The Koch Brothers

How I learned to love the Kochtopus

A giant Pacific octopus. Image: Michael Bentley/Flickr. License: CC BY 2.0

A giant Pacific octopus. Image: Michael Bentley/Flickr. License: CC BY 2.0

It is fashionable to bemoan the influence of wealthy people in public life and policymaking, but people from business families can have a positive effect on politics. 

The Koch brothers are hard to love. According to their biographer David and Charles Koch, who inherited a coal and gas empire from their father, shunted their brother out of the family business by threatening to tell their father that he was gay.

They have promised to spend $900 million to campaign for the Republican candidate for president in the forthcoming American elections, which for people unsympathetic to their politics puts them somewhere on the spectrum between Mr Burns from The Simpsons and Darth Vader. 

Opponents bemoan their influence on American public life - and that they choose to campaign for policies that nakedly help their own businesses - calling the opaque network of organisations through which they fund libertarian and anti-climate change pressure groups the “Kochtopus”.

But although they might not be sympathetic is it possible that - whisper it - the Kochs are not as evil as they have been portrayed?

Recently the Guardian newspaper - not a traditional supporter of Kochism - strongly suggested that the Koch brothers would balk at supporting Donald Trump as Republican presidential candidate. The only reason they have not so far openly opposed him is that their network doesn’t have a clear picture of who to support instead.

Suddenly, the pantomime villains become the last bastion of decency. What the Guardian has discovered that, however bad the Kochs are, at least they are not misogynistic bullies, racists or narcissistic proto-fascists. Yes, it’s maybe not saying a lot when it takes Trump to make you look bad, but there is a deep truth here: it’s easy to forget what bad really looks like.

Getting cosy

It is common to hear complaints that business families use their connections and money to influence policy in way that is not to everyone’s benefit. But is it really such a bad thing for business families to be close to politics?

The list of politicians from business families is long. Just to look at the UK, the family of George Osborne, the current British chancellor, owns an upmarket wallpaper business. Zac Goldsmith, who is currently running to be mayor of London, is from a banking family. (His father, Sir James, was also an MP and founder of the Referendum Party, which campaigned for the UK to leave the European Union.)

Alistair MacAlpine, of the eponymous building company, was the Conservative party's treasurer under Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Hodge, from the family behind steel trading giant Stemcor, was a Labour minister.

Several Rothschilds have been MPs and in 1885 Nathaniel Mayer de Rothschild became the first Jewish peer. Some of the great reformers were from business families. Victorian prime minister Robert Peel, the spiritual founder of the Conservative Party who also invented modern policing and liberalised trade policy, was from a mill-owning family. 

William Wilberforce, who ran the successful campaign to ban slavery in the British Empire in 1833, came from a Hull family which had made its fortune trading with the Baltic states.

Money, meet power

Is it wrong for such people to have an influence in politics? One argument about having wealthy people in general in politics is that they don’t care about, or can’t understand, the needs of the poor. The history of philanthropy suggests that might not be true.

Others might argue that the rich can buy their way to power, and that this is undemocratic. That depends on the system of political funding more than anything else. In many countries neither the Kochs nor Donald Trump - who, of course, is from a real estate dynasty - would be able to spend so lavishly on political causes.

On the positive side, people from business families often have an instinctive understanding of the way business really works, its importance in communities and especially the benefit of patient capital and long-termism. Voters dislike politicians with no experience of life outside politics. It doesn’t make sense to dislike those with it, as well.

More importantly, it makes sense for politicians and people from successful business families to know each other. If a business in an representative’s constituency was planning to make thousands of people redundant, or to move production overseas, the MP should know, and be prepared to do something about it. (Such as in this story about Bombardier and the Quebec government.)

There is nothing sinister or undemocratic about this. Does the relationship get too cosy sometimes? Yes, but corruption is illegal. (Admittedly, in countries with weaker legal institutions the situation might be different.)

Long-termist family businesses are a good thing, they create stability and employment, which is the bedrock of a good life. The Koch brothers might not be to many people’s taste, but they are products of a robust, imperfect but functioning system. There are plenty of people in the world - near and far away - who are an awful lot worse.

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