In a new article for Rolling Stone, “Inside the Koch Brothers’ Toxic Empire,” Tim Dickinson attempts to present the frequently demonized brothers Koch as essentially hardline libertarians, whose radical free market ideology is thoroughly mixed into their business philosophy and practices. We’ve all seen this article before. Liberal media outlets have made a whole industry of attempting to discredit libertarianism as the exploitative ethic of rich, white people, and have presented the Kochs as the representatives of this ethic.
Mr. Dickinson regrettably takes it as a given that libertarianism is merely a thin ideological vindication of big business, with all its abuses and ruination of the natural environment. Such a flagrant misunderstanding is rather embarrassing considering both the breadth of libertarianism’s ideas and its history, and the fact that Dickinson took the time to write a lengthy article that is in part a denunciation of libertarianism. We might’ve expected a more careful and knowledgeable treatment of the subject if this kind of hit piece weren’t so commonplace among mainstream liberal outfits.
Had Dickinson committed himself to digging just a bit deeper into libertarianism and, for example, its opposition to economic regulations, he likely would have noticed a trend among actual libertarians as opposed to the straw men and caricatures set up by boring, monotonous smears. In and of itself libertarianism — including its individualistic and free market varieties — holds no brief for rich elites and has always incorporated forceful critiques of big business and entrenched economic ruling classes. Only the desperately and chronically unimaginative and uninformed could seriously mistake existing capitalism in any of its historical stages for a free market. Early nineteenth century radical liberals such as Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer established a thoroughgoing theory of class and class conflict, a philosophy they called Industrialisme which challenged the State’s system of intervention on behalf of elites. Comte and Dunoyer understood that genuine freedom of competition and exchange, without government involvement, would actually effect a great change in favor of productive, working people. In their day, there was none of Dickinson’s delusion that the government apparatus is some kind of populist charitable institution; they knew their history and it all demonstrated, as it still does, that government force and aggression are almost always used to line the pockets of the politically connected. Comte wrote of the “subordination that subjected the laboring men to the idle and devouring men, and which gave to the latter the means of existing without producing anything, or of living nobly.” None of this subordination had anything to do with mutually beneficial exchange, which these radical liberals regarded as the proper basis for a free and fair society.
All of this is to say nothing of later free market libertarians such as Benjamin Tucker who went so far as to identify their completely unregulated, stateless free market with socialism. These radicals saw that the State’s regulations, laws, licenses, and permits in fact acted to consolidate power in the hands of great, monopolistic trusts. The dominance and market power of these large entities, combined with the government’s theft of the land and preclusion of self-sufficiency, allowed the “captains of industry” to acquire wage labor at an extortionate reduced price. It will no doubt come as a surprise to Dickinson that a committed socialist and class warrior like Benjamin Tucker would agree wholeheartedly with Charles Koch’s claim that supporters of regulation are being “hoodwinked.” But Dickinson might not be so surprised should he decide to consider the historical relationship between the interests and prerogatives of capital and those of the State more closely. Like Comte and Dunoyer, Tucker would have treated as laughably absurd the notion that our political overlords would want to hobble the rich. Attacking the “band of licensed robbers called capitalists,” Benjamin Tucker nevertheless advocated consistent free market competition of just the kind that so worries Dickinson.
Still, we might forgive Dickinson for being confused. After all, there is all the difference in the world between the kind of free market defended by Comte, Dunoyer, and Tucker, and the corporate capitalism that has made Koch Industries a multibillion dollar company. The great capitalists of today are themselves rather confused when it comes to the economic ideas to which they subscribe. When it suits them, they conflate today’s system of multinational corporatism, the deeply statist successor of feudalism and mercantilism, with the real free market system outlined by radical libertarians, but never yet observed in reality. Tucker and others thus frequently called attention to “the bourgeoisie’s appeal to liberty and its infidelity thereto.” Insofar as we give credence to the ridiculous myth that these two irreconcilable systems are one and the same, we can agree to some extent with Dickinson’s philosophically muddled piece. Dickinson begins to hit rather closer to the mark near the close of his article, where he writes that “in the real world, Koch Industries has used its political might to beat back … market-based mechanisms.” “In fact,” Dickinson observes, “it appears the very essence of the Koch business model is to exploit breakdowns in the free market.” So which is it? Are the Koch brothers attempting to skirt the requirements of a free market in order to get away with environmental and economic murder? Or are they creatures of the free market, their billions its proximate result?
To speak to the beliefs which men hold within their hearts is neither practicable nor especially useful in considering questions of political economy. Armchair psychology aside, however, it is a great deal easier to judge global corporate capitalism against the standards clearly delineated again and again by real life libertarians such as we have considered here. Those standards as our rubric, it is clear beyond dispute that in fact global corporate capitalism is a system instituted by the total state, riddled with anticompetitive privileges and profoundly hostile to poor and working people and to the environment. A free market means, among other things, carrying your own costs and thus paying for the destruction you bring to the natural world. Where that kind of free market is in effect, no additional or ancillary regulations are necessary. Where such a system is not actually in effect, no additional or ancillary regulations will be sufficient, and will more likely act as cost barriers to foreclose just the kind of competition we need to rein back the economically powerful. Mainstream liberals ought to reconsider libertarianism in the light of its left-wing roots. They might just be surprised by what they find, walking away disillusioned with politics and the State as the routes to fairness, justice and equality.