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The Koch Brothers and Libertarianism

Are They Republicans Or Libertarians?

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By Kenneth Casey | United States

The Koch Brothers have found themselves in the news again recently, this time by once again distancing themselves from one of the biggest policies that have defined the Trump Presidency: his support for protectionism through tariffs. The Koch brothers differ from Trump on this issue because they believe in the elimination of tariffs. President Trump sees tariffs as a necessity to compete with strength in the global economy. Due to this difference and their belief that the party has drifted more towards economic nationalism and right-populism in the age of Trump, they have threatened to not support Republican federal candidates who agree with the President on the issue of trade.

Many in the media have pointed to this conflict as one of the many examples of disillusionment between Trump Republicans and ‘libertarian’ Republicans. The Koch brothers are widely regarded as two of the biggest and most influential small-l libertarians in the country. Why are the Koch brothers so widely regarded as libertarian and do all of their political activities and money spent towards specific issues align with their libertarian beliefs? 

One of the things the Koch brothers do that earns them the approval of libertarians is their involvement with the Cato Institute, the biggest libertarian think tank in the United States and arguably the second largest right-wing think tank in the country. Charles Koch was among one of the founding members of the institute, along with libertarian activist Ed Crane and the founder of the anarcho-capitalist school of thought Murray Rothbard. There’s no denying that the Cato Institute, since its founding, has done inspired work in making the case for limited government, individual liberty and non-interventionism through policy studies and libertarianism in the United States through intellect and reason. Through the institute, The Kochs have pushed for many libertarian policies such as lower taxes, privatization of government services, civil liberties, gay marriage/marriage privatization, criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization, and much more.

Additionally, David Koch founded Citizens for a Sound Economy, which has since split into two organizations: FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. FreedomWorks is a conservative and libertarian advocacy group that supports like-minded candidates for office and produces a scorecard which grades Congressmen on how often they vote in line with the libertarian principles FreedomWorks embodies. Americans for Prosperity serves much of the same purpose as FreedomWorks – electing like-minded liberty-friendly candidates – but is under different leadership.

Furthermore, they’ve also voiced their opinions and spent money towards fighting legislation like the Patriot Act, in which they gave an amount of money Reason Magazine declared to be around $20 million to the ACLU to promote opposition to the Patriot Act and government surveillance in general (to be completely fair, in an update to the article, Reason announced they were unable to confirm the amount the Koch Brothers gave to the ACLU, or that it existed). They were also one of the biggest vocal opponents of the Affordable Care Act and promoted a free-market approach to health care, in which they used their funds towards Americans for Prosperity to run anti-Obamacare ads worth around $3 million.

Based all of this, I’d say it’s fair to come to the conclusion that their political activities within their supported organizations have done much good for the cause of liberty and limited government, and it’s great that libertarianism has such powerful allies in that sense.

But what about the thing you hear in regards to the Koch brothers the most – their involvement in elections and their support of a plethora of Republican candidates? Based off everything else I’ve written so far, you might assume that the Kochs have a strict qualification for candidates and only support those who consistently align with their views of limited government and philosophical libertarianism, but that’s not always (and not usually) the case.

Most the money the Kochs spend in elections goes towards supporting establishment-friendly mainstream Republicans. According to the website OpenSecrets, the top 10 candidates for election in 2018 that have received the most money from the Koch Brothers are Marsha Blackburn, Orrin Hatch, Lee Zeldin, Ron Estes, Karen Handel, Patrick Morrisey, John Barrasso, Ralph Norman, Claudia Tenney, and Mimi Walters. All of these ten candidates, besides perhaps Morrisey, are establishment-backed Republicans who are nowhere close to representing the libertarian values the Koch Brothers hold dear.

To their credit, I have to note that the Kochs do also support and have donated to the very few libertarians in Congress like Rand Paul, Justin Amash, and Thomas Massie, but there’s no doubt the money they’ve given to establishment big government Republicans outnumbers the money they’ve given to true small-l libertarians. Even when America had the chance to elect Rand Paul, who no doubt represented libertarian the best in the Republican primaries, they decided not to get involved whilst stating they had a favorable view of Rand as well as Ted Cruz and establishment favorites Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker (whom many speculated was their preferred candidate, even over Rand).

