Charles and David Koch, the owners of Koch Industries, are two of the wealthiest men on the planet. They’ve made — and continue to make — their fortune in a wide variety of industries, from oil refining, paper products, and coal. As such, they use (a comparatively tiny) portion of their vast wealth to protect their interests. They’re major backers of the Tea Party, they direct huge sums of money towards efforts to overturn environmental regulations, and fund influential institutions that are sympathetic to their causes and ideology.
No wonder then, that they’re the modern day progressive movement’s villains du jour — they so tidily fit the image of the devious robber barons of yore that they serve as a galvanizing force in raising the ire of environmentally and socially conscious liberals. But for all the intense derision hurled the Kochs’ way, I fail to see the scandal. Or rather, I fail to see why anyone is surprised or outraged at the Kochs’ behavior — instead of the system that allows, even encourages, them to behave this way.
After all, the Koch brothers own highly profitable, heavily polluting operations. Of course they’re going to use their resources to protect their interests. And if their tactics — seeding, propagandizing, and organizing sympathetic grassroots movements, paying organizations to whip up ‘studies’ to counteract scientific findings inconvenient to their business, and dumping huge reserves of cash into low-down PR campaigns — seem nefarious, they’re nothing new. The Koch brothers aren’t necessarily villains — they’re just really good at doing their jobs. These, unfortunately, consist of maximizing profits and discouraging environmental regulations that benefit the public.
Which is why it’s a system that allows for the concentration of such massive wealth that forms the core of the problem, not the myriad bigwigs that will inevitably exploit it. Van Jones, the environmental and social justice advocate, begins to make this point in a recent speech:
From the speech:
I hear a lot of talk now about liberty. There is a movement in our country that has grown up, the Tea Party movement, that has raised the question of liberty, and I say, “Thank goodness.” I’m glad that someone’s raised the question of liberty … But I think that what we have to be clear about is liberty always has two threats …. One is the excessive concentration of political power — excessive concentration of political authority — the totalitarian threat to liberty. And that is a threat to watch out for. But there is another threat. And it is in our country a graver threat. And it is the threat that comes from excessive concentrations of economic power. Excessive concentrations of economic power in our country pose as big a threat, and frankly a greater threat than any concentration of political power. What we have to remember is that our republic is founded not just on the question of liberty, but also on democracy and justice.
In other words, it comes down to a question of democracy — when one or two individuals have the ability to shape and influence the policies and attitudes of an entire nation to such a degree, it’s bad for democracy. This doesn’t just apply to the Kochs — it also applies to anyone who accumulates such vast wealth, whether they’re philanthropic darlings of the left or profit-seeking oil barons. George Soros, while maybe not the shadowy puppet master his political opponents make him out to be, did famously singlehandedly manipulate an entire nation’s currency, for crying out loud. Maybe more than once.
So, I pose the question — do we want that sort of accumulation of power and wealth to be a prominent factor in our social fabric? Especially in an America whose Supreme Court has determined that these wealthy individuals are free to channel corporate resources directly into the political process? Are we content not only with widening income gap between ourselves and these folks, but a gap between our democratic voice?
As Jones says, in the more-fiery ending to his speech, “And it is when the predatory, monopolistic dimension of the economic system starts to gain momentum, then the question of justice and democracy has to come forward too. Not just liberty and property rights, but justice and human rights, and democracy, and the people’s rights to be free from economic tyranny and economic domination.”