Jonathan Chait Completely Misses the Point

[Note to “The ExileD” readers: George Mason University is a state university, funded by the Commonwealth of Virginia. My paycheck comes from the Commonwealth [which in turn gets the money to fund the university from our students’ tuition dollars, as law school tuition is over 35K for the majority of our students], and that is my employer. I don’t receive any money from the Koch Brothers. I don’t know anything about this website, but if this is illustrative of its reliability, you’re wasting your time reading it. FURTHER: “The ExileD” falsely stated that the Koch brothers are my “employers.” Any halfway respectable media site would just admit its mistake and move on, instead of trying to obscure its errors with juvenile insults.]

Responding to a post of mine regarding “progressive” demonization of the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers, TNR’s Chait expresses bafflement at libertarians’ “hypersensitivity” regarding criticism of the Kochs’ “great deal of influence over the political system.”

The problem, dear Jonathan, is that while you and others consistently assert that the Kochs have such influence, you don’t ever demonstrate it. Let’s review: It seems undisputed that the Kochs total spending on political and ideological causes is somewhere around 10-15 million dollars per year. How big a role does this money play in the American political system?

Let’s start with ideological/intellectual causes. The liberal Ford Foundation spends over $400 million a year. The liberal MacArthur Foundation spends about $140 million a year. Liberal billionaire George Soros spends about $150 million a year. Liberals control the vast majority of academic positions in almost every humanities and social science department in every major university in the country, with total budges in the tens of billions.

Even in the libertarians’ tiny corner of the ideological universe, 10 million dollars would only keep the Cato Institute running from January to April this year, and leave nothing left for any other libertarian cause or organization. So the idea that the Kochs are having some huge influence on American politics through their ideological philanthropy is grossly exaggerated, at best.

Even more absurd is the notion that the Kochs’ political contributions are distorting American politics. The Obama campaign spent hundreds of million of dollars on the 2008 election. The 2010 midterm elections cost about $4 billion. The Koch’s relative spending is like pissing in an ocean. Such spending, of course, can under the right conditions win an interest group some narrow favors, but that’s a far cry from suggesting that it can buy “a great deal of influence over the political system” in general.

No, the reason that some liberals have latched on to the Kochs as their bogeymen is that this is what demagogic political propagandists due to win support from their base. They find a mysterious, ominous-sounding (billionaires! who sell oil!–what could raise greater suspicions on the Left?) villain on whom to blame their troubles, and rouse the passions of the partisans of their sides. As these things go, the Kochs are a more innocuous villain than, say, the “Likudnik” bogeymen of the mid-2000s, or Pat Robertson’s “secular humanists who support a New World Order” of the 1990s, but it’s all the same phenomenon.

Regardless, it’s not the sort of thing serious intellectuals take seriously, except as studies in the effectiveness of playing on the traditional paranoid streak in American politics. But if Chait wants to abjure seriousness, and instead be the number one propogandist on behalf of the Democratic Party and the Obama Administration in the blogosphere, he’s welcome to the title.

Bonus foolishness from Chait: He defines liberaltarianism, the now almost defunct attempt to establish an intellectual coalition between liberals and libertarians, as an agreement “to emphasize social issues and foreign policy over economics, and to define economics as evidence based and less hostile to redistribution and the possibility of market failure.” That sounds to me an awful lot like standard college town liberalism.

In fact, during the Bush II administration, many liberal blogosphere voices could be heard swearing that having seen the administration’s abuses of power, they now understood the importance of decentralization and refusing to lodge too much power in Washington, D.C. In most cases, this realization lasted precisely one millisecond after the bloggers in question realized that the Democrats were likely to win a sweeping victory in the 2008 elections, to the extent that folks like Chait seem to have forgotten that a key to liberaltarianism was supposed to be a newfound liberal skepticism of Big Government.

As I’ve pointed out before, the attack on the Kochs, who are rather consistent libertarians of the left-libertarian stripe (e.g., are quite pacifistic on foreign policy issues) is a sign of the abject failure of liberaltarianism.