is there any one in particular as fanatic as America’s most zealous billionaires?
Ted Cruz possesses some of the best traits -- he is a paranoid, embraces conspiracy theories, and fears collectivism like no other. He has also advocated some pretty radical policies, such as abolishing the IRS. He is a well known climate change denier, which is a major plus for the Kochs. He has also said that the Republicans accepting Obamacare was like Neville Chamberlain and the British accepting the Nazis, basically equating Obama to Hitler.
Rand Paul may not be as thoroughly paranoid as Cruz, but he is no doubt the most libertarian of all the candidates. Paul despises government, especially when it intervenes with ones economic freedom, like taxing income or regulating business. He promotes slashing all government spending, except for defense, and would like to dissolve the Department of Education. He also loathes the Environmental Protection Agency, and predictably finds the evidence for climate change inconclusive.
Of course, Marco Rubio may be even more skeptical of climate change than his fellow candidates. He subscribes to “climate has always changed” position. On the economy, he is also a free market guy (the Koch’s would never consider a candidate who was not), and would like to loosen regulations on “energy production,” and cut corporate taxes to spur investment, showing he has not yet given up on supply-side theories.
Jeb Bush may be the most centrist of all the candidates, and therefore the least favorite. Bush views the extreme partisanship in the modern Republican party as “temporary”, and reminisced about the centrism of just a couple decades ago with BuzzFeed Editor in Chief, Ben Smith:
“Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time — they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support... (Reagan) would be criticized for doing the things that he did.”
The Koch's presumptive favorite is Scott Walker, who may be most [in]famous for his outright war on unions in Wisconsin -- surely something the Koch’s admire. In 2012, he faced a recall election after he removed collective bargaining rights for most public sector workers, and just two months ago he made Wisconsin a “right to work” state, meaning that unions can no longer force workers to pay their dues or fees, which will severely hurt Wisconsin unions. Walker has also slashed taxes and spending in his state, which has resulted in a bit of a fiscal crisis.
So, what can we imagine a Koch-backed presidency would look like? Maybe it would resemble the market-based management style that Charles Koch once enforced at his company, when every single employee had to look out for themselves, and worry constantly about the bottom line. Forget about rules and regulations and worker coalitions; a Koch-backed president would do his very best to create an everyman-for-himself society, or what Charles likes to call a “free society.” But as James Madison once said: “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty, as well as by the abuses of power.”
In a Koch-backed government, all of the progress that was achieved during the twentieth century would be dismantled, and promises of freedom would enslave the majority of citizens; except for those at the very top. A Kochian society would look very much like the natural world; embracing survival of the fittest materialism and cutthroat self-interest. And a lot of money will be spent to achieve this world. Over the next year and a half, their candidates will be spokesmen for this ideology, and it will be up to the American people to see it for what it really is: fanaticism.