On further review, Charles Koch’s ‘mea culpa’ isn’t all that apologetic

"Some of the politicians that we had help get elected, I would see them on TV and they would be talking about policies that were antithetical against immigration, against criminal justice reform, against a more peaceful foreign policy, I was horrified," Charles Koch told Axios in November 2020. (Screenshot/Kansas Reflector)

I didn’t want to do it, dear reader, but I did it so you wouldn’t have to. I read Charles Koch’s new book.

You might remember the flurry of media attention in November, coinciding with the release of Koch’s book “Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World.” The Wall Street Journal described it as “part mea culpa, part self-help guide and part road map toward a libertarian America.”

That “mea culpa” part blazing in headlines had to do with Koch’s supposed regret for funding partisan causes. “Boy, did we screw up!” he’d written. “What a mess!”

I knew there had to be more to the story, but I put off investigating, waiting until the reliably dreary week between Christmas and New Years when the mood would fit the task. By then others had weighed in, so I could just point you to Bes Levin of Vanity Fair, who efficiently recaps the Koch damage under a headline I endorse as a book review in itself: “One of the worst people on earth has characterized his society-ruining mistakes like they’re akin to accidentally hitting someone’s side mirror with your car.”

But Koch has done a lot of good in the world. Just ask him. He’ll tell you about working with liberal organizations on criminal justice reform. Or with Oakland’s Family Independence Initiative, which partnered with Koch’s philanthropic community to get cash to struggling families at the beginning of the pandemic: “Roughly 1,300 individuals, philanthropies, city governments, and businesses have donated more than $61 million and counting,” Koch writes. “They gave this money to an organization most of them had never heard of to help more than 122,000 families they don’t know and will never meet.”

The book is rich with stories about how Koch became a “social entrepreneur” — he’s like some Kansas wizard, not a bumbler behind a curtain but one born with resources that an MIT education refined into infinite play money, enough to move actual levels of power — and how any individual with the scrappy fortitude to overcome whatever’s holding her back (and the good fortune to partner with him) can do the same.

“You could be on the cusp of ending the injustice you’re most concerned about,” he promises. “There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you approach it by empowering people from the bottom up.”

It’s easy! OK, maybe not super easy, but still:

“As leaders like Frederick Douglass revealed what all people were capable of, a growing number of Americans demanded the end of slavery. It took the Civil War to make that happen.”

Amid dramatic pep-talky simplifications of history, the mea culpa aspect of Koch’s book is not really a mea culpa. The “Boy, did we screw up. What a mess!” passage comes toward the end, when Koch recaps political lessons learned.

In needing to “change the policies holding millions back” — he’s talking about people there, not dollars — “the philanthropic community that I founded got involved in electoral politics,” he writes. “We bet on the ‘team’ that seemed to have more policies that would enable people to improve their lives. You only get two choices in our system, so we chose the red team. We should have recognized from the start that this was far too limiting.”

Limiting not because they’ve elected bat-crazy rightwing radicals, but because “with the other team still fighting you at every step, many of those policies are pushed out of reach.”

Soon comes the money quote:

  

Partisan politics prevented us from achieving the thing that motivated us to get involved in politics in the first place — helping people by removing barriers. I was slow to react to this fact, letting us head down the wrong road for the better part of a decade.

Boy did we screw up. What a mess!

Once this became clear, we changed our approach. Far from withdrawing from politics, we decided to get more involved. But instead of picking a team and figuring out who would work with us to get good policy passed, we decided to skip the first step and do a better job of the second. We now work with people on the red team, the blue team or no team at all! We now go issue by issue and work with anyone, regardless of political party.

   – Charles Koch

Those “issues” are essentially every aspect of American society, which Koch conveniently categorizes as community, education, business and government. He’s not wrong: They all need fixing, most of us would rather work together to solve our common problems, and tribalism is toxic.

But what Koch’s book reveals is that his newer investments in people — such as signing up more Latino Republicans — are simply adjustments made by an engineer based on lessons learned from failed experiments. If electing politicians resulted only in unhelpful policies and even worse PR, Koch has the resources to just scrap that approach and build a like-minded society where resistance is futile.

Ultimately, his goal is to remove “all the barriers holding people back,” eliminate “top-down control instead of bottom-up empowerment” — worthy goals in principle, unless one believes it might not hurt to put some barriers in place for, say, the oil and gas industry. He also encourages rebellion against the “tyranny of experts,” which is not so great in a world that needs, for example, scientists.

Namechecking his hero Frederick Douglass, Koch asks: “If it was possible to eradicate slavery in America, then how much easier should it be to overcome even our worst problems today?”

Our worst problem today is one the Koch brothers helped create, one Charles Koch could commit to solving if he had any real regrets about “messing up.” But there’s no chapter on the climate crisis.