Much has been made of the recent Washington Post editorial by the notorious billionaire Charles Koch, in which he loftily attempts to find common ground with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been vocal in his condemnation of Charles and his brother, David, for flooding the American political system with money.
“In spite of the fact that he often misrepresents where I stand on issues,” writes Koch, “the senator should know that we do agree on at least one — an issue that resonates with people who feel that hard work and making a contribution will no longer enable them to succeed. The senator is upset with a political and economic system that is often rigged to help the privileged few at the expense of everyone else, particularly the least advantaged. He believes that we have a two-tiered society that increasingly dooms millions of our fellow citizens to lives of poverty and hopelessness. He thinks many corporations seek and benefit from corporate welfare while ordinary citizens are denied opportunities and a level playing field. I agree with him.”
Needless to say, many on the left were somewhat baffled that the right-wing-mega-donor would agree with Sanders, who describes himself as a democratic socialist, on anything at all. This is largely a result of the caricature that has been painted of the Koch brothers as evil crony-capitalists who buy politicians like Scott Walker for the sole purpose of advancing their own interests. It was an inevitable — but lazy — caricature, and the truth about the Koch brothers, while less captivating, is more insidious.
Unlike other special interest groups and mega-donors, the Koch brothers are less crony-capitalists than they are billionaire zealots. They are free market fundamentalists who completely despise the government — especially when it gets in their way with things like environmental regulation.
(Koch Industries has a toxic environmental record and a history of systemic disregard for environmental laws, as documented in Tim Dickinson’s 2014 Rolling Stone article.)
After vaguely agreeing with Sanders that there is a rigged political and economic system, Koch goes on to place the majority of blame on the government, which, according to his libertarian ideology, can only make things worse because it stifles the efficiency of the free market:
“Democrats and Republicans have too often favored policies and regulations that pick winners and losers. This helps perpetuate a cycle of control, dependency, cronyism and poverty in the United States. These are complicated issues, but it’s not enough to say that government alone is to blame. Large portions of the business community have actively pushed for these policies. Consider the regulations, handouts, mandates, subsidies and other forms of largesse our elected officials dole out to the wealthy and well-connected... Whenever we allow government to pick winners and losers, we impede progress and move further away from a society of mutual benefit. This pits individuals and groups against each other and corrupts the business community, which inevitably becomes less focused on creating value for customers.”
In other words, Koch agrees with Sanders that crony-capitalism — the alliance between big business and big government — is bad, but for very different reasons. Koch considers the only viable solution to be the broad dismantling of the government and the complete emancipation of the free market, which would — in his mind — let the invisible hand work its magic. On the other hand, Sanders believes the government plays an important role in the publics life, and that it needs to be freed from cronyism through various measures, such as campaign reform
To get an idea at how extreme the Kochian ideology is, one has only to look at some of the policy plans for the 1980 presidential platform for the Libertarian Party, for which David Koch ran as the vice president nominee: The abolition of Medicare and Medicaid; the “repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive Social Security system”; the repeal of minimum wage laws; the “eventual repeal of all taxation”; the abolition of the Food and Drug administration; the abolition of the governmental Postal Service; “the complete separation of education and State”; the repeal of compulsory education laws; etc.
Senator Sanders conveniently lists the rest of the platform on his website.
In Koch’s editorial, in an attempt to show how the government can only do wrong, the billionaire lambasts the War on Poverty:
“Since its launch under President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, we have spent roughly $22 trillion, yet our poverty rate remains at 14.8 percent. Instead of preventing, curing and relieving the causes and symptoms of poverty (the goals of the program when it began), too many communities have been torn apart and remain in peril while even more tax dollars pour into this broken system. It is results, not intentions, that matter. History has proven that a bigger, more controlling, more complex and costlier federal government leaves the disadvantaged less likely to improve their lives.”
Of course, this is a gross distortion of reality. Koch is basically correct that the “official poverty rate” has remained depressingly stagnant since the sixties -- it dropped from 19 percent in 1964 to about 15 percent in 1966, for which it closely remains today. But the official poverty rate is an outdated measure of poverty that does not take into account the impact of many programs that were introduced in the sixties, like food stamps and free school lunches, as well as the Earned Income Tax Credit. The updated supplemental poverty measure (SPM), which the Census Bureau created in 2011, paints a very different picture. Indeed, according to a 2013 study from economists at Columbia University, the SPM poverty rate has fallen about 40 percent since war on poverty programs were implemented, from 26 percent 1967 to 16 percent in 2012. (Koch surely knew this, but chose to ignore it.)
Furthermore, Koch’s assertion that more government involvement in the economy has left the “disadvantaged less likely to improve their lives” is simply absurd. History has actually proven otherwise. The state became increasingly more involved with the economy throughout the 20th century, especially during the New Deal era; and the working and middle classes thrived thereafter (since the neoliberal era began, this has changed, and inequality has returned to Great Depression heights). State support of unions; minimum wage laws; financial regulation; safety regulations; Social Security — all policies that Koch stridently opposes, were important reforms that helped to build a fairer capitalist economy.
The fundamental difference between Sanders and Koch is that of reality. Sanders is ultimately a realist in his opposition to crony-capitalism, while Koch is a utopian. Social democracies are common — to varying degrees — throughout the developed world, while there is no truly libertarian nation, as Michael Lind pointed out back in 2013. The laissez faire ideology that Koch promotes would never come about in a remotely democratic society — the majority of voters would rightly view the 1980 Libertarian Party platform as obscene. Conversely, certain social democratic (or, if you’d like, democratic socialist) policies are already extremely popular in America.
While it is certainly a good thing that more and more people are waking to the corrupt status quo that has formed over the past forty years, one should not expect any kind of substantial alliance between progressives and libertarians — although, as Ralph Nader argues in his recent book, "Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance To Dismantle The Corporate State," there are certain policies -- i.e. criminal justice reform, militarism, and corporate welfare -- where agreement is possible. However, when it comes to creating a fairer society with an economy that is not “rigged to help the privileged few,” Sanders is the man with real solutions.