Column on Frank Rich’s Prejudice

Frank Rich’s Prejudice

Tibor R. Machan

Karl Marx was famous for, among other things, claiming that everyone always promotes his or her economic interest. This is something he actually had in common with non-Marxists classical economists.

Most economists, in fact, believe that we are all motivated by our economic interests, nothing else. Or, rather, everything else that might appear to motivate us really comes down to economics. Consider the following from a few very prominent non-Marxist economists. The late Milton Friedman, one of the modern age’s most famous and diligent students and defenders of the free-market system, said it most directly: “[E]very individual serves his own private interest… The great Saints of history have served their “private interest” just as the most money grubbing miser has served his interest. The private interest is whatever it is that drives an individual.” His colleague, the late George Stigler, another Nobel Prize winner, made the point only slightly differently: “Man is eternally a utility-maximizer—in his home, in his office (be it public or private), in his church, in his scientific work—in short, everywhere.” Finally Nobel laureate Professor Gary Becker, who also embrace this homo economicus viewpoint, underscores the idea as follows: “The combined assumptions of maximizing behavior, market equilibrium, and stable preferences, used relentlessly and unflinchingly, form the heart of the economic approach as I see it.” The bottom line: We are all driven by our desire to fare well economically, first and foremost.

Marx also held to this idea, at least so far as people in the capitalist phase of humanity’s development are concerned. We act to enrich ourselves and whatever else we might claim motivates us, it is really just self-enrichment.

Frank Rich, prominent columnist at The New York Times and a relentless foe of the free market, capitalist economic system, has just now latched on to the story of the brothers Koch of Wichita, Kansas, David and Charles–there is another who isn’t so directly involved in the Koch business enterprises–a story told extensively in The New Yorker recently, by Jane Mayer. Rich is very impressed by this story and interprets it in the way many economists would, namely, that everything done by the brothers Koch has to do with their desire to enhance their wealth. But the economists would say this about all of us, not the the brothers Koch.

Of course, Rich merely infers his claims from the story–he fails to give one solitary good quotation from either David or Charles Koch to substantiate his allegation that they are both interested solely in self-enrichment. No wonder, because it is not so.

I have had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of both of the Koch brothers, although we aren’t fast friends by any means. But way back when I was a graduate student in philosophy, Charles took an interest in my work on my doctoral dissertation and invited me to give a talk about it in Wichita. It had to do with human rights and whether we can know that there are such rights or do some of us simply have a strong feeling in favor of them. Later I served, briefly, on the board of the Reason Foundation (which grew out of Reason Enterprises, the tiny firm that published Reason magazine in its early incarnation) with David Koch. So I can attest without any reasonable doubt that what motivated and likely still motivates the brothers Koch is their firm commitment to the ideas and ideals of a fully free society, a la the Declaration of Independence.

Now it is often held by the likes of Frank Rich–such as Ralph Nader and Kevin Phillips–that those who favor a fully free society are only interested in promoting their own economic welfare. Is this credible?

No. Of course, true enough, a fully free society would also be economically free, just as it would favor religious liberty or freedom of the press or everyone’s right to, say, sing in the shower and marry whoever they want who would want them. Freedom for those of us who love it isn’t divided into economic, religious, journalistic, scientific and other parts. It is indivisible, a general proper condition for human community life, period. This is what the Koch brothers have always championed.

Now just like journalists who favor freedom of the press benefit from such freedom, the Koch’s naturally would benefit from freedom of commerce. But so would we all. Freedom, not surprisingly, is simply good for us all and this includes entrepreneurs such as the brothers Koch. Now do they–do we all who champion a fully free society–support liberty solely because it enhances our economic welfare? No, I am certain of that–I, who have hardly a dime to my name, certainly favor liberty in part because it enables me to earn a living with the support of those of my fellows who freely choose to pay me for my work. But is this the sole reason why I favor liberty? Is it the sole reason the brothers Koch do so? Wrong! Not by a long shot.

Just ask us. Don’t ask Frank Rich, who makes his claims based on his prior beliefs, independently of any evidence from the brothers themselves.

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