“Yesterday David Koch of the zillionaire Koch brothers died . . . of prostate cancer. I guess I’m going to have to reevaluate my low opinion of prostate cancer.” That was Bill Maher last Friday night, joking before his approving audience. Maher went on to say, “The Amazon is burning up. I’m glad he’s dead.” Maher is not known for his kindness toward those with whom he disagrees. In that sense, he reflects the thinking of a growing number of progressives and leftists who openly despise conservatives and libertarians. David Koch, along with his brother Charles, have for decades been targets of harsh rhetoric from the far Left.
What is it about David Koch that inspired such hatred? “We live in the world that he helped build, and it is on fire,” wrote Sarah Jones in New York, denouncing Koch’s “monstrous legacy.” In Esquire, Charles Pierce writes: “Except for his surviving brother, Charles, no man had a worse effect on American politics since the death of John C. Calhoun. Every malignancy currently afflicting us can be traced in one way or another into their wallets, and that’s not even to mention the lasting damage they’ve done to the planet as a whole.”
This is the kind of language that religious cults reserve for heretics and apostates—and in many ways, David and Charles Koch were blasphemers to the liberal orthodoxy. They believed in smaller government and thus criticized the welfare state, excessive taxation, and a great deal of government regulation. At the same time, they criticized America’s wars abroad, along with high levels of defense spending, and were sympathetic to the causes of gay rights and gay marriage. They were consistent in their views across a range of issues, antagonizing liberals but also vexing conservatives. The claim that David Koch was a reflexive right-winger is a caricature of his beliefs.
The Kochs believed in smaller government. Whether it was gay marriage or land wars in Asia, they consistently argued that less government intervention would produce freer and happier people. Their support for drug legalization and abortion rights irked plenty of conservatives, but it drove few over the edge as their support for lower taxes and greater school choice did for liberals. Perhaps nothing irked liberals more, though, than the Kochs’ fight for less environmental regulation. Blaming Charles and David Koch for singlehandedly destroying the rainforests or raising the temperature of the earth seems to be a common theme among critics—an attribution of immense power beyond the capacity of any man or family or company.
It’s certainly true that Koch-funded scholars and think tanks have done a great deal to question received wisdom on climate science and the contention that government regulation will improve air and water quality more than, say, technological progress. (The Manhattan Institute has received donations from the Kochs, and David Koch briefly served on its board.) But what’s worse, in critics’ view, is that the Kochs’ investment in the world of ideas was not really ideological. It was, they allege, merely a way for them to make more money.
Jones explains, for example, that the Kochs have opposed unions because “unions cut into a corporation’s bottom line; they make it slightly more difficult for lowly businessmen to purchase Park Avenue penthouses worth millions.” It does not occur to her to ask an obvious question: “When you’re worth $50 billion, is it really worth your time to push right-to-work laws just because you want a bigger apartment?”
In fact, one easy way for the uber-wealthy to improve their bottom line is simply to keep the money they already have. David Koch, however, was extremely generous to cultural institutions in New York City that few libertarians or Tea Party advocates would care to patronize. A decade ago, he donated $100 million to modernize Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater building in support of the opera and ballet companies that perform there. He gave $20 million to the American Museum of Natural History and pledged $10 million or more to renovate the plaza and fountains outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition, he donated millions to New York Presbyterian Hospital, the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and other institutions conducting medical research. These donations merely scratch the surface of his wide-ranging philanthropy. If David Koch was selfish or stingy with his money, he had a strange way of expressing it.
His critics, such as The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, struggle to square Koch’s generosity with the claim that he was mainly interested in protecting his wealth. Mayer even suggests, absurdly, that his donations to the National Museum of Natural History have something to do with debunking climate change. She does not try to explain how his gifts in support of opera and ballet are likely to increase his wealth or the influence of Koch Industries.
What Mayer never entertains is the possibility that maybe—just maybe—David Koch was motivated by something besides greed. “I was amazed that I had survived this accident,” he told Barbara Walters in reference to a jet collision in 1991 at Los Angeles International Airport in which 35 people died, though several others (including Koch) walked away with minor injuries. “Thinking back on it later, I felt that the good Lord was sitting on my shoulder and that He helped save my life because He wanted me to do good works and become a good citizen.”
This seems a simpler explanation than Mayer’s. But the enemies of the Kochs can never acknowledge the possibility that these men wanted not only to enrich themselves but also to spread, as widely as possible, the free-market system to improve the standard of living of millions of people who deserve better chances.
Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Lincoln Center