One thing is clear from all this: they’re not interested in electing liberty candidates, they’re just interested in electing Republicans. They support Republican leaders such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell many of whom are to blame for the scope of government still getting bigger even under a Republican president and a Republican majority in Congress.

The issue I find with this is that if we keep electing the type of Republicans the Koch brothers have shown the most support to, how will we ever get the country to become more libertarian as the Kochs apparently obviously desire? They’re supporting the same wing of the Republican Party that have advanced authoritarian big government policies such as unnecessary wars overseas, the Patriot Act, big spending bills, and the war on drugs. It is a fair argument that voting isn’t the best ways to change society’s outlook on government and certain issues, but in my opinion, to not focus on elections is wasting an opportunity to see liberty in our lifetime.

If we look at legislation that’s in favor of big government, some Koch-backed candidates have often sided with raising the scope of government instead of the positions the Koch Brothers take on limited government. 3 of the Republicans who voted against the partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017 which the Koch Brothers enthusiastically supported, have received funding from the Koch Brothers in the past: Dean Heller, Shelley Moore Capito, and Rob Portman.

Another piece of legislation that raises the scope of government that has been enacted under the Trump administration was the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill passed with some Koch funded candidates backing it in the Senate such as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Orrin Hatch, Marco Rubio, Rob Portman, Tim Scott, among many others (you can see how everyone in the Senate voted on it here). Instead of putting their efforts towards recruiting candidates who actually align with libertarian values and want to shrink government and end the wars, they’ve spent money on candidates like those I mentioned who want bigger government almost as much as the Democrats do.

The Koch brothers have done a lot of good for libertarianism by funding institutes and organizations that promote the idea of liberty. Rand Paul declared “The Koch brothers’ investment in freedom-loving think tanks will carry on for generations”, this is true and while libertarians should be grateful for their contributions in that regard, their involvement in the American election process and candidates they’ve thrown their support behind could be so much better for the cause of liberty, but we’ll see what’s more effective long-term in making our country freer.


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  1. This is incorrect: “(in an update to the article, Reason announced they were unable to confirm the exact amount the Koch Brothers gave to the ACLU)”. In fact, Reason was unable to confirm whether any of the Kochs ever gave any money to the ACLU.

    Reply

  2. Do the Koch brothers believe in no tariffs in any country, or just in the US? That is the crucial distinction. True free traders would not tolerate any tariffs anywhere, and would use reciprocity to punish those that exercise them. That is what Trump is doing. Being only for the US to eliminate tariffs is as stupid as other unilateralisms: unilateral denuclearization, for instance, or unilateral open borders. Countries are country clubs, and the Constitution is not a suicide pact. You only get a true libertarian solution when all sides enact the libertarian solution.

    Reply

    1. Of course they believe all countries should have low or no tariffs. And the way to get there is to move toward lower tariffs, not to punish American consumers with massive tax hikes. Tariffs been lowered a lot over the past few decades. We can do better. But good news: we don’t have to wait for other countries to discover the benefits of free trade. We can do it all by ourselves!
      https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/20/opinion/trump-trade-tariffs-china.html

      Reply

  3. Lamont Cranston August 3, 2018 at 11:20 am

    They are libertarian in the sense that they believe in the supremacy of property rights and the need for its protection above other rights and freedoms.

    So it is not a conflict of interest for them to support government regulations limiting your right to seek compensation for asbestos exposure – which they have hundreds of millions of dollars in potential liability.

    Or fund campaigns against public transportation on the grounds it would raise taxes. The fact that it would also reduce peoples consumption of their oil is no doubt the furthest thing from their mind.

    Or support state legislature politicians and their campaigns to restrict voting rights in order to protect the wealthy from the taxes and industrial and environmental regulations that might otherwise be instituted by the masses. Something in fact advocated by one of the luminaries of Libertarianism, James McGill Buchanan and he was a big influence on Charles Koch – and on the Pinochet government drafting Chiles retrograde constitution.

    Because this is protecting their property, and this economic liberty is paramount.

    Reply

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