Conflating Libertarianism and Conservatism

I decided to take a cursory look at the Koch brothers, and the picture below is from the first article that came up in Google. It’s from the New Yorker, Aug. 30, 2010. Take a close look at the caption.

  1. Let me begin by saying that I recognize there are libertarians who lean conservative, just as there are “liberaltarians” who lean to the left. Fortunately the latter have a nice subcategory identifying label that all other libertarians seem to lack. (Classification helps us make sense of the world–the lack of identifying labels for sub-classifications is a systemic source of confusion.)
  2. I also have regularly and publicly noted that libertarians tend to side with liberals on social issues and with conservatives on economic issues, so it would not be surprising at all to find a libertarian giving support to “conservative” issues (i.e., that specific set of issues on which libertarians and conservatives agree), even if the person was not himself conservative. Even if the person was so resolutely libertarian that they staunchly sided with liberals on free speech, gay rights, anti-military adventurism, etc., if they personally were more concerned about economic issues, or thought those were the issues most threatened by government, he might give more to conservative issues. That is, my liberal interlocutors are eager to claim that the target of his donations proves the Kochs are actually conservatives who’ve co-opted and perverted the libertarian label, but if they’re giving to those causes upon which libertarians and conservatives line up, that doesn’t in itself prove which of those he is.
  3. That is to say, the caption in itself does not say anything that I have any reason to believe is factually false.
  4. But the caption casually conflates libertarianism and conservatism in a misleading way. This casual conflation is endemic in the media and among liberals. If Koch–or any other libertarian, since it’s not really about him–has given lots of money to economic policy issues, perhaps he is in his view of the world giving to libertarian causes, and it’s conservatives who are supporting his stance on the particular issue.
  5. There is no doubt that factually true statements can be misleading. If someone was to say I hadn’t beaten my wife in over 18 years, that would be factually true, but would cause many people to infer that at one time in the past I actually had beaten my wife.
  6. This kind of causal conflation of libertarianism and conservatism is, at best, a result of laziness (in itself not worthy of respect or excuse) and at worst, of relatively purposeful dishonesty. I consider myself a libertarian, and have given occasional time and/or money to causes on which libertarians line up with liberals (because, despite my intense interest in economic issues, those social issues are more important to me personally). Which sounds more likely as a caption for a picture of me? “James Hanley is a libertarian and has given money to liberal issues,” or “James Hanley is a libertarian but has given money to liberal issues.” The difference between “and” and “but” is all important: one conflates the ideologies, the other disaggregates them. As any lawyer can tell you, the choice of conjunction can determine the outcome.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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9 Responses to Conflating Libertarianism and Conservatism

  1. Pinky says:

    .
    The New Yorker article is worthy of everyone’s read.
    .
    If they weren’t so powerfully rich, they’d be a joke.
    ,
    I imagine they believe in monarchy.
    .

  2. James Hanley says:

    Thanks for missing the point, Pinky.

  3. James Hanley says:

    Addendum,

    The article is a very schlocky piece of journalism. I don’t have to like or care about the Koch brothers at all to see that.

    –It repeatedly uses libertarian and conservative interchangeably.

    –It condemns by implication. For example, it hastens to note that the Kochs contributed the money to found George Mason’s Mercatus Center, and notes that it’s founder, Richard Fink, is the head of the Koch’s Washington D.C. lobbying firm and involved in several of their charitable (yes, charitable) organizations. What they fail to make clear is that Fink is no longer affiliated with Mercatus. Look it up, and check their list of scholars. I would also note that a journalist may be unaware of the Mercatus Center scholars’ reputations. It hosts some of America’s finest economists, including Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan, Arnold Kling, Vernon Smith, and Gordon Tullock.

    –It accuses them of subverting the D.C. Circuit Court. One of Mercatus’ scholars published an article criticizing the EPA’s ruling limiting ground smog. The Court accepted the argument and ruled that the EPA had failed to take the appropriate scientific issues into account. EPA screwed up, right? No, the Justices in the majority had all gone on an “environmental junket at a Montana Ranch” organized by the Foundation for Research in Economics and the Environment (FREE), which also gets some funding from the Kochs. Ah, all part of an elaborate scheme, eh? I mean, the evidence is all circumstantial, but that’s enough to convict in the court of public opinion, right?

    As it happens, I know the director of FREE, John Baden. He accepted my invitation to speak at a conference I hosted a few years ago. He was recommended by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, a person who is utterly above reproach and not at all a member of the conservative crowd. He is staunchly pro-free market, and knowing that he had connections with many businessmen, I asked him if he knew any businessmen who were truly pro-free market. His response, after a pause, was “only one.” (The name was not Koch, iirc.) He’s nobody’s tool or puppet. He has also turned his Montana ranch, formerly a working ranch, into a wildlife preserve. And he strained my budget by ordering multiple bottles of wine at dinner, but I enjoyed sharing them with him.

