April 3

In a way, it’s fitting that Charles Koch’s much discussed op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal appeared less than 24 hours after the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision was announced. At bottom, the Court’s decision — which delivered yet another blow to America’s teetering structure of campaign finance regulations — and Koch’s op-ed are parts of the same effort.

It’s easy to ridicule Koch and place him alongside other super-rich Americans who have wailed at their oppression lately (occasionally with ill-considered Nazi analogies). But we should take Koch’s op ed seriously, as a statement of belief from one half of America’s most politically important pair of brothers that, along with the Court’s decision and the efforts of other megadonors, constitute key components in a broader project: Nothing less than the construction of a new version of liberty.

Koch is particularly perturbed that he has been the target of personal criticism, when all he’s doing is trying to create a better America:

Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.) This is the approach that Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century, that Saul Alinsky famously advocated in the 20th, and that so many despots have infamously practiced. Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society — and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers.

What, exactly, is this “character assassination” of which he speaks? I haven’t seen anybody arguing that Charles Koch has weird sexual proclivities, or was a terrible father, or has poor personal hygiene. All the criticism he and his brother get concerns their enormous business (the second-largest privately held company in America) and their involvement in politics. In short, it’s about their public life, not their private life.

The system of “free and open debate” Koch envisions is one in which the volume of your voice is determined by the amount of money you have, but no matter how loud that voice, you are exempted from any direct criticism. That would be a privilege only the wealthy would want or need.

Think about it this way. Nobody is going to run an ad saying, “Barack Obama got a ten dollar contribution from Betty Lundegard of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Just how much do we know about Betty Lundegard? What’s her agenda?” The reason is that it couldn’t possibly matter, so no one cares. But if you pour $400 million into a campaign, then it does matter, and people will care. Betty Lundegard isn’t affecting very many people’s votes, elected officials won’t jump to take Betty’s calls. Furthermore, Betty won’t have the luxury of publishing op eds in the Wall Street Journal defending herself.

So freedom from criticism over your political spending is a freedom only the wealthy would need. Yes, there have been issues in the past about the privacy of non-profit groups’ donors. In one key case from the civil rights era, the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Alabama’s effort to get access to the NAACP’s donor list was invalid, because the donors would likely be subject to intimidation and even violence. But Charles Koch isn’t worried for his personal safety. He wants to wield maximal influence with minimal criticism.

Similarly, the five conservatives on the Supreme Court are deeply, deeply concerned about the ways that “speech” rights, i.e. the right to use your money to influence politics, are restricted at the upper end. In yesterday’s decision, they continued to weaken those restrictions.

With the McCutcheon decision, there is a way in which the sum total of liberty in America has been expanded. But do you feel freer? Unless you’ve got a few hundred million in the bank, the answer is certainly no.

In a strict sense, Charles Koch and I both have the “freedom” to donate a few million dollars directly to candidates. But in the actual world, only one of us has that freedom. Both John Roberts and the Kochs are doing everything they can to create a zone of freedom that keeps growing upward, with new kinds of liberty that only the wealthiest Americans can access.