Can opposition to Obama’s policies be blamed on the influence of money? Some of Obama’s supporters would like to think so, especially after the 2010 midterms, and they have pointed their collective finger at Charles and David Koch. The brothers are being assailed for their support of what Jane Mayer in The New Yorker calls “stealth attacks on the federal government,” and they are said to have led the opposition to Obama’s policies, and even to have masterminded the Tea Party movement — all in the name of protecting their profits.
But think about that for a moment. The Kochs’ philanthropic dollars back research and advocacy efforts focused on getting government out of the business of running the economy. If they were truly interested in protecting their profits, they wouldn’t be spending so much to shrink government; they’d be looking for a bigger slice of the pie for themselves. Their funding is devoted to promoting free-market capitalism, not crony capitalism.
And it’s not like they have to worry about Obama leaving them poor, either. With combined worth estimated at $35 billion, they can live comfortably no matter how high taxes go or how unaffordable entitlements become. They can pay lawyers to find clever ways to shelter their wealth. They can fly to India for their health care.
Hard as it is for liberal members of the press to fathom, the Kochs’ giving is no more fueled by self-interest than are the donations of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or George Soros. These men are all motivated by the desire to make the world a better place. They just have radically different conceptions of how to go about that.
George Soros thinks the way to improve society is to redistribute resources. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett believe they should use the wealth they have earned through the free-market system to “give back” through charitable works. They don’t need to worry if the policies they advocate expand the public sector’s responsibilities, as they can insulate themselves from the effects of a more burdensome government in ways most citizens can’t.
Charles and David Koch want to use their wealth to give others the same opportunity to succeed that they have had. Having benefited from the capitalist system, they want others to prosper in the same way. They are concerned our way of life is being threatened by an ever-expanding government that taxes success, regulates risk, punishes innovation, and strangles individual initiative. They believe that a genuinely free market, unencumbered by excessive government debt, needless regulation, and political interference, will generate the most prosperity for all. They think their philanthropic resources are best used not to support programs that transfer wealth from some to others, but to make it possible for everyone to succeed. They seek to preserve the capitalist system not because it serves their interest, but because they believe it serves everyone’s interests.
The press is right to claim that the Kochs’ donations have been tremendously influential. They did not mastermind the Tea Party movement, but the Kochs have been very effective at building an infrastructure of think tanks and scholars that can supply the kind of serious policy analysis that too seldom emerges from universities.
To the extent there has been a major pushback against the policies enacted under the Obama administration, it is in no small part because the Kochs, along with other donors, have funded the work of independent scholars who want to see markets work more efficiently, without the distortions caused by a political system that is beholden to corporatist interests. The people whose ideas they have nurtured are on the front lines, warning about the consequences Obama’s policies will have for America’s economic health. They are producing analyses of the effect massive government debt and entitlement obligations will have on future generations. They are measuring the growth-suppressing consequences of increased regulation. They are questioning the constitutionality of Obamacare. They are challenging the cost-effectiveness of climate-change proposals. They are proposing alternatives to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In fact, they are proposing a host of solutions to the problems that have put our prosperity in jeopardy.
Charles and David Koch haven’t done this alone, but they have been key players in a philanthropic effort to ensure that the policy process is informed by an appreciation of the principles that have, until now, made each generation of Americans better off than the ones that went before.
If you look at wealth creation as a zero-sum game where for every winner there is a loser, it might make sense to focus your philanthropy on redistributing goods from some to others. But if you believe that a free marketplace can create the best opportunity for the largest number of people, it makes sense to use your resources to preserve and protect America’s system of democratic capitalism. The question is not why the Kochs use their philanthropic dollars to protect the capitalist system; it’s why so many others who have benefited from that system don’t.
— Kimberly O. Dennis is president & CEO of the Searle Freedom Trust.