News & Politics

Do the Koch Brothers Want Socialism? No? They’ve Got a Funny Way of Showing It

(Bo Rader/The Wichita Eagle via AP, File)

You’ve doubtless heard of the feud between President Trump and the Koch network. The pretext is tariffs; the real issue is immigration, and the rift between Trump and the Kochs runs deep. In fact, it points to a profound political tension in America that could tear apart the Republican coalition. Handled badly, it’s the kind of split that leaves the field open for radicals on the Left — which increasingly describes most of the Democratic Party.

On one level, the divide is not surprising. The Kochs never claimed to be conservatives. Nor even the kind of classical liberal that Adam Smith really was, who aims for limited government (The Wealth of Nations), and a populace virtuous enough to sustain it (Theory of Moral Sentiments).

No, the Kochs are libertarians of some expansive sort, who don’t make clear what limits (if any) they put on their anti-government zeal. So I can’t say if they’re full-on anarcho-capitalists, like my old friend Jeffrey Tucker. In that view, the State is too dangerous to ever be trusted with anything.

Nor should there even be a State to monopolize the use of force. That should be distributed among private security companies, who’ll enforce property and other individual rights. Of course, if you believe this, you want open borders and zero tariffs. And zero defense budget for that matter. All that will be taken care of by Acme Security Inc. (or more likely, by “families” with names like Gambino or Bonanno, but I digress).

This view has the advantage of being logically self-consistent. And the downside of being crazy. As in “We-tried-this-before-it’s-called-feudalism-and-it-was-so-awful-people-gladly-welcomed-despotic-monarchs-as-less-awful-alternatives-that-would-at-least-save-us-from-the-barons-in-their-castles.” That level of crazy.

If anarcho-capitalism were to work as advertised, immigration wouldn’t be a problem. You could tell your security contractor to keep all strangers off your estate, and no one would force you to medicate and educate their children at your expense. More likely, alas, is that “MS-13, LTD,” or “ISIS and Sons” would simply outshoot Acme Security, kill you, and enslave your wife and children, if history is any guidepost.

Most doctrinaire libertarians don’t go quite so far as that. They accept that we should have a State to defend individual rights, but they try to keep its impact on the economy and our lives to a minimum.

Conservatives in the Anglo-American tradition broadly agree in our suspicion of centralized power, but we don’t seek to minimize the State so much as to optimize it. We want as much personal freedom as is sustainable over the long run for many generations in a fallen world. That might mean a more robust but steady state, as the price of avoiding what we see as the likely outcome of libertarianism in action: Periods of license, followed by chaos, culminating in tyranny.

Let too many people become hopeless drug addicts, for instance, and you won’t have a society that can sustain itself in freedom. You’re just making way for a nanny state to come in and clean up the mess. The same goes for broken homes, single moms, unemployed angry young men, and other bellwethers of social collapse.

Likewise we conservatives, as opposed to libertarians, want to limit immigration. Why? For a list of reasons that ought to appeal to libertarians capable of thinking about the real world in the long term. Since I’m talking about political prudence, not shooting the breeze in a dorm room, let me specify that before each of the following phrases you should insert, “Here, today, in America, and for the foreseeable future….”

  1. Immigrants vote for bigger government and more wealth transfer — from us, to them. You know how the Vandals stripped Rome of all its treasures? Imagine it proceeding in slow motion, under cover of law.
  2. Immigrants benefit from (and vote for) affirmative action, gaining special rights taken from American citizens. Hence a Latino “DREAMer” who got amnesty would get legal preference over a white male war veteran.
  3. We have a welfare state. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Nor is there any political prospect of denying its benefits (cash, educational, and medical) to immigrants. In perhaps one-fourth of the world, hard-working people earn less than we offer the poor in government benefits. Keep the borders open, and millions more will come here, until our systems collapse.

Given these stubborn facts, libertarians who favor mass immigration are as self-defeating as… it’s hard to find any real historical examples, to be candid. Instead, let us imagine that a faction of abolitionists in 1830s America still wanted to admit more slave states to the Union.

Now to tariffs. Yes, they introduce some economic inefficiency. In fact, we should try to avoid them, as Donald Trump has sought to use the threat of imposing U.S. tariffs to dismantle foreign tariffs that hurt American workers. But to pretend as the Koch network does that these temporary and partial barriers to trade are a fundamental betrayal of the free market is foolish. Part of the reason why the U.S., unlike Europe, has mostly been spared the plague of mass socialist political parties is this: Ordinary Americans saw that they had a stake in the market economy, that they could be upwardly mobile, too. Instead of wanting to tear down the rich, they wanted to join them.

For the past fifty years or so, the U.S. has simultaneously tried to promote worldwide free trade, dismantling its own tariff protections, and admitted record numbers of low-skilled immigrants—to compete with native workers for dwindling manufacturing jobs. The outcome? Not too surprising to students of Adam Smith. As the supply of such labor kept growing, while demand got outsourced overseas, working class wages essentially froze.

This combination of outsourcing and mass immigration benefited business, in the short term. It drove down prices as well as wages. So unemployed Americans can still afford an iPhone (albeit on credit). But combined with a mass enrichment of executives and investors in the finance industry — protected as “Too Big To Fail,” and bailed out in 2008 — the impact on America has been powerful. It diminished the hope that working and middle-class Americans once had of moving up. It weakened their stake in the free market system. It really did amount to “Darwinian competition for the poor, but State protection for elites.” As Steve Bannon rightly observed, it’s a con game that ordinary people can see right through.

And it’s one libertarians are powerless to fix. Yes, they can ally with elites to dismantle the “statist” measures aimed at protecting Joe and Jane Lunchpail, such as immigration restrictions or tariffs. But they can’t touch the crony-capitalist protections on “TBTF” investment banks. So again it’s “Darwinism for thee, Cronyism for me.” Nor can they fix the welfare state, which puts a Nanny State Band-Aid on the gaping wounds inflicted by libertinism. But they can stick it to the populists, and have both the elites and the socialists cheer them on.

Trump’s hard-nosed Americanism appears to be improving things for the ordinary citizens and voters whose allegiance partisans of freedom need — and whose best interests they should care about. We’re seeing headlines like these: “Worker pay and benefits climbing at fastest pace in 10 years, ECI finds.”

If that outrages libertarians like the Kochs, and they use their leverage to savage or cripple Trump, they won’t have to worry about populist conservatism for long. We’ll have the full-on socialism that leading Democrats are now bold enough to demand. And libertarians will be as marginal and irrelevant in America as they currently are in Mexico.