Monday, March 28, 2011

The Koch brothers' mighty big bootstraps

I don't have a particular dislike for the Koch brothers; perhaps that's a consequence of having grown up in Kansas and knowing people who have worked for for their company. But a lot of the ire directed their way from the left strikes me as basically a much-less-anti-Semitic version of the hysteria the right routinely whips up about George Soros. They should be paid attention, but there's a limit to the usefulness of scapegoating them.

That said, Matthew Continetti could've saved himself some time on his Weekly Standard profile of the brothers by farming the work directly to their public relations team. The shared grievance--People are criticizing us because we got involved in politics? The horror!--is laid on a little thick at times. But the part that really caught my eye was the description of how the brothers have increased the value of their company since taking it over from their father in the 1960s:
Fred was a towering personality. “My father was a man of enormous integrity, and he wanted his children to grow up to be great men, and fine, honest, decent people,” David said. Charles and David attended their father’s alma mater (MIT) and studied his chosen field. When Charles graduated, he stayed in Boston. He found a job with the consulting firm Arthur D. Little, where he worked in business development and management services. Life was good. Then in 1960 he got a call from his father: My health is failing, Fred told him. You need to come back and work for the company and succeed me. “I said, ‘God, I’m doing great here, so I’d rather stay here,’ ” Charles said. Which he did.

A year later Fred called Charles again. Return home and work for me, Fred said, or I’ll sell the company. Charles complied. “He was very strong, and Dutch, and one of his favorite sayings was, ‘You can tell the Dutch but you can’t tell them much,’ ” Charles said. He took over the company after his father’s death in 1967. In the years since Charles Koch went to work for Fred, Koch Industries has grown more than 2,600-fold. The notion that Charles and David are “inheritance babies” is nonsense.
The sense you get from this and other parts of the story is that Charles and David Koch genuinely believe themselves to be self-made men. I don't want to disparage their business acumen--the American landscape is littered with the husks of companies and industries that were once too big to fail--but it's also the case that it's a lot easier to become a billionaire if you're already a millionaire and have a degree from one of the finest universities in the world. That they don't seem to recognize this speaks badly of their ego, but it also speaks to why lots of folks on the left are suspicious of the Kochs' big-business libertarianism: the Kochs seem to truly believe that the free market rewards anybody who is willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but they don't seem to care much about the folks who don't have bootstraps.

Later in the piece:
The imputation in February that Governor Scott Walker had brought Wisconsin to a standstill to further the interests of Koch Industries was of course ridiculous. But it also demonstrated the power of the left-wing vilification machine. As the assaults piled up Charles couldn’t help thinking of Schopenhauer’s “Art of Controversy.” The German philosopher had noted that people who can’t win an argument through reason attack their opponent’s motivation. “I thought I was cynical enough,” Charles said. “But that was pretty shocking, to see what we’re up against, or what the country’s up against: to have an element like this.”

The left’s inability to understand where the Kochs were coming from puzzled Charles and David. Wasn’t it obvious that small government and free markets resulted in a better world? “Why don’t we teach in schools things that make society more prosperous, and more peaceful, and people will respect each other more? It’s a strange thing, isn’t it?” said Charles. “It’s unbelievable how they distort what your message is!” said David. The Kochs thought their aim was to increase the standard of living for everyone. The way to do this, they believed, was by applying to society the same methods that had grown their company.

To Charles, the call for bigger government was egalitarianism run amok. Liberals, he thought, fetishized equality of condition at the expense of personal liberty. “They cannot stand that some people are better off than others,” Charles said. “I think part of it fits Mencken’s definition of a Puritan: someone that’s miserable because he knows that someone, somewhere, is enjoying himself. He cannot stand that. And I think they all slept through Economics 101.”
I am, of course, amused that the Kochs complain of having their motivations attacked--then two paragraphs later do the same to their opponents. It's only human, of course. The problem is that they're wrong. Granted, liberals desire a more egalitarian society than the Kochs do, but for the most part it's a matter of degree: there are precious few real socialists influencing the discourse these days (the banks would've been nationalized in 2008 otherwise) but President Obama has largely surrounded himself with free-market liberals. We're pretty much all capitalists now.

But, you know, some of us believe in a safety net. Not to pull down the people at the top, but to prevent the people at the bottom from slipping through the cracks, and perhaps even to help the people in the middle from slipping to the bottom. That can be done in conjunction with capitalism, if capitalism isn't pursued as a form of social Darwinism. And it will be easier to do so if folks like the Kochs recognize their advantages, instead of believing themselves to be self-made men.

1 comment:

Lou Covey said...

Best and most objective view of the Koch brothers I've read. Well done, from my conservative opinion.