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Should Liberals Be More Grateful To Grover Norquist?

Radley Balko at Reason again leaps to the defense of the Koch brothers. The question at hand is whether liberals are irrational to regard the Kochs as right-wingers and ideological adversaries. I argued that liberals are not irrational to think this way, since the Kochs heavily support Republicans in their political giving, and even their "battle of ideas" donations have a right-leaning tilt:

Gillespie's implication is that, if you're horrified by the Bush administration's civil rights record and supportive of gay marriage, the Koch brothers are for you. In fact, they're not. They work very hard to elect Bush and members of Congress who will support his agenda. They support think-tanks that oppose right-wing defense and civil liberties as long as they also support right-wing economic policies.
Another way to put this is that the Kochs will happily put their money behind candidates and intellectuals who agree with their economic agenda but disagree with their social agenda. They will never put their money behind candidates or intellectuals of whom the reverse is true.

Balko raises two points. First, he notes that the Kochs give a lot of money to the arts and other non-political causes. ("Their gifts to the arts and other non-political charities exceeds what they've spent on politics many times over.") That's nice, but irrelevant to any analysis of the Kochs as political actors.

Second, he points out that they donate heavily to the ACLU and to libertarian causes like, well, Reason. Again, that's true. Nobody denies that the Kochs are libertarian. But libertarianism has many variations. Grover Norquist is a libertarian, and he has also decided to work entirely through the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Brink Lindsey is libertarian who thinks libertarians have a more natural alliance with liberals. The Kochs are not exactly like Norquist, but they're much closer to Norquist than to Lindsay. They'll only work with groups on the left that stay out of economic issues. They would never support, say, the Center for American Progress, which supports their social agenda. But they do heavily support groups and individuals who oppose their social agenda.

The Kochs, like Norquist, define libertarianism primarily in economic terms. And they define economic libertarianism as support for supply-side economics and skepticism about climate science. That's not the most natural interpretation of classic liberal thought, but it is the one most congenial to the Koch Brothers' bottom line. (That is not to say the Kochs are rubbing their hands together and cackling about the lies they're spreading. The human mind is extraordinarily adept at finding ways to merge its perception of morality and its perception of self-interest.) It's also noteworthy that the Koch conception libertarianism has been highly influential, which is one reason why Lindsey no longer works at the Koch-supported Cato Institute.

The question, remember, is not the correctness of this worldview, or the degree to which the Kochs' ideology can be separated from their position as heirs to a business empire. It's whether liberals are correct to regard the Kochs' as, fundamentally, right-wingers. I'll concede that the Kochs are less hostile to liberals than, say, Sheldon Adelson. But they are very clearly positioned on the political right. If liberals are wrong about this, we're not the only ones. Somebody should inform the conservatives rising to defend the Kochs at National Review and Powerline that they're undermining the conservative social and foreign policy agenda.

I honestly don't believe the Kochs' financial support for Reason is the, uh, reason that Reason (and other libertarians) are so invested in defending them. Libertarians see their self-image at stake. They tend to be very attached to the self-image as scrappy outsiders, sitting above the partisan debate and smirking at the deluded little ants scurrying about on the red and blue teams. The higher profile of the Kochs undermines that. It reveals just how well-financed some liberatarian organs are, and it places libertarianism within a partisan political context. 

I don't think the libertarian's self-image is totally incorrect. But it's not totally accurate, either. American libertarianism is in part an independent intellectual movement unconcerned with political realities, and it's also in part a well-financed vehicle to advance the self-interest of the rich. Libertarians' insistence on denying the latter aspect of their movement can be seen in Scott Sumner's ideological typology, which portrays libertarianism as the opposite of corruption, and in Kimberly O. Dennis's argument that small government advocates couldn't possibly be motivated by self interest:

If they were truly interested in protecting their profits, they wouldn’t be spending so much to shrink government; they’d be looking for a bigger slice of the pie for themselves.

Obviously, seeking government rents is one way for the rich to maximize their self-interest. Just as obviously, it's not the only way. If you're in agribusiness, advocating smaller government isn't going to help your bottom line. If you're in the dirty energy business, and your main threat is a price on greenhouse gas emissions, it is. And if you're a wealthy person of any sort, you have an interest in opposing rich-to-poor transfers of all types, and opposing rich-to-poor transfers happens to be the conservative movement and the GOP's main policy agenda and a Koch obsession.

Update: One smart friend points out that the ACLU pushed hard for the Koch side in the pivotal Citizens United case. That certainly makes the Koch brothers' support for the ACLU easier to square with their right-wing political identity. Also, Bruce Bartlett had some interesting thoughts in 2009 on libertarians and liberals.

Second Update: Adam Serwer also has an excellent contribution. He points out the case study of the Koch intervention into the Russ Feingold vs. Ron Johnson election:

The best example of this I can think of is the Senate's lost liberaltarian Russ Feingold. Feingold was the only Senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act. He was one of the first senator to endorse marriage equality. He voted against the war in Iraq, against TARP and financial reform and has consistently sought to rein in the surveillance state. He was however, also one of the architects of campaign finance reform along with John McCain and a supporter of the health care bill and the stimulus.
When Feingold's candidacy was in danger, the Koch's poured their money into the coffers of Feingold's opponent, Ron JohnsonAccording to the FEC, the Koch brothers each gave him individual contributions of $2,400, while KochPAC gave him $10000. Charles Koch's son Chase Koch gave Johnson $5,800, while his wife Julia Koch gave another $2,400. An Elizabeth Kochfrom the same zip code in Wichita as Charles and Julia gave an additional $2,400. All in all, the Koch family gave Johnson more than twenty-five thousand dollars to send Russ Feingold home. What type of candidate were they supporting?
Johnson is anti-marriage equalityanti-choice, has no problem with open-endedmilitary engagements and he supports the PATRIOT Act with some caveats, but only because "you have Barack Obama in power versus George Bush. I wasn't overly concerned with George Bush in power." Of course Johnson opposes "government spending" when he's not getting the money, he opposesgovernment regulation of businesses and believes it's "crazy" to think that man-made activity causes global warming.
In other words, faced with one candidate who shares their views on social issues and national security and another who shares their views on economic issues, the Kochs chose the latter.