    –More damnation by implication, rather than evidence. “The Kochs have cast themselves as deficit hawks, but, according to a study by Media Matters, their companies have benefitted from nearly a hundred million dollars in government contracts since 2000.” Well, they build pipelines and other infrastructure. Government needs that stuff. Hell, I’m a deficit hawk, but that doesn’t mean I think government should never spend money in the private sector. So was this legitimate government spending or was it corporate welfare? I can believe either one, but the article cleverly avoids giving us enough information to be able to tell.

    No, they don’t come across as nice guys, and perhaps they aren’t. People with that kind of money often think they get special exceptions to the rules, regardless of their political leanings. But the writer of the article doesn’t look like a particularly honorable person, either.

  4. AMW says:

    Let me lay my cards on the table at the outset: I worked for a Koch-Funded non-profit for four years. I am not a disinterested observer. Nevertheless:

    1. Regarding $100 million in government contracts since 2000, let me try to put that in a little perspective. Although Koch Industries is a private company, and its financial books are therefore private, it is the largest private company by revenue in the United States. In 2005 (iirc) it bought Georgia Pacific. It paid cash. Its annual revenues are on the order of $50 billion dollars (a conservative figure, from my understanding). That means that over the last decade, it has earned, from government contracts, an amount equivalent to around 0.2% of its yearly income. I’m not impressed.

    2. Charles Koch, to the limited extent that I have had any dealings with him, has conducted himself in a kind, gracious, and even humble fashion. He regularly eats lunch in the cafeteria with his employees (where he

    3. To add to Hanley’s list of schlockery in the piece, notice the following. When talking about Tim Phillips, director of AFP, it implies that he is an underhanded dealer thusly: “The conservative operative Grover Norquist, who is known for praising ‘throat slitters’ in politics, called Phillips ‘a grownup who can make things happen.'” Got that? Grover Norquist says Phillips can “make things happen,” and Grover Norquist is known for praising “throat slitters,” so Grover Norquist must think Phillips is a “throat slitter,” and therefore he’s sinister. Please.

  5. James Hanley says:

    Didn’t many liberals praise Obama’s selection of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff because he was known as a guy who could “make things happen?” Jeez, whatever side of the aisle one is on in D.C., that’s about the highest praise anyone can give, and out of the public eye, it’s directed across the aisle as well as to those on one’s own side. My friend who is a former Cap Hill staffer is justifiably proud of his ability to get things done, and endlessly mocks those who cannot–regardless of party affiliation.

  6. Michael Heath says:

    AMW – the value the Koch brothers achieve with their influence is focused primarily on influencing the tax code, a friendly regulatory environment, rent-seeking, keeping negative externalities financed by taxpayers, creating barriers to entry for competing industries, lobbying for congressional support for passage or obstructionism on matters impacting their businesses, and recently – better enabling a culture which maintains a voting constituency supportive of these goals even though its not in those voters interests (an illustrative validation of the Thomas Frank’s thesis). The Koch brothers’ value in purchasing influence is not exclusively explained in government contracts which as you point out is trivial while their influence seeking and return on their efforts is not.

    James – Focusing on petty matters in the Mayer piece appears to be an avoidance tactic given your ignoring the bigger implications the Koch Brothers’ form of conservative libertarianism has in regards to public policy. Ideologies change, especially with the co-option of power. You can do better, jeez – David Koch was the Libertarian Party’s VP candidate in 1980.

    And it’s not just the Cato Institute which is specifically libertarian but the Mercatus Center as well where the latter has two Austrian school economists on-board which you fail to mention in your description of them in spite of that being a featured area of research for the center, they’ve also promoted global warming as beneficial and continue to greenwash. Charles Koch contributed $9.6 million to them through 2008: http://goo.gl/lcN0e

    Consider this featured greenwashing working paper from one of the two Mercatus energy policy “experts”, Bruce Yandle. Bjorn Lomborg would be proud. The following is the man’s summary conclusion; great for a Tea Party or a Michelle Bachmann speech but little else:

    Yet, while these costs [more fuel efficient vehicles] are real and substantial, there is another longer-run cost that merges when national capitalism with centralized political management replaces industrial capitalism and decentralized market forces. Politically designed and produced automobiles turned out by a fuel economy cartel may indeed be more fuel efficient, but it is highly doubtful that they will form the basis of a dynamic industry that can compete and excel in tomorrow’s globally competitive market. There is high risk that the U.S. industry will become part of an industrial backwater that can only survive when nurtured with subsidies or protected by nontariff barriers.
    America’s difficulty in building a fuel-efficient fleet of cars has never been about a lack of technology and production expertise.
    It is about freedom.

