In a surprisingly self-pitying Wall Street Journal editorial, billionaire Charles Koch has put forward the proposition that the nation's "collectivists" have unfairly characterized him as "un-American."
What Koch calls "character assassination," however, others would describe as a simple recounting of the facts. Koch and his brother David are known for injecting massive amounts of their (partially inherited) wealth into the political process, academia, and propaganda in order to promote their right-wing (and self-serving) point of view.
But now that he's brought it up: Is Charles Koch really un-American?
I'm not comfortable answering that question myself. It promises to judge the person, rather than the deeds, and is all too reminiscent of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. (It's worth noting that, for a guy who resents being labeled, Koch is certainly quick to label his enemies "collectivists" – a term which is strikingly reminiscent of McCarthyism.)
So let's turn the question over to an unimpeachable authority: Thomas Jefferson. He seems like an arbitrator all parties can agree upon. Koch even cites Jefferson in his own defense. Unfortunately, all that citation accomplishes is to make it painfully clear that Koch is no Jefferson scholar.
Koch cites the following line: "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." This out-of-context quote leaves the impression that Jefferson considered the growth of government antithetical to individual liberty. Not so. It comes from a letter Jefferson wrote to Edward Carrington on May 27, 1788. Jefferson wasn't saying that the government takes your liberty, but that liberty is lost when citizens become passive in the face of infringements on their rights.
The NSA, not the IRS, is the appropriate contemporary target for that line.
Jefferson was very clear in the Carrington letter about which type of "government" he found objectionable: hereditary rulership. In his day, hereditary rulers governed through monarchy. Today's unelected rulers, hereditary and otherwise, use their wealth to manipulate, corrupt, and control the political process.
Charles Koch may not understand Thomas Jefferson, but Thomas Jefferson would have understood Charles Koch very well. It was Jefferson, after all, who said the following:
"I hope that we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."
While Jefferson rejected the aristocracy of money, the Koch brothers have taken the lead in organizing it. As a leaked confidential document revealed, they have aggressively courted other billionaires in order to create an organized network of right-wing political funders.
Now that's collectivism.
The Koch Collective has flooded the political system with cash at all levels. The Kochs themselves have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into extremist "think tanks" like the Ayn Rand Institute. Jefferson would have been repelled by Rand's vision of self-serving übermenschen and her contempt for charitable activities.
Wrote Jefferson: "To ourselves, in strict language, we can owe no duties, obligation requiring also two parties. Self-love, therefore, is no part of morality. Indeed, it is exactly its counterpart." (Emphasis ours)
Jefferson was no friend of the business class to which Charles Koch belongs. "Merchants have no country," said Jefferson. "The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains."
Why, it's almost as if he had predicted the Koch brothers' environmental record.
(Koch attempts to defend his companies' environmental record, just as he attempts to deny "rigging the system." Unfortunately, too much of it is publicly known. Here's the dirt on their environmental record. Then there's the Seattle Times ("Koch Industries has pattern of violating ethics, environmental laws") and Bloomberg News ("Koch Brothers Flout Law Getting Richer With Secret Iran Sales").)
Koch has created the modestly-named Charles Koch Institute, whose website says it is dedicated to "educating professionals about economic freedom and how it increases well-being ..." Jefferson would not have been charmed by this vision of "economic freedom." He was greatly disturbed by wealth inequality and was anything but an unwavering proponent of "property rights," another phrase that appears on the Koch Institute website.
Jefferson said this in a letter to James Madison in 1785: "I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property..." (Emphasis ours)
Charles Koch is worth an estimated $40.7 billion, a fortune which might've attracted Jefferson's "subdividing" eye.
What would Thomas Jefferson think about Charles Koch's hostility toward government and its perceived "intrusion" into the lives of the wealthy? Jefferson recognized that the unfettered greed or recklessness of a few needed to be restrained. "In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man," wrote Jefferson, "but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."
The Koch Machine rails against taxes, but Jefferson was a strong supporter of progressive taxation as an instrument for reducing inequality. He wrote in the same letter to Madison that "(one) means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise."
Jefferson was also open to tariffs. He said this about federal taxes on the consumption of foreign goods:
"These contributions enable us to support the current expenses of the Government ... the revenue thereby liberated (ed. note: interesting word choice, "liberated") may ... be applied, in time of peace, to rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufactures, education, and other great objects within each State ..."
Today that would be called "stimulus spending."
Jefferson "collectivism" even let him to say (in the same letter to Madison) that "Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right."
"The earth," wrote Jefferson, "is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on."
Collectivist? The guy sounds like a hippie.
Of course, it's easy to become simplistic about adapting 18th-century words to 21st-century realities. There's an entire subset of libertarian culture devoted to doing exactly that. To truly understand the values of the Founders, we must review their fundamental and unchanging principles. As principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that "governments (derive) their just powers from the consent of the governed." He surely did not envision the kind of government Chief Justice John Roberts described in Wednesday's McCutcheon ruling.
That grotesque decision is the product of decades of Koch-like infiltration of the legal, academic, journalistic and political professions. It is this triumph of money over democracy, rather than any individual, that we must resist.
Jefferson had a solution for oligarchical rule, and he stated it plainly in the Declaration of Independence: "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
Fortunately, we don't need to overthrow our government. We need to get money out of politics and end the corrupting influence of the Koch brothers and their ilk once and for all. The guiding principle has already been stated for us, in a document which begins like this:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ..."