Koch Brothers Struggle Against Misconception That They Care About the Wealthy

Politico's Kenneth Vogel got hold of some internal strategy documents from Americans for Prosperity, the pass-through for much of the political spending by cartoon villains Charles and David Koch, and while apart from the eye-popping spending being planned ($125 million this year) there isn't too much that's shocking, there is this poignant passage about how misunderstood free-market ideology is among the voters:

"If the presidential election told us anything, it's that Americans place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak," reads the AFP memo.

Echoing Charles Koch's opposition to the minimum wage, it asserts that free market, low-regulation policies "create the greatest levels of prosperity and opportunity for all Americans, especially for society's poorest and most vulnerable." Yet, the memo says, "we consistently see that Americans in general are concerned that free-market policy — and its advocates — benefit the rich and powerful more than the most vulnerable of society. …We must correct this misconception."

If you read closely, you see that this is actually a different kind of claim than free marketeers usually make. They often argue that unfettered markets will provide better outcomes for poor people than free markets with the help of a safety net will. And they argue that free markets are good for everyone. But this goes farther. Maybe I'm not sufficiently steeped in their rhetoric and dogma, but I don't recall hearing too often that their policy agenda, which includes things like slashing environmental and worker safety regulations, cutting taxes for the wealthy, and eviscerating safety net programs, actually provides more benefits to the poor than to the rich.

It's one thing to say, sure, when we cut capital gains taxes the wealthy benefit, but in the end it helps the whole economy. It's another thing entirely to say that the greatest benefit from those tax cuts accrue to the poor.

Do they actually believe that? They probably do. Everyone thinks they're good people, and that their policy preferences are rooted in a moral worldview. If you're a billionaire pushing policies that benefit billionaires, you have to convince yourself that your real intentions are altruistic.

But this creates a tension with another facet of free market rhetoric, which is that the way conservatives often argue against policies that benefit the less fortunate is by heaping contempt on them, whether it's Mitt Romney talking about the 47 percent or North Carolina Senate candidate Thom Tillis saying that the best way to undermine social programs is to get disabled people on public assistance to "look down" on poor people as a way to "divide and conquer the people who are on assistance." It's awfully hard to convince anyone that you care deeply about the fate of the poor when you keep talking about how despicable they are. So when you then try to "correct the misconception" that the policies you're pushing won't actually be all that beneficial to the wealthy, there's going to be a good deal of skepticism.