The Kochs And The Marketplace Of Ideas

by Jonathan Chait | May 10, 2011

The dismissal of the Koch brothers' absurd lawsuit against a satirist (who had created a fake news release purporting to be from the Kochs, endorsing legislation to fight climate change) highlights once more a defining aspect of their personality: they really don't like criticism. The mini-industry of conservatives and libertarians that has sprung up to defend the Kochs (against, to be sure, a mini industry of liberals assailing them) tells a story of the Kochs as shy, retiring intellectuals yearning only for high-level philosophical discussion in the free marketplace of ideas. The Kochs, writes Tim Carney, don't seek to "compel others to conform to [their] preferences." Phil Brand writes in the Washington Examiner, "when I think of Koch I think of opportunities to engage in the free exchange of ideas, not clandestine operations to clamp down on that exchange."

When I think of "the free exchange of ideas," launching a groundless lawsuit against a satirist is not what I think of. Indeed, the Kochs do seem to exhibit a distinctly coercive pattern. Here they are smearing Jane Mayer through the Daily Caller:

Who is behind the apparently concerted campaign to smear The New Yorker's Jane Mayer?
For several weeks, the Daily Caller, a conservative Web site -- co-founded by Tucker Carlson and Neil Patel, a former aide to former vice president Dick Cheney -- have had a reporter poking around what they thought would be a scandalous story about Mayer.
The allegations were serious -- that Mayer borrowed or plagiarized from a liberal blogger and other mainstream publications for an Aug. 30 smackdown in The New Yorker on the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. In the end, even the Daily Caller found the allegations to be unfounded, and to its credit, abandoned the story.
The story is dead but the person or persons behind the allegations remains a shadowy mystery.

Hiring goons:

Inside the resort at the beginning of the conference, “there was an atmosphere almost of paranoia,” said Gary Ferdman, a Common Cause official.
Ferdman had reservations at the resort and stayed there Thursday and Friday night. He said he was told Saturday that his lunch reservations at the resort restaurant had been canceled and was urged to check out and leave promptly by a member of Koch’s large security detail.
Security manned every doorway and stairwell near the ballrooms where Koch events were held, and threatened to jail this POLITICO reporter while he waited in line at the resort’s café, after he stopped by a Koch conference registration table.
The resort grounds were “closed for a private function,” the resort’s head of security, James Foster told POLITICO, ushering the reporter outside, where private security guards, wearing gold lapel pins bearing Koch’s “K” logo, threatened “a citizen’s arrest” and a “night in the Riverside County jail” if the reporter continued asking questions and taking photographs.

Intimidating their workers before the midterms:

On the eve of the November midterm elections, Koch Industries sent an urgent letter to most of its 50,000 employees advising them on whom to vote for and warning them about the dire consequences to their families, their jobs and their country should they choose to vote otherwise.
The Nation obtained the Koch Industries election packet for Washington State—which included a cover letter from its president and COO, David Robertson; a list of Koch-endorsed state and federal candidates; and an issue of the company newsletter, Discovery, full of alarmist right-wing propaganda.
Legal experts interviewed for this story called the blatant corporate politicking highly unusual, although no longer skirting the edge of legality, thanks to last year’s Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which granted free speech rights to corporations.

Oh, and investigating Senate staffers:

In 1989, the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs investigated their business and released a scathing report accusing Koch Oil of “a widespread and sophisticated scheme to steal crude oil from Indians and others through fraudulent mismeasuring.” The Kochs admitted that they had improperly taken thirty-one million dollars’ worth of crude oil, but said that it had been accidental. Charles Koch told committee investigators that oil measurement is “a very uncertain art.”
To defend its reputation, Koch Industries hired Robert Strauss, then a premier Washington lobbyist; the company soon opened an office in the city. A grand jury was convened to investigate the allegations, but it eventually disbanded, without issuing criminal charges. According to the Senate report, after the committee hearings Koch operatives delved into the personal lives of committee staffers, even questioning an ex-wife. Senate investigators were upset by the Kochs’ tactics. Kenneth Ballen, the counsel to the Senate committee, said, “These people have amassed such unaccountable power!”

Now, this is a democratic country, and the opportunities to use financial power to coerce others are blessedly minimal. But the overall picture of the Kochs' disposition toward their critics is hardly that of cheerful participants in the marketplace of ideas. It's of paranoid billionaires pushing the limits of the coercive power of their wealth as far as they can be pushed. Fortunately, that isn't terribly far, but this doesn't make for much of a free-speech defense of the Kochs.

Update: Scott Stalh writes to point out that the Kochs used their wealth to exert strict ideological control over the Florida State University economics department they bankrolled:

A conservative billionaire who opposes government meddling in business has bought a rare commodity: the right to interfere in faculty hiring at a publicly funded university.
A foundation bankrolled by Libertarian businessman Charles G. Koch has pledged $1.5 million for positions in Florida State University's economics department. In return, his representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires for a new program promoting "political economy and free enterprise."
Traditionally, university donors have little official input into choosing the person who fills a chair they've funded. The power of university faculty and officials to choose professors without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom.
Under the agreement with the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, however, faculty only retain the illusion of control. The contract specifies that an advisory committee appointed by Koch decides which candidates should be considered. The foundation can also withdraw its funding if it's not happy with the faculty's choice or if the hires don't meet "objectives" set by Koch during annual evaluations.

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