David Koch speaks in Orlando, Fla. on Aug. 30, 2013.

David Koch speaks in Orlando, Fla. on Aug. 30, 2013. Credit: AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack

The passing of billionaire businessman, philanthropist and political activist David Koch, who died over the weekend at 79 from a recurrence of prostate cancer, has been met with some ghoulish glee on the left, where the brothers Charles and David Koch are viewed as almost mystical ubervillains. Comedian Bill Maher declared on the HBO show “Real Time,” “I’m glad he’s dead, and I hope the end was painful.”

Underlying this ugliness is the belief that the Kochs used their wealth not only to make America worse, but also to possibly endanger the world by promoting climate change skepticism — and that they did it for the basest of motives: to protect their profits from costly regulations and taxes, particularly ones related to protection of the environment. In an age when climate catastrophe is seen in almost apocalyptic terms, that makes the Koch duo the beast.

But this is a simplistic and reductive view of a complicated career.

For the record, I am a contributor to Reason magazine, which receives some of its funds from Koch organizations. I also have done occasional work for the Cato Institute, which receives Koch funding. I have substantial disagreements with some of the Koch brothers’ activities over the years. But they also have done many admirable things, not least their contributions to the arts and to medical research in New York City — and their politics were not simply about lining their pockets.

David Koch was a committed libertarian who believed in the virtue of small government — and cared about ideas enough that he was the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1980. The causes he and his brother championed and funded included ones that had nothing to do with their business interests, including marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform aimed at reducing incarceration and restoring civil rights to former offenders. On these issues, they found common cause with the American Civil Liberties Union and with George Soros, the right’s own Koch-like bogeyman.

The most controversial part of the Koch brothers’ legacy is their support for global warming skepticism starting in the early 1990s. To their detractors, they are guilty of a greed-motivated crusade responsible for the rise of climate-change denial in the Republican Party. But plenty of people genuinely believed that climate-change alarmism was being used as an excuse to increase the size and power of government and hobble both economic and individual freedom. Others thought scientific certainty about global warming was being overstated for political reasons.

Ironically, one skeptic who headed a heavily Koch-funded climate science project — Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley — reversed himself in 2011, declaring that his research had led him to conclude global warming was real. Muller’s turnaround, which persuaded quite a few conservatives to accept the mainstream scientific position, suggests that climate skeptics who accepted Koch money were not necessarily shills.

Was the Koch brothers’ intense commitment to political activism motivated by idealism, self-interest or some mix of both? , and neither their admirers nor their detractors are likely to change their minds.

Even for small-government proponents, there is plenty to criticize about the Koch brothers’ activism — including the fact that, despite their opposition to Donald Trump on immigration, trade and many other issues, they put a lot of money into helping the Trumpified Republican Party in the 2018 elections. But a fair and honest look at their legacy should go beyond caricature and dancing on someone's grave. 

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.


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