    There are no footnotes. Here’s a link to Yandle’s paper: http://goo.gl/qcfSW

    I suggest getting past your perception of the errors of Ms. Mayer’s piece and instead focus on the irrefutable facts regarding the Koch’s libertarianism and how their influence along with others with newly won power is both changing and exploiting libertarianism as their ideas begin to actually impact public policy. This is perhaps the biggest sea change to ever hit the libertarian movement while you seem intent in arguing it doesn’t exist, its just those nasty conservatives acting like libertarians.

  7. James Hanley says:

    Focusing on petty matters in the Mayer piece appears to be an avoidance tactic given your ignoring the bigger implications the Koch Brothers’ form of conservative libertarianism has in regards to public policy.

    I suggest getting past your perception of the errors of Ms. Mayer’s piece and instead focus on the irrefutable facts regarding the Koch’s libertarianism

    Michael, Once again it seems as though you have something approach a manic obsession with the Koch brothers that pushes you away from your normal positions. At Dispatches, you have been one of the most persistent and thoughtful critics of the media. Suddenly, when the issue is the Koch’s, shoddy journalism is no longer important. Dropping your principles when it comes to a particular person or group is, I think, a warning sign that one is no longer being entirely rational about a subject.

    I am not defending the Kochs. I am only saying that the article is so full of innuendo and distortion that I can’t rely on it for information about the Kochs.

    Regarding Yandle’s piece, what precisely is wrong with it? You seem to think its errors are self-evident. If it’s that bad, you should have no difficulty explaining to me what errors I am missing. As I just said over at Dispatches, you seem to forget that my economic approach is consistent with libertarian-leaning economists. I’m a public choice guy, and when you gain an understanding of public choice theory, it’s hard not to have some libertarian inclinations, even if you don’t go all the way over.

    Yandle’s points:
    1. there is another longer-run cost that merges when national capitalism with centralized political management replaces industrial capitalism and decentralized market forces.
    Sounds right to me. I think the study of comparative economic systems bears this out.

    2. Politically designed and produced automobiles turned out by a fuel economy cartel may indeed be more fuel efficient, but it is highly doubtful that they will form the basis of a dynamic industry that can compete and excel in tomorrow’s globally competitive market.
    Also sounds right to me. How many politically designed products form the basis of dynamic industries? Perhaps military hardware, but anything in the general consumer market?

    3. There is high risk that the U.S. industry will become part of an industrial backwater that can only survive when nurtured with subsidies or protected by nontariff barriers.
    Yes. If they are not producing cars the public actually wants, this is the inevitable result.

    4. America’s difficulty in building a fuel-efficient fleet of cars has never been about a lack of technology and production expertise.
    It is about freedom.

    While I hate it when people throw out “freedom” as a proof, as though it speaks for itself, he is in fact right here. We have sufficient technological genius to develop these cars. What we don’t have is a public that demands them. However much we might like electric/zero-emission cars, you can’t mandate consumer preferences, and you can only mandate consumer purchases by eroding their freedom to make their own choices. You might, like Garrett Hardin, say that limiting people’s liberty is a good thing, but you can’t honestly expect me to agree. (Not after our debate about airline security!)

    If your point is that these things don’t matter because AGW concerns override all (well, lots) of other concerns, I’ll concede that I understand your point, but I can’t concede the point itself.

  8. AMW says:

    I see that I didn’t complete my thought on point 2 in my comment above. Also, in re-reading it it seems to me to come of a bit snobbish: “the man even lowers himself to eating with his own employees!” So let me just clarify by saying that he doesn’t put on airs. He’s the kind of person you would feel comfortable hosting at your own house, even though it’s worth maybe 1% of what his is.

  9. AMW says:

    AMW – the value the Koch brothers achieve with their influence is focused primarily on influencing the tax code, a friendly regulatory environment, rent-seeking, keeping negative externalities financed by taxpayers, creating barriers to entry for competing industries, lobbying for congressional support for passage or obstructionism on matters impacting their businesses, and recently – better enabling a culture which maintains a voting constituency supportive of these goals even though its not in those voters interests (an illustrative validation of the Thomas Frank’s thesis).

    Regarding the tax code and a friendly regulatory environment, those are plain vanilla libertarian causes that don’t bother me. Lobbying to support or obstruct certain laws impacting their business is also fine from a libertarian perspective, provided that the laws supported aren’t geared toward transferring wealth to the Kochs through coercion and the laws opposed would be geared towards transferring wealth away from them. I’ll also note that in addition to being perfectly acceptable from a libertarian standpoint, they are perfectly acceptable from a broadly conservative or liberal one, too. Do liberals really think that businesses should just sit on their hands in matters related to their firms and industry?

    Your other three accusations (rent-seeking, taxpayer financing of negative externalities and putting up [political] barriers to entry) are certainly disconcerting from a libertarian perspective. Can you give me some examples of this?

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