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The Koch Bros., ALEC and the Power of the State

Were there an awards show for unintentional howlers, Charles Koch’s statement in a Forbes interview last December (“Inside the Koch Empire: How the Brothers Plan to Reshape America,” December 5, 2012) would surely be a nominee. “Most power is power to coerce somebody,” he said. “We don’t have the power to coerce anybody.”

No, but the government sure does. Maybe that’s why the Koch Brothers put so much money into lobbying groups and think tanks like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heritage Foundation whose main purpose is to influence government policy.

“Oh,” but you say. “They’re not looking to make money through increased government coercion. Far from it! They’re just lobbying government to get out of the economy so they can take their chances competing on their merits in an unfettered market economy.”

Well … not quite.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.

The legislative agenda pursued by groups like ALEC, Heritage, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute isn’t exactly libertarian. At least not if, by “libertarian,” you mean anything more principled than “whatever big business wants from government to make it profitable.”

As an example, consider so-called “Ag-Gag” bills  – written by ALEC — that  prohibit undercover journalists from exposing animal abuse within corporate agribusiness. This past year such bills were introduced in nine states and signed into law in three.

The Koch Brothers are also enthusiastic advocates (to say the least) of the Keystone XL pipeline, standing to make billions from the project if it’s completed. Needless to say, Keystone’s route depends heavily on the use of eminent domain to steal land from family farmers, and Keystone’s government backers have run roughshod over Indian lands (including sacred burial grounds) guaranteed by treaty. Last I heard, eminent domain is only possible through coercion — you know, that thing David Koch said he lacks the ability to do.

The Keystone project is also heavily dependent on regulatory state preemption of ordinary common law standards of civil liability for the air and groundwater pollution and health damage fracking causes to surrounding communities. And the Koch brothers are also prominent cheerleaders for “tort reform” — i.e., making it more difficult to hold corporations liable for their wrongdoing and make them pay for the harm they’ve caused.

So the actual pattern we see is the Koch brothers and their pet think tanks actively encouraging a near-totalitarian level of state intervention to suppress all the mechanisms of civil society — investigative journalism by a free and independent press, a vigorous system of civil liability, etc. — that would help keep business honest and hold it accountable. Hardly surprising, when you consider Koch Industries got its start building oil refineries for Joseph Stalin. Say, now — he had the power to coerce, didn’t he?

While we’re at it, ALEC has actively lobbied for the draconian drug laws and for detention of “illegal aliens” [sic] that are so profitable to its sponsors like CCOA, Wackenhut and other private prison corporations. That doesn’t sound too libertarian, does it?

And how about David Addington’s new No. 3 role at Heritage? Addington was Dick Cheney’s go-to guy for writing legal memos on stuff like indefinite detention, torture, and warrantless surveillance. You can see why a guy like that would be a perfect fit for a think tank that’s all about “limited government” and “restoring the Constitution.” All sarcasm aside, I think you can see that people like this have a very, um, skewed idea of what “freedom” means.

The role of people like Charles and David Koch, and of think tanks like ALEC, AEI and Heritage, in the larger free market libertarian movement is a lot like that of the Pharisees in the Judaism of Jesus’s time. “Whited sepulchres” and “generation of vipers” are some of the terms he used, I think.

The Pharisees, Jesus said, would cavil and split hairs for years on the finer points of the law, while utterly disregarding its spirit; they would tithe their very herbs, while putting their money into their day’s equivalent of tax-free nonprofit foundations to avoid taking care of their aged parents.

The corporate Pharisees of our day strain at a gnat using “free market” rhetoric to attack welfare for the poor, but swallow a camel when it comes to welfare for corporations. They claim to favor “economic freedom” and “free trade,” while putting the entire world under the totalitarian lockdown of draconian “intellectual property” law to guarantee their enormous monopoly rents. They complain that “taxation is theft,” while their mining and agribusiness corporations act in collusion with governments to kick the peoples of world off their land.

It’s time to scourge the money-changers from the temple.

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Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. He is a mutualist and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. 

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