The Koch Brothers Profiled

by Conor Friedersdorf

In The New Yorker, Jane Mayer has a long investigative piece about the Koch brothers, who fund various libertarian causes to the tune of millions. I'm an admirer of Ms. Mayer due to her indispensable reporting about the war on terrorism. Several months back, I dug into a dispute she had with Marc Thiessen, the former Bush speechwriter turned torture apologist, and defended the integrity of her work, having found it to be both intellectually honest and accurate. Her reputation is deserved, as is the reputation of the New Yorker, one of America's best magazines.

The piece on the Koch brothers is worth a look, and includes a lot of information about her subjects, who are certainly very influential and legitimate targets of scrutiny. If I'd just spent several years investigating Dick Cheney, I might also be predisposed to approach a new story on influential right-of-center power brokers with dark conspiracies on the brain. But as best I can tell, the Koch brothers are legitimately upset by some aspects of the piece, and anyone who reads it should also look at the rebuttals from libertarians who are persuasively pushing back against some of its conclusions.

One false note, pointed out to me by a libertarian with no ties to Koch money, is that the article invokes the term "Kochtopus" in service of showing how far-reaching is the power of these political donors, but doesn't explain -- presumably because Ms. Mayer didn't know -- that the term was actually coined by paleo-libertarians, who insist that the Koch brothers are nefarious influences on the movement because the DC organizations they fund are too liberal. (For example, Reason ran stories about Ron Paul's ties to a racist newsletter during his presidential bid, to the consternation of many in the libertarian movement.)

In that same magazine, Matt Welch complains about another aspect of the story, and a follow-up column by Frank Rich:

That whole self-interested "climate-science denial" premise, buttressed by anonymous quotes about how the intellectual product of Koch-recipient outlets "all coincide perfectly with the economic interests of their funders," well, it has a certain Ron Bailey problem. Which is, when a small magazine's science correspondent announces that "we're all global warmers now," it kinda takes takes the fun out of pretending that an evil polluter is using a whip made of million-dollar bills to produce climate-science orthodoxy.

The truth is that the Koch brothers help fund some of the most intellectually honest people in the libertarian movement, as well as some unapologetic hacks. This makes them much like almost every big donor in American politics, and it's probably best to praise or criticize specific efforts they fund because dividing into antagonistic and supportive tribes doesn't get us anywhere. As clear is that they sometimes direct money to back causes they believe in, and others times do it to advance their business interests. It's good to scrutinize billionaires who influence our political system, whatever their motivation, and to criticize them when warranted. Even honest efforts to accurately provide that scrutiny can get some things wrong, it's okay to complain when that happens, and the blog fodder that results helps us reach even better conclusions.

Full disclosure: I'm a big Jane Mayer fan, and named her book The Dark Side the best non-fiction effort of 2008. I'd also help fund Reason and The Institute for Justice, but not scientists antagonistic to climate change, if I were a billionaire. As far as I know, I've never benefited from Koch money, though it's possible that they help fund Doublethink, where I've written pieces calling for better conservative journalism and criticizing Andrew Breitbart. If billionaires were setting the pay rates it certainly wasn't apparent! The Week has even more links. Probably best to do the reading and make up your own mind.