The billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch are often painted by the left as anti-worker elites working in the shadows to undermine labor unions, the middle class, and the New Deal. This is only partly true. They are also major philanthropists whose political ideology hardly reflects on their good works, whether or not it’s your cup of tea.
Besides, that political philosophy contains many good things outside of workers’ rights issues. The brothers have bankrolled anti-war and anti-war-on-drugs writing and research. Publications like reason are a mixed bag for sure, but reason-style libertarians tend to be socially liberal and represent, at least in the mainstream, a more liberal-ish version of libertarianism than is found elsewhere. And some of the work at that magazine – namely the investigative work of Radley Balko – has been extremely important. It’s even saved lives.
In 2008, as the Ron Paul revolution was gaining serious momentum, reason writers Julian Sanchez and Dave Wiegel dug into the Ron Paul newsletters in an attempt to discover who had penned the various racist and bigoted screeds back in the early nineties.
This was interesting for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the willingness of the libertarian magazine to go after the one candidate in the entire race with any libertarian credentials to speak of was, in some ways, remarkable.
At the same time, the article and the ensuing debate over Ron Paul’s credibility underscored a divide between libertarians that extends back to the days when the Ron Paul newsletter first started publishing paranoid race-baiting and conspiracy theories.
Back then, the libertarian movement was nowhere near as vibrant as it is today. Some of the leading thinkers in the movement were the same men that reason later hypothesized were behind the newsletters: Lew Rockwell and Murray Rothbard. At the time, Rockwell and Rothbard were championing what they termed “paleo-libertarianism” – an attempt to spread libertarian ideas by promoting a socially conservative, and at times downright nativist, narrative about government and society.
This contrasted sharply with the liberal wing of the libertarian movement, perhaps best embodied at the time by none other than Charles Koch, who found Rothbard’s redneck-libertarianism repellant, or at least unhelpful – a cynical ploy to promote libertarianism through fear rather than through the more pragmatic approach adopted by Cato.
The relationship between the Koch brothers and Murray Rothbard goes all the way back to the dawn of the Cato Institute, when Charles Koch founded the libertarian think tank in order to promote Rothbard’s views. The relationship ended badly, however, with Rothbard disgusted by what he saw as a compromise of pure libertarianism. The Kochs, it turned out, were just too liberal for Rothbard.
Writing at LewRockwell.com in 2008, David Gordon goes into some detail on those early days of Koch-Rothbard unity, noting that, “owing to Paul’s long association with Rothbard and Rockwell, his campaign had little appeal to Cato. High officials of Cato cooperated with James Kirchick’s malicious smears against him in The New Republic.”
Paul, like Rothbard, was once employed by the Kochs, but according to Gordon had been too principled to remain in their employ.
“It should come as no surprise that Matt Welch,” Gordon continues, “the new editor of Reason, has published a viciously negative piece against Rockwell and Paul. Koch is a large funder of the magazine, and, as Murray Rothbard learned to his cost, he expects those he funds to obey his dictates.”
In many ways, this contrast with the paleo-libertarian scene ought to make liberals more fond of the Koch brothers. After all, they would have none of the bad craziness that found its way into the Ron Paul newsletters; they refused to sign on to the paleo-libertarian sinking ship; they pushed Cato in a much better direction than Rothbard and Rockwell pushed Paul and other conservative libertarians.
And yet the Koch brothers are among the biggest financial of Republican causes today. They rub shoulders with guys like Santorum’s Super PAC sugar-daddy Foster Friess, whose take on liberty includes bad jokes about contraception. The Koch’s may care about individual liberty and other libertarian values, but they still help bankroll deeply socially conservative causes and would trade many liberties so long as economic liberty was preserved. Although Cato itself has remained staunchly anti-war, Koch money has found its way into plenty of pro-war pockets.
The problem with the Koch brothers isn’t that they’re too libertarian, or that they didn’t go for libertarian purity like Rothbard wanted them to, it’s that they exemplify the sort of destructive Republican fusionism that’s made libertarianism a movement of the right – even when it’s the more liberal wing of libertarianism so derided by Paul supporters.
I suppose I still hold out hope that a liberal-tarian movement will emerge somehow, but all the big money is behind a distinctly Republican libertarianism, at least when it comes to the Koch brothers. And the paleo-libertarianism of Ron Paul and others represents a social conservatism that makes me uncomfortable and that, I think, misunderstands liberty in serious ways (on states issues, immigration, etc.)
Ron Paul has said many refreshing things in the GOP debates. His take on the Iranian bomb threat, the war on drugs, and so forth has been music to my ears. Alas, his involvement with the newsletters is too big of an issue for me to ignore. The Koch’s may not have the same skeletons in their closet, but their perpetuation of rightwing fusionism has all but ensured that libertarianism, even in its more liberal manifestations, remain a creature of the right.