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The driving force for a minimal government

September 10, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

Many of the best books and articles we read are those recommended by others.

One such article was the amazing account of the Koch family, whose wealth is approaching that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Because of their increasing support for very conservative political activists, the public would be wise to be informed about the reach of their gifts. The Aug. 30 issue of The New Yorker provides an eye-opening story of how the very rich think and spend money to influence public opinion.

This vast conglomerate of industries was created by Fred Koch, with headquarters in Wichita, Kan. These family businesses include oil refineries, lumber supplies, paper products, carpets and other products. After he died, the businesses were managed by four sons who appear to be endowed with considerable ability. With assets of about $35 billion, these brothers were situated favorably to make their own mark financially and politically.

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The family was thoroughly schooled in libertarian principles such as lower taxes, minimal government, removal of all regulations and strict (i.e., bare) assistance to the needy. Their enthusiasm for an unfettered market was comparable to that of notable "Robber Barons" such as John D. Rockefeller. Another indication of their radical conservatism was the great generosity in contributing to organizations such as the John Birch Society and now to the tea party movement.

Keeping track of the numerous foundations created by the family to distribute money to promote conservative political candidates, pay lobbyists, publish their message and entertain ideological allies is a project in itself. To be sure, the family keeps a close watch over the vast sums they give to advance their point of view. David Koch puts it this way: "If we're going to give a lot of money, we'll make ... sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our interest."

The relentless effort to dismantle all regulatory commissions is not just an ideological fixation. Koch Industries frequently is found guilty of violating environmental and industrial safety regulations. The list of infractions includes oil spills amounting to 3 million gallons, negligence in the deaths of two teenagers in an underground pipeline explosion and an indictment for hiding the discharge of 91 tons of benzene at a company plant in Corpus Christi, Texas. No wonder the Koch family are strong believers in a totally regulation-free market.

We need to take a realistic, hard look at this professed high regard for personal freedom. It might be the last refuge for a scoundrel. No one knowing the history of civilization, with its ugly record of repression of freedom, could possibly wish to harm its steady advance. But is there not an obvious self-serving purpose behind the constant use of the word "freedom" by some who exploit the privilege? Can we afford to permit the extension of "freedom" to allow pollution of our air, water and land, and damage to the health and welfare of our labor force? It is not reasonable to stand and watch as Sampson uses his muscle to pull the building down.

The Koch brothers and those who are sympathetic to their ideology are poster boys for the trickle-down view of the good society. Our society cannot permit unlimited power and wealth without regard to accountability. To do so would result in the creation of a plutocracy - rule by a wealthy elite. They would thrive in their Garden of Eden without social restraints while the rest of society would be their servants. The driving force for a minimal government is not the wish for a free society professed, but control by wealth and power not confessed.

A word of caution is in order. The Koch family has made a lengthy reply to each charge made by investigative reporter Jane Mayer in defense of their point of view and mode of management. It is now almost a case of "he said, she said."

In any case, their record of support for radical right organizations was not disputed and that was the major point of interest. None of their disclaimers alters the concern over their well-known drive toward a minimal government.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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