It can be exhausting to realize just how much money is being spent trying to make the world a worse place to live in. The Koch Brothers are often mentioned as bogeymen, and invoking them can sound conspiratorial, but the scale of the democracy-subversion operation they put together is genuinely quite stunning. Jane Mayer, in Dark Money, put some of the pieces together, and found that the Charles Koch Foundation had subsidized “pro-business, antiregulatory, and antitax” programs at over 300 institutes of higher education. That is to say, they endowed professorships and think tanks that pumped out a constant stream of phony scholarship. They established the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a public university in Virginia. All of these professors, “grassroots” groups, and think tanks are dedicated to pushing a libertarian ideology that is openly committed to creating a neo-feudal dystopia.
I am not exaggerating about that goal. The Koch version of free-market capitalism, which is the one pushed at the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Foundation for Economic Education, FreedomWorks, the Hoover Institution, and the Heartland Institute, is a simple creed, one that goes as follows:
I believe that freedom is good and that people should be left to pursue their own ends as they see fit. The market knows best, and government regulation is a misguided attempt to second-guess people’s decisions about their own interest. People and corporations should pursue their self-interest under conditions of freedom, because in a marketplace of voluntary transactions, everyone’s interests will end up being served.
I am fascinated by this philosophy because of just how persuasive it can sound to anyone who hasn’t thought about what it actually means. I think many anticapitalists fail to sufficiently appreciate how elegant and beautiful the libertarian line can seem. Why do we need the state? Why can’t we just agree that I will respect your property, and you will respect mine, and we will each try to maximize our well-being without aggressing upon the other? It just makes sense, and they will repeat over and over that this is just Logic and Reason and who could possibly be opposed?
It’s only when you think for a bit, and work out the implications, that you realize something that sounds perfectly innocuous actually has horrifying implications. What about child labor laws? Oh, well, that’s just the state stepping in to prevent a beneficial transaction between the child and the employer. We’re “taking away opportunity from children,” as libertarian economist Jeffrey Tucker put it in a Foundation for Economics Education article called “Let The Kids Work.” Oh, what about price gouging? Well, you’ll read in the Wall Street Journal that price gouging is Actually Good, because it’s a Mutually Beneficial Transaction between someone in desperate need of a thing and someone willing to part with it.
One of my favorite books for understanding the real nature of free-market capitalism is Walter Block’s Defending the Undefendable. Block, a right-wing libertarian, goes through various different categories of unpopular people, and shows how they are actually heroes performing a public service. Slumlords? They provide houses! Blackmailers? They’re merely offering the service of not disclosing information—would you rather they just released the damaging information? Drug dealers? It’s a product—you don’t have to buy it! Ebenezer Scrooge? He was investing his money and building the economy! Block concludes that these people “do not violate anyone’s rights, so they do not violate basic morality.”
For Block, “respecting property rights” and “basic morality” are identical, meaning that I can be as nasty to you as I want so long as I don’t steal your furniture, and still be an upstanding person. Employers can mistreat employees—by sexually harassing them, belittling them, working them to exhaustion, and they haven’t done anything wrong, because it’s a Free Market Transaction that the employee could theoretically walk away from (likewise, a person living under a dictatorship could theoretically flee the country, though libertarians for some reason do not see this as making state coercion voluntary). Now, I don’t think many conservatives would be as honest as Block in saying that they think property rights are the limit of the moral norms we have an obligation to respect, but I do think that the Koch Brothers Morality of the above-cited “creed” leaves us little room to object when we read something like this feature in the Wall Street Journal.
The Journal item shows how new technologies are enabling employers to spy on a fictitious employee named Chet. Chet’s boss knows what time he wakes up, because his phone detects changes in his physical activity. Chet’s whereabouts are tracked at all times, and his employer can watch him stop for coffee before work, and even knows what part of the building he is in and whether he has strayed into any “unauthorized areas.” The precise time he arrives at work will be logged, all of his emails will be read, and Chet’s work computer snaps a screenshot every 30 seconds so that the employer can verify that he is staying on task. His “phone conversations can be recorded, transcribed and monitored for rate of speech and tone,” his interactions with other employees are recorded and analyzed, and his company even tracks his fitness and can use it to adjust his benefits.
An accompanying Wall Street Journal article indicates that these kinds of employer surveillance techniques are increasingly common, and “there’s almost nothing you can do about it.” And there are even more invasive possible techniques—I recently read an MIT Technology Review article called “This company embeds microchips in its employees, and they love it,” which I liked because nowhere in the body of the article itself is there any quote indicating that the employees do, indeed, “love it.” (One of them says that you get used to it after a time, which I do not doubt.) Importantly, though, under the philosophy that Free Markets are fair, there is no actual language with which we can object to these things. Unless the employees are being kidnapped and enslaved, this is just “freedom of contract.” If they didn’t want their employer screenshotting their workspace, or taking pictures of their penis in the company bathroom, they shouldn’t have signed a contract that allowed said employer “all possible latitude to do as they see fit to further the interests of the company.” Sucks for you, Chet.
