In Praise of the Kochs

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 28 2011 10:37 AM

In Praise of the Kochs

Matt Continetti's profile of the Koch brothers is a must-read, as a great piece of writing and as a text created under duress. What do I mean? Continetti has basically written the antithesis of Jane Mayer's 2010 profile of the "Billionaire Koch Brothers' War Against Obama."

Mayer, like many a reporter (at this point I meekly raise my hand), did not get access to the Kochs. The piece she wrote without them was blistering, making links between the Koch's sprawling business and public health crisis; it was overflowing with quotes from named and unnamed strategists who saw the Kochs as a malign influence. The official response was pathetic, a short statement on the Koch Industries website. As the Mayer article became a touchstone for liberal activists -- if I wanted to be hyperbolic, I'd say it did for Tea Party critics what Silent Spring did for environmentalists. So the Kochs have ramped up a pushback, slowly, that has culminated in a lengthy and favorable profile that spends quite a lot of pointing out the non-evil done by Koch companies -- "Since Obama’s inauguration, Koch companies have been recognized more than 280 times by local, state, and federal agencies for safety and environmental stewardship" -- and quite a lot of space ripping Mayer. For example:

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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It was more than passing strange for Mayer to use the "self-interest" canard. In "Covert Operations" Mayer trotted out a spokesman for George Soros, the liberal billionaire and political activist, who "argued that Soros’s giving is transparent, and that 'none of his contributions are in the service of his own economic interests.’?" Six years earlier, however, in a profile of Soros for the New Yorker , Mayer had written differently. The hedge fund king told her how he’d once established a think tank in England "which had at first looked like a fruitless venture"—right up to the minute his connections opened a door into the British bond market. "I made many millions," Soros told Mayer. (The pound sterling wasn’t as lucky.)

Continetti, more than any other writer I've seen, makes a normative judgment -- the businessmen who fund the right are contributing more to society than the hedge fund manager who funds the left. They are also intellectuals. On Charles Koch:

One day he came across the Austrian school of economics. Von Mises, Hayek, F.?A. Harper, Sowell—these free market thinkers were his gurus. He read Maslow on Management . He read Michael Polanyi. He would take insights from one author, attach them to insights from another, and try to make everything fit together.

And later:

As the assaults piled up Charles couldn’t help thinking of Schopenhauer’s "Art of Controversy."

The "lede," I guess, is the loose talk the Kochs engage in about how Barack Obama has been influenced by market thinking. But I think the existence of the piece is the most interesting thing about it. Continetti gets access that no one else has, and uses it to make the matter-of-fact case that libertarian businessman should be celebrated for their business and for what they contribute to the world of ideas.

I do think Continetti soft-pedals the role the Kochs have in the Tea Party. One example:

Did the Kochs order Keli Carender to organize the first "porkulus" protest in Seattle in February 2009? Did they direct Rick Santelli to call for a Tea Party live on CNBC a few days later? The suggestion was absurd. "I see these people on TV, and they’re interviewed, and it’s obvious no one’s pulling their strings," Charles said. Neither brother has attended a Tea Party. If anything it was the Tea Partiers who used Americans for Prosperity: They would have invented it if it hadn’t already existed.

Two things. One, Keli Carender had easy access to libertarian anti-stimulus opinion, in part, because the Kochs have endowed a lot of libertarian thinking. That's fine -- they've endowed me, too, as a former Reason reporter -- but it's not something to overlook. Two, the Tea Party did invent many organizations as it went along, but AFP was uniquely well-organized, well-funded, and not worried about where funding would come from, and anyone will tell you that's essential in buttressing a movement.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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