The much-celebrated philanthropy of David Koch becomes harder to applaud after you learn that the seeds of his fortune were in business deals that strengthened Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. David Koch was, along with his brother Charles, one half of the notorious “Koch Brothers,” both widely reviled by liberals as longtime champions of right-wing causes like climate change denial and environmental deregulation.
But David, who died on Friday, tended to get better press than his brother, because he also donated lavishly to public institutions that enjoy universal enthusiasm. The New York Times obituary gave David Koch a sporting tagline (“a man-about-town philanthropist”) and detailed his benefactions to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other commendable causes. “He gave lavishly to the arts, especially ballet,” tweeted National Review senior editor Jay Nordlinger. “And to cancer research,” added conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “Every single person touched by cancer ought to mourn his passing.”
Such encomiums are premised on the idea that Koch’s charitable giving was so commendable that questions about where his money came from or the general impact of the super-rich on society would be impertinent. This willful lack of curiosity was sharply critiqued as long ago as 1909 by then-President Theodore Roosevelt, who wasn’t impressed by John D. Rockefeller’s setting up a foundation to help disperse his mountain of money. “No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them,” Roosevelt curtly but accurately noted. In the case of the Koch family, there’s plenty of misconduct to investigate.
As Jane Mayer documents in her indispensable 2016 book Dark Money, the father of the Koch brothers, Fred Koch, built the family fortune in the 1930s by helping build oil refineries, briefly for Stalin’s USSR and over the better part of a decade in Hitler’s Germany. Koch’s work for Germany played a major role in allowing the Nazi regime to achieve its goal of economic autarky, freeing it from dependence on foreign oil and making possible Hitler’s military adventurism.
A fierce anti-communist, Fred Koch seems to have regretted his quondam alliance with the Bolsheviks. He was more favorably disposed to the other major dictatorship he worked for. “Although nobody agrees with me, I am of the opinion that the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy, and Japan, simply because they are all working and working hard,” he wrote to a friend in 1938. Nazi Germany, Fred Koch felt, offered a salutary alternative to the “feeding at the public trough” of the New Deal. These ideas might explain why the wealthy oil executive hired a Nazi governess to raise his sons.
After the war, Fred Koch became one of the founders of the John Birch Society, sharing that fanatical organization’s belief that the civil rights movement was a communist plot. Fred Koch had four sons: Frederick, Charles, David, and Bill. The two youngest, David and Bill, were twins, but David gravitated toward his domineering older brother Charles, a budding ideologue who initially shared his father’s John Birch politics but quickly moved in the late 1960s to near-anarchist libertarianism.
In family feuds that led to soul-crushing litigation, Charles and David often conspired against one or both of the other siblings. According to Mayer, in the 1960s Bill, Charles, and David formed an alliance to force Frederick to give up his share of the family business, threatening to reveal their older brother’s alleged homosexuality if he didn’t comply. “Charles’ ‘homosexual blackmail’ to get control of my shares did not succeed for the simple reason that I am not a homosexual,” Frederick Koch claimed in an interview with biographer Daniel Schulman, author of the family chronicle Sons of Wichita (2014). Be that as it may, both Frederick and Bill retreated from active management of the firm, leaving Charles and David to become the Koch Brothers of global fame.
Must we celebrate David Koch’s bountiful donations to public institutions, even if we dislike how the duo have pushed the Republican Party (and America as a whole) to the right? Not at all. The Koch brothers’ bad deeds outweigh their public service. Besides, plutocratic philanthropy is a wretched social model.
It’s true that David Koch gave money to cancer research. It’s also undeniable that Koch Industries has given cancer to its workers and other people. David Koch’s New York Times obituary notes that he started funding research into cancer after his own diagnosis in 1992. But behind this heartwarming tale of a tycoon awakening to his mortality is a more disturbing story of an oligarch who mistreated his employees.
In Dark Money, Mayer documents the case of Donald Carlson, who worked for the Koch Refining Company from 1974 until the 1990s. Under compulsion from OSHA regulations, the Koch company started testing its employees for possible contamination by benzene, a known carcinogen.
“Koch Refining Company had offered the annual blood test as legally required, and Carlson had dutifully taken advantage of the regular screenings,” Mayer reports. “But what he discovered was that even though his tests had shown increasingly serious abnormal blood cell counts beginning in 1990, as well as in 1992 and 1993, the company had not mentioned it to him until 1994.” Carlson died in 1997 at age 53. His widow ended up suing Koch Refining Company and settling out of court.
In another case, involving a refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, Koch Industries had to pay $10 million in fines and $10 million in reparations for concealing information about benzene contamination.
These are only two of the numerous environmental violations Koch companies have been guilty of. Nor are they accidents. They grow out of the contempt the owners have for environmental regulations of any sort.
But even if the Koch brothers were politically neutral, treated their workers well, and didn’t harm the environment, we still shouldn’t want a society shaped by the charitable preferences of the super-rich. The current model of billionaire philanthropy started in the Gilded Age when plutocrats like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller tried to stymie criticism of inequality by setting themselves up as benefactors of the public good.
The inequality and the charity went hand in hand, as Carnegie made clear in his 1889 essay “Wealth.” There Carnegie outlined a vision of society where the wealthy are allowed to earn as much as they want but improve the world in general through charity. “Great inequality” is acceptable, Carnegie argued, as long as the rich give back.
In his recent book Winners Take All, Anand Giridharadas argues that contemporary plutocrats who practice what he calls “MarketWorld giving” are Carnegie’s true heirs. Like Carnegie, contemporary moguls believe in “the idea that after-the-fact benevolence justifies anything goes capitalism; that callousness and injustice in the cutthroat souk are excused by later philanthropy; that giving should not only help the underdogs but also, and more important, serve to keep them out of the top dogs’ hair—and, above all, that generosity is a substitute for and a means of avoiding the necessity of a more just and equitable system and a fairer distribution of power.”
This critique of charity as a false solution applies, it should be obvious, not just to right-wing billionaires like the Kochs but equally to their liberal counterparts: George Soros, the Clinton Foundation, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, among many others.
We don’t live in the 19th century. We should move beyond the sentimental hopes of a Charles Dickens, who dreamed of convincing the Ebenezer Scrooges of the world to abandon miserliness for do-gooding. Our goal should be to tax the Scrooges so that the Tiny Tims can enjoy Medicare for All.