In the innocent-seeming paragraph about freedom above, then, we can see the seeds of something perverse and disturbing. The belief that the state shouldn’t “interfere” in “voluntary transactions” actually means that your boss should get to do whatever they want, and there should be “nothing you can do about it.” We can see here exactly how workers can be talked into forging their own chains: A well-funded operation convinces them of the Philosophy Of Freedom, and then they find out too late that this just means they have no recourse when horrible invasive things are done to them at work, and every moment of their life is monitored by a powerful entity that does not care whether they live or die. I have been reading recently books ranging from John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness to John Stossel’s No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails—But Individuals Succeed, and what strikes me is just how successfully one can bury the implications of “small government” thinking and create something that seems to be on the side of working people even as it empowers their bosses to hurt them and underpay them. The Koch philosophy wants to eliminate minimum wages, stop any attempt at getting paid family leave, and have a healthcare system in which you stay alive in proportion to your economic value (sorry old people and disabled people, you are economically worthless, though since sick children are potential future workers they can probably get healthcare if they sign indenture contracts). This philosophy runs contrary to every basic decent human instinct, but it can be sold as “respect for people’s rights,” and a lot of money is spent advertising it as such. (PragerU racks up billions of views pushing this idea, and I haven’t even begun to mention the FOX noise-machine.)
As I wrote recently, free market philosophy doesn’t actually have much to do with “property rights,” though it speaks in the name of them. If you cared about property rights, you’d have to believe in providing much more government-funded legal aid for the poor, so that ordinary workers had recourse when their bosses withheld their wages (which is, after all, a serious violation of their property rights). And climate change is a giant act of theft, in which the United States and Europe have essentially enriched themselves by damaging the rest of the world. The farcical idea that “small government” creates “freedom” and “respects property rights” is well summed up by Jane Mayer, in a discussion of the wealthy fossil fuel magnates who pushed climate change denial:
The problem for this group was that by 2008 the arithmetic of climate change presented an almost unimaginable challenge. If the world were to stay within the range of carbon emissions that scientists deemed reasonable in order for atmospheric temperatures to remain tolerable through the mid-century, 80 percent of the fossil fuel industry’s reserves would have to stay unused in the ground. In order words, scientists estimated that the fossil fuel industry owned roughly five times more oil, gas, and coal than the planet could safely burn. If the government interfered with the ‘free market’ in order to protect the planet, the potential consequences for these companies were catastrophic. If, however, the carbon from these reserves were burned wantonly without the government applying any brakes, scientists predicted an intolerable rise in atmospheric temperatures, triggering potentially irreversible damage to life on earth.
Allowing fossil fuel companies to do as they please has nothing to do with freedom or property rights. Where is the freedom for those of us who will suffer the “irreversible damage”? Where are our precious rights?
And yet, as obvious as it should be that people like the Kochs do not care about principles, but only care about enriching themselves, I am very frightened that their worldview will emerge triumphant. This is because money is power, and they have a hell of a lot of money. They will endow professorships, and those professors will insist that it’s better for all of us to let giant companies do as they please, and the Princeton University Press will publish books called Against Democracy that tell us having corporate overlords is a good thing and we should just let the market make decisions for us.
I’ve just written a book called Why You Should Be A Socialist, which I wrote with a sense of manic urgency, because I’m afraid that things that seem like basic moral truths (every person has an obligation to help make sure other people are okay) are treated as radical insanity, and I’m incredibly worried that Ayn Rand’s idea that “self-interest is good” is going to triumph and kill us all (as the Prisoner’s Dilemma predicts it will). I know that when my book comes out, if it does at all well, an army of Cato Institute types is probably going to descend on it, trying to root out every fallacy, discredit every sentence. Millions upon millions of dollars are spent by evil men on think tankers who promise to prove that black is white and day is night. I’m about to poke the nest, and I am not especially excited about it.
All I face personally, though, is people calling me an idiot. What makes me afraid is thinking about how urgent it is that we reverse the descent into cruelty before it’s too late. Once every employer adopts the measures the Wall Street Journal describes, what will be left? They will have complete control over their employees’ lives—one false move and you’re fired, and of course, if they have their way, there won’t be any kind of a welfare state to cushion your fall. If the Journal succeeds in persuading us that climate change isn’t really a problem, that we’ll easily adapt, and it spirals out of control, what then? Millions of climate refugees try to pour into this country, a fascist promises to “take care” of the problem… I see hideous possible futures stretching out.
My God, the scale of what we’re up against. “Inequality” is an abstract term, but it means that there is a class of people who control a colossal amount of resources and will stop at nothing to prevent even a moderate adjustment in the distribution of those resources. Look at the apocalyptic tone with which the Financial Times is treating Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal to give a small portion of company stock ownership to workers. Have no illusions: There is a fight coming. If Bernie Sanders becomes president, the campaign to convince people that Medicare For All will leave you without health insurance, and that the Green New Deal will bankrupt the country, will be a propaganda onslaught unlike anything this country has seen.
But the Wall Street Journal is wrong when it says that there is “nothing” we can do. A unionized workplace doesn’t have to put up with shit like mandatory 24-7 bodily function monitoring. Because people that came before us have spent centuries fighting, we now have institutions that are, at least to some degree, democratic. We don’t live in a world of outright slavery or feudal servitude, because people fought and died to get us the limited and flawed political equality that we have now. Thank God for them, because it means that now, at this terrifying and critical juncture, we have some hope of stopping climate change, of creating meaningful economic democracy. We are up against an unfathomably large amount of money, and an insatiable predatory evil that will destroy the earth to put a few more units of wealth in its bank account. But every day as I talk to people across the country who are becoming politically conscious and beginning to organize, I have ever more confidence that we will win.
Current Affairs has just launched a new Kickstarter campaign intended to help us improve our coverage in 2020 and expand our magazine to build a formidable left media institution. We hope you’ll consider supporting it. We’re also releasing a number of special podcast episodes over on our Patreon to kick off the campaign. Thank you, and if you like the work we do, please consider donating and supporting us.