The objection to the Koch brothers seems to generally be that they are rigging the political process to pursue their own interests and thereby subverting the public interest.
In other words, they’ve got the gall to get involved in politics and actually be effective.
A bedrock principle of public choice theory is that there is no such thing as the public interest. The public does not have a mind or a transitive ordering of preferences, hence it cannot have “an” interest, but only a multitude of competing interests. Condorcet’s Paradox and Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem are persuasive demonstrations of this.
That means those who are claiming to be pursuing the public interest, whether it is lower taxes or preventing global warming, are in fact pursuing their own interests. Granted, some interests are much more widely shared than others, but that doesn’t mean they incorporate the whole public, nor does it mean that those who don’t share the interest are somehow deluded about their own interests–while humans are undoubtedly not as smart about their own interests as we rational choice theorists would prefer, they are even more ignorant about anyone else’s interests, and not well-suited to judge them (setting aside cases of people who with certainty have some kind of cognitive impairment). Take global warming for instance, and assume the worst case scenarios. While the largest proportion of humanity may suffer, some will in fact benefit–a warmer earth would not be uniformly disadvantageous to all regions, occupations, and pleasures–so their self-interest in a warmer earth is not delusion. It may be selfish and ungenerous, but if that’s the complaint, then we need to ditch humanity altogether and start anew with a new species–perhaps eusocial insects. And before complaining that someone is selfish and ungenerous a person should pause to consider whether they are in compliance with 1 John 3: 17-18.
Referring back to the NYT Magazine article on the Koch brothers, it struck me that one of the explicit criticisms of them was that they were using their non-profit organizations to pursue their own interests, by which the critic meant their commercial interests. Now that can, depending on how it is done, be a violation of the law, so perhaps they’re criminals. Fair enough. But what struck me in it is the assumption behind the law–that pursuing one’s commercial interests is less legitimate than pursuing one’s economic interests. Think that one through–it means Pol Pot’s interests were more legitimate than those of the owner of your local hardware store. It means the advocates of teaching creationism in public schools, or banning the building of mosques, are acting more legitimately than the businessperson who wants to reduce regulations that constrain his business.
If we don’t want to go that direction, we can argue that only some ideological interests are legitimate, but that has two problems. One is that some economic interests are surely legitimate, too. If my municipality has granted a monopoly on ice cream trucks to one corporation (which, of course, used their monopoly pricing power to double the price of their Tweety Bird treat), and I want to break into that market to provide more competition, lower prices to consumers, and make a few bucks for myself, is that not a legitimate economic interest? (It’s not a public interest: The owners of the monopoly corporation will not benefit, citizens who want fewer vehicles driving down their streets playing annoying jingles may not benefit, and health advocates may object that lower prices will encourage more ice cream consumption and consequently more cavities, obesity, and diabetes.)
The second problem is that we have no truly legitimate standard by which to balance those interests. What it comes down to is that I judge my valuations of interests to be superior to yours, and vice versa. We normally use majority rule as our rough major, but we don’t really believe in it as anything more than a functional standard. We all have issues where we would find majority rule unacceptable, and for some of those issues we have built supermajority rule into our laws as a specific standard. And as J.S. Mill argued,
If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. (On Liberty, Ch.2)
So anything less than unanimity is at least at risk of being unjust, but unanimity is, if not an empty a null class, a very sparsely populated one. And that really is just another way of saying there is no such thing as the public interest.
Setting aside the problem of silencing someone like the Kochs without running afoul of the very concept of citizen engagement in government (there are arguments that doing so increases citizen voice, although I don’t find them persuasive), let’s focus on the alternatives to individuals effectively pursuing their own interests through the political process. One is to pursue them through the market process, which of course I find preferable. But as long as politics a) affects the market pursuit of interests, and b) offers a more lucrative way of satisfying one’s interests, pure market pursuits can never be a dominating strategy (at best only a mixed one, and we hope to god never a dominated one). The other alternative is to allow government to act without regard for citizens’ interests–that is, to allow government actors to solely pursue their own interests. Granted, their interests will frequently overlap with some portion (of varying size) of the citizenry’s interests, but it will be no more a pursuit of the public interest–because you can’t pursue that which doesn’t exist–and it may result in a pursuit of interests that create greater harm to a larger portion of the citizenry (we are, after all, effectively talking about a government that is less constrained, and hence trending in the direction of authoritarianism).
So let’s assume for the sake of argument that I’m deeply opposed to what the Kochs stand for. Let’s also suppose that it galls me that they are able to pursue their interests so effectively because of their wealth. There is in fact some degree of truth in both those statements. But I still can’t get outraged, because if it’s not them pursuing their own interest effectively, it just means someone else will be pursuing their own interests effectively, and not only aren’t the Kochs’ interests provably less legitimate than my on, I have no surety that those who replace them in effectiveness will share my interests to any considerably greater degree (seriously, better the Kochs than Rick Perry).
But finally, and this is the point that always seems to stump people, I am ultimately more of a political analyst than a political advocate. That doesn’t mean I never engage in political advocacy, but a) it’s a rare issue that really really motivates me (same-sex marriage, the continuing growth in executive power, um…well…my municipality’s rule that I can’t shovel the snow from my driveway into the street…uh… oh, yeah, deficits!*), and b) I just find analyzing the issues (they empirical validity of specific arguments, how an issue develops to become a recognized “problem” worthy of political consideration, etc.) and the processes more interesting than lobbying, voting, etc. Both my undergrad and grad mentors drilled into me the distinction between analysis and advocacy (and undoubtedly they both adopted me as a mentee because I readily grasped the distinction and found it natural to apply it), and I hammer that distinction into my own students, beginning in American Government, intensifying it in Research Methods, and referring back to it frequently in my policy, political behavior, and political economy courses.**
I know that some of my acquaintances find that appalling, or at least distressing. But from my perspective they just don’t get it. Criticizing me for not being more politically active or effective is like criticizing Michael Jordan for not being a better baseball player. He’s got nothing to apologize for, and if I have anything to apologize for, it’s for not being a better analyst, not for not being a better advocate.
*What most people probably can’t intuitively grasp about me is that while I write a lot about economic issues, and do indeed have my own beliefs about what is good or bad economic policy, I have very little interest in really fighting for the implementation of my beliefs. As I look around the world, I can see that Sweden’s extensive regulatory and social welfare approach to economics produces far less human misery than was found in Robert Mugabe’s Kenya. Analytically, economic issues interest me more, because they are more complex and less simplistic than social issues, but in terms of how deeply each affects my interests, social issues dominate. (Add usual caveats about the two categories not being entirely separate, etc., etc.)
**In political behavior, which is about strategic behavior, and political economy, I startle the students on the first day by pointing out that ethics and morality have no place in the topic. That’s an overstatement, but it helps set the tone that we’re trying to analyze how structures and systems work, not just focus on “what is right.”