There are two ways to think about Charles Koch. One of these perspectives holds that the multibillionaire, who sits atop both Koch Industries and the sprawling network of conservative political organizations and pressure groups known in the politics biz as The Kochtopus, is one of the most singularly destructive forces in American political life—a man who has spent his life locked in what Christopher Leonard, the author of the book Kochland, described as “a decades-long war to reshape American society in a way that ensures that corporations can operate with untrammeled freedom.”
The other view, which Koch himself favors, is that he’s a humble man who dared to dream big but also has a few real whoopsy-daisy moments on his docket. One of those, which Koch addressed in his upcoming book Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World, was the decision to support, accelerate, and largely fund the reactionary faux-populism that overtook and then righteously capsized the function of the federal government and helped push politics towards its fractured and unworkable current moment. “Boy, did we screw up!” the Wall Street Journal quotes Koch as writing in his book, which he co-wrote with Brian Hooks. “What a mess!”
Koch has obviously lived an extraordinary life, and one that is by nature of his impossibly vast and objectively immoral wealth very different from the lives of most other people on earth. Koch and his late brother David grew their father’s company into a petroleum juggernaut, and then used their money and those of others in their super-caste of elites to prop up a constellation of institutions and think tanks and political pressure groups. They committed billions of dollars to organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council that create bespoke legislation advancing their ends, and also to the politicians who work to pass those laws, and also to organizations like The Federalist Society, which cultivate and promote both the specious legal arguments that uphold those laws and the compliant future judges that will enshrine it all as settled law. All of this work and all of that money is singularly dedicated to furthering the Koch’s abiding political belief, which is that they and other rich people—per Forbes‘s rankings, there are all of 14 richer living Americans than Koch—should keep as much of their money as possible, because losing some of it in taxes or wages or regulatory penalties would invariably just lead to that money being spent on less-essential things like social services or people’s rent or whatever.
By any assessment, Koch has succeeded across the board, and not just in terms of getting various awful laws passed and critically narrowing the capacity of government to function at every single level and in basically every facet. There’s all that, but the Koch network has also funded more than 1,000 faculty chairs at 200 institutions, creating an entire Potemkin class of intellectuals whose work has served to make Koch’s crabbed and unremarkable personal politics, which are in point of fact absolutely replacement-level and totally typical self-serving rich-guy pap, into something with the aesthetics if not quite the substance of an actual ideology. In this way of looking at his life, Koch’s supervillainy is so overt that he has a literal origin story explaining how he came to spend so much of his life dedicated to keeping as much of his wealth as possible, because he was so certain that he deserved it.
Mr. Koch attended MIT, where he learned about the second law of thermodynamics, which holds that entropy virtually always increases in a closed system. That laid the cornerstone for his brand of heterodox libertarianism, which has placed him at odds with Mr. Trump.
People are at their best when applying their specific talents to the problems they know firsthand, Mr. Koch writes. Tying people’s individual strengths together can make an institution a force multiplier, but curtailing those talents in a top-down system leads to decline and disorder.The Wall Street Journal
Decades after that momentous and hilariously fatuous observation, at the age of 85, Koch has won virtually every one of the battles he picked. He pays historically low taxes, and can rest easy knowing that the “top-down system” that would redistribute his wealth has hardly ever been weaker or worse at that job. His country is awash in failing or failed institutions in which people quite deservingly put ever less of their faith, both because they have seen that those institutions either cannot do what they’re supposed to do or have been co-opted such that they actively do the opposite, and because there’s a whole parallel media system dedicated to making and re-making that point. Koch is rich enough that he is able to put his name on whatever he thinks might burnish his image, up to and including a vanity book that casts him as both a disruptive intellectual and a true humanist. This is the moment in a capitalist supervillain’s career when he might look back on a lifetime of accomplishment with pride: institutions defeated, obligations evaded, that kind of thing. But even after giving his fundraising network a posi-core rebrand—it’s now called Stand Together, and focuses somewhat more of its efforts on the aspects of libertarianism less associated with raw personal greed—something still doesn’t feel right. “I hope we all use this post-election period to find a better way forward,” Koch told the Journal. “Because of partisanship, we’ve come to expect too much of politics and too little of ourselves and one another.”
Late in his life, Koch took a look around the nation whose politics and culture he re-made and realized that it sucked. Instead of enlightened self-interest, or whatever it was Koch told himself was behind his pursuit of his small and selfish goals, there is and always was just smash-and-grab avarice and, relatedly, a wildly atomized alienation. In the absence of a functioning state, with public institutions unable or unwilling to fulfill their charges, politics became as it would always become both extremely abstracted and spectacularly cruel, nothing but a matter of sadistic pranks and competing television narratives presided over by some of the most stupid and shameless people the country has ever produced. There is almost some sour comedy in the spectacle of this ultra-smug Hero Of Individualism triumphing utterly over the state and then realizing that all those things he wrecked were actually there for a reason, and that the world he made not only doesn’t work but doesn’t even serve him as well as he’d hoped. Or anyway there might be, if we didn’t have to live in that world, too.