So, I figured there wasn’t much point in my commenting on the New Yorker profile of the Koch brothers, mostly because as someone who’s directly or indirectly benefited from Koch largess for most of my adult life—the Koch Fellowship as a student; gigs at Koch-funded Reason and Cato—I’d expect folks to be justly skeptical of anything favorable I might write about them. So why bother looking like a suck-up? But I’ll say this much. The idea that they’ve poured a hundred million and change into funding libertarian think tanks, advocacy groups, and educational programs over the years in order to line their own pockets or boost the corporate bottom line seems kind of bizarre. I mean, it’s an insanely inefficient, almost Rube Goldbergesque way to go about it, isn’t it? The big organizations they fund work on a whole spectrum of libertarian issues, so only a fraction of each dollar goes to advocating policy change that would yield some direct financial benefit to them. I mean, we don’t have to mention this to them, but if there’s a percentage for Koch Industries in subsidizing my writing on surveillance, or Radley Balko’s stuff on police abuses, it’s a mystery to me. Maybe it’s elaborate misdirection?
Insofar as most of those groups are trying to change the broader climate of ideas, it’s an awfully long game with a highly uncertain payout. And as the New Yorker piece goes to show, it’s a strategy that’s apt to draw a lot more attention and flak than limiting themselves to doing what every other big business does, which is throwing those millions at lobbying shops that push for concrete, near-term legislative changes with some reasonable likelihood of yielding an immediate and quantifiable return. I’m sure they also like the thought that a society where libertarian ideas have more traction might yield lower taxes and regulatory burdens for them, but isn’t the more parsimonious explanation just that they honestly believe in these wacky ideas they’re funding us to defend?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my monograph, “In Defense of Earth Plunder.”
Update: Yglesias writes:
And it certainly doesn’t mean that people should accept Julian Sanchez’ contention that the Koch brothers’ backing of a broad libertarian ideology is something they do to the exclusion of conventional rent-seeking…
I didn’t mean to suggest the two were mutually exclusive, or that the Kochs don’t engage in both; just that a million dollars you spend subsidizing libertarian philosophy seminars for college students is a million dollars you didn’t get to spend on more immediately rewarding lobbying. Also:
The point is that thanks in part funding dynamics, you couldn’t very well be working at the Cato Institute and start doing a lot of writing about how one reason libertarians ought to ally themselves with the progressive coalition in the United States is that unregulated carbon dioxide emissions constitute a massive violation of the property rights of the adversely effected…
I’m probably not going to start doing a lot of writing about this, because it’s not really my jam. But one reason libertarians ought to ally themselves with the progressive coalition in the United States is that unregulated carbon dioxide emissions constitute a massive violation of property rights.