When Charles E. Wilson appeared before a Senate committee in January 1953 as President Eisenhower's nominee to become Secretary of Defense, he was asked whether his large holdings of stock in General Motors, where he had been president and chief executive, might cause some conflict of interest. "I cannot conceive of one," he replied, "because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa. The difference did not exist. Our company is too big. It goes with the welfare of the country." While Wilson is often misquoted as saying that what's good for GM is good for America, a quote often used as a symbol of corporate arrogance, his intent seemed at least somewhat more benign. But however you interpret it, Wilson was almost certainly sincere in believing that when you get right down to it, the country and its largest corporation, as GM was then, rise and fall together.
Koch Industries is not quite as big as General Motors was then, at least not relative to the rest of the economy. But the two men who control it, Charles and David Koch, seem just as sure that what's good for them is good for America. They probably wouldn't put it that way, and maybe they don't even think about it that way. All they know is that the things they believe are right and true, which in at least one way makes them no different from you or me.
This weekend, the Kochs, who plan to spend nearly a billion dollars of their money and their friends' money to elect a Republican president in 2016, held a confab where they could gather to discuss their plans to move America in a direction they find more amenable. When Charles addressed the plutocrats, he told them to give themselves a hearty pat on the back:
Charles Koch on Sunday compared the efforts of his political network to the fight for civil rights and other 'freedom movements,' urging his fellow conservative donors to follow the lead of figures such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr.
'History demonstrates that when the American people get motivated by an issue of justice that they believe is just, extraordinary things can be accomplished,' Koch told 450 wealthy conservatives assembled in the ballroom of a lavish oceanfront resort [in Dana Point, California].
'Look at the American revolution, the anti-slavery movement, the women's suffrage movement, the civil rights movement,' he said. "All of these struck a moral chord with the American people. They all sought to overcome an injustice. And we, too, are seeking to right injustices that are holding our country back."
Other reports note that Charles talked a good bit about the disadvantaged and downtrodden, and how they will be the true beneficiaries of the expansion of liberty that is the Kochs' fondest dream.
You can call that ridiculous, and you wouldn't be wrong. But while Democrats see the Kochs as cartoon villains, twirling their moustaches as they contemplate a future with low top-end marginal tax rates, I assure you that they believe themselves to have only the purest motives for their political action.
Ask any liberal activist why it's a threat to democracy when the Kochs spend millions to elect their favored candidates, but less so when liberal billionaires do the same thing, and you'll get two answers. The first is that "We can't unilaterally disarm," which is also what you hear from candidates who support campaign finance reforms but would like to get money from super PACs. It's reasonable enough, if not particularly high-minded. The second answer, and perhaps the more common one, is that when the Kochs advocate for things like low taxes for the wealthy and loose regulation on corporations, they're being self-interested, while a liberal billionaire who takes the opposite position is acting altruistically.
It's an answer that is simultaneously true, at least to a degree, and unsatisfying. First of all, there are times when the Kochs advocate on issues that don't have anything to do with their bottom line. And if they succeed in helping a Republican get elected president, only a portion of what that president does will affect them directly, even if they wind up being pleased with almost all of it.
Secondly, it runs the risk of devolving into a caricature that doesn't help us understand the Kochs. Right now, Charles is probably asking himself why anyone would make a fuss about his speech. After all, he believes that the liberty embodied in unfettered capitalism is a source of prosperity and human flourishing. How could anyone think otherwise?
Of course, there's a difference between telling yourself, "We're advocating for the right things," and telling yourself, "This thing we're doing is as noble as anything anyone in our nation's history has done." But perhaps grandiosity isn't surprising in a man whose fortune is estimated to be over $40 billion.
We all justify our actions and rationalize our decisions, and no one thinks they're the villain of their own story. We all believe we're good people, that we have a strong moral sense, and that the world would be a better place if it were ordered in the way we'd like. If would be shocking if the Kochs thought differently about themselves.
My point isn't that we should automatically forgive people for their outrageous claims of moral rightness, any more than we ought to excuse outlandish claims of suffering and oppression (see War on Christmas, The). But it's useful to appreciate that when someone like Charles Koch looks in the mirror and says, "You know, I really am a lot like Martin Luther King," he may be utterly wrong in a hundred ways, but it isn't a surprise that he feels that way. It's human nature.