David and Me

14 February 2013

In 1980, I had two or three brief encounters with David Koch.

Yes, that David Koch — David Hamilton Koch, younger of the much maligned Koch brothers.

Koch was on the Libertarian Party ticket as the Vice-Presidential candidate. He was there because his candidacy precluded any statutory limit on how much he might donate to the campaign.[1]

One of these encounters was at a meet-and-greet sort of event for Candidate Koch, in Columbus, Ohio. The last was on the main campus of the Ohio State University, where he delivered a speech and then took questions from the audience. There might have been one other encounter that I've forgot. In any case, at the last encounter, he and his entourage got rather angry with me.

In 1980, the brothers Koch were not the bogey-men of the political left that they have become to-day. Their father, Fred C. Koch had been on the radar of those who lay awake at night in the '50s and in the '60s, fearful of what was then called the radical right. Fred Chase Koch, a founding member of the John Birch Society, was a wealthy and vociferous advocate of a view that United States policy, domestic and foreign, was largely driven by a Communist conspiracy, and he very much tended to reaction against change, rather than to seeing any of the social and political developments of the 20th Century as genuine advances. But Fred C. Koch, and people like him, were largely forgotten by 1980. Moreover, Charles and David had gone down a libertarian path, making them seem less threatening. Those in the libertarian movement were aware of the Kochs largely because they supplied much of the funding for the Cato Institute.[2] The business world was aware of the Kochs because the company that their father had founded was amongst the world's largest of those whose stock was not offered to the public. And that was about it.

At the meet-and-greet event, David Koch came across both as quite likable and, well, as a bit of a dork — somewhat socially awkwardly. And, no, I didn't get him angry by later calling him a dork. He and others got angry in response to a different assertion, framed as a question.

During the question-and-answer part of Mr Koch's appearance at Ohio State, someone asked him if he'd be up for another run in 1984. His reply was to the effect that he was really enjoying the present effort, and would be positively inclined to being on the ticket again. This response, which I took to be perfectly sincere, made me cringe. And so I raised my hand. I don't remember my exact words — it has, after all, been more than 32 years — but they were to this effect:

It was incredibly generous of you to agree to be on the ticket for this election, and to give as much of your money as you have; but don't you fear that, if you run again in 1984, you will be seen as having bought the party?
Koch, who gave some sort of dismissal (again, I don't remember exactly what), was visibly angry. There were grumblings from other parts of the room. Later, I was told that people (who never confronted me) had expressed their dismay at what I'd said, as if I'd insulted Koch. Which is, of course, not what I'd done. What I'd done was to warn him of how his efforts would be construed.

Well, David Koch didn't run again in 1984. Not because he took my warning to heart, but because the Libertarian Party Presidential campaign of 1980 was largely a waste of the money and effort that he and others had expended; it received far fewer votes than promised.[3] But he and Charles didn't stop contributing to political causes. And the claim has been made that they have bought those organizations and individuals to whom the Koch's have provided funding. The Kochs have been demonized, and the demonization has been used to depict those causes as villainous devices. Any rational calculation of the results of a contribution by the Kochs must account for this effect. And so, in spite of the fact that David Koch didn't run again in 1984, events have illustrated, in specific application to David Koch, the dynamic that underlay the point that I made in 1980.

Except for an episode of crusading against the prostitution of children, I withdrew from political activism in 1981. And, as an economist, I'd rather wrestle with abiding questions of fundamental theory than involve myself in the research of policy think-tanks. So I doubt that I'll ever meet Mr Koch again. And it's unlikely that, after more than 32 years, Mr Koch even remembers that moment. But, if I did talk with him again, I'd be tempted to say I told you so, … you dork!


[1] Campaign finance laws run smack into First Amendment protections of freedom of expression. A right to freedom of expression is no more or less than a right to use one's resources without constraints in response to the expressive content (as such) of the use. Lawyerly distinctions have been drawn amongst the ways that one might use resources to convey the political ideas that one supports, but these are always going to be logically incoherent. And, in the case of the law in 1980 (as still to-day), the absurdity of claiming that there were no infringement in limiting spending of one's own money on one's own campaign was too palpable for such censorship to be imposed.

[2] The Cato Institute is often characterized as itself libertarian, but the word libertarian is best reserved for a more thorough-going (classical) liberalism than that practiced by the Institute.

[3] The mainstream media did what it could to under-mine that campaign, first attempting to displace the LP with Barry Commoner and then, when that didn't take, actively recruiting John Anderson to run as the third candidate. Those who managed the LP campaign had banked pretty much everything on the expectation that the only Presidential candidates on all state ballots would be President Carter, Ronald Reagan, and the Libertarian, Ed Clark. There was no planning for the inevitability that the rules would be waived in order to get Anderson on nearly all state ballots. And the Libertarian message had been muddled to make it more appealing to moderates, and stayed muddled even after Anderson was positioned to take those votes.

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