There are few things that seem to bother people more than hearing rich people complain. At times their complaints really are quite absurd: twice in the last few months a prominent billionaire has compared the plight of America’s wealthy to Nazi Germany’s victims. But that has also, unfortunately, led to a tendency on the part of the chattering classes to pretend that is what wealthy personalities always say, even when it plainly isn’t.
It’s some distant cousin of reductio ad Hitlerum. And it’s what happened when Charles Koch, chairman of Koch Industries, wrote an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal defending himself. The Kochs have been the subject of increasingly unhinged attacks from the left because they donate to libertarian political causes, and there are few things the left despises more than a robust defense of individual liberty in the age of Obama, whose nominating convention was treated to the creepy video proclaiming that “government is the only thing that we all belong to.”
But the very idea that a wealthy person would have the temerity to respond to public attacks on their reputation seems to take people by surprise. Hence, Koch’s Journal column includes the following paragraph:
Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.) This is the approach that Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century, that Saul Alinsky famously advocated in the 20th, and that so many despots have infamously practiced. Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society—and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers.
Which led to this bizarre response from Dave Weigel, under the snarky headline “If You Criticize Wealthy Donors, You’re Basically Hitler”:
You know who else was a despot in the 20th century? The Charles Koch standard is problematic if you think (like I think) that campaign donations should be uncapped but totally disclosed. That, according to the donors (though not McCutcheon himself), leads to character assassination. Donors have a First Amendment right to give money, but their opponents flout that right when they criticize them. Why? That’s an excellent question.
That’s not what Koch said though. Apparently you don’t have to actually compare someone to Hitler to be accused of comparing someone to Hitler. You only have use the word “despot” and the phrase “20th century” in the same sentence. More importantly, when did Koch say his First Amendment rights are being flouted when people “criticize” him? That’s easy–he didn’t!
What Koch is talking about, and what Weigel surely knows, is that Koch is speaking up because he has been the target of constant attacks from the United States Senate majority leader from the chamber floor. Harry Reid actually worked an attack on the Kochs into his reaction to yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance, as he does for almost anything. Remember, he blamed the debate over aid to Ukraine on the Kochs too.
Even if the effort fails, part of the purpose of this is to find ways to limit political speech, legislatively if necessary. Though Koch doesn’t say it, this actually is a violation of First Amendment protections, which is why such challenges keep ending up in front of the Supreme Court. Additionally, naming and shaming conservative and libertarian donors has another purpose: as we saw recently, those who disagreed with the president were discriminated against by government agencies, including the IRS. They also had private information leaked to political opponents.
Does Weigel not think any of this is a problem? Of course he does–he wrote about it here. He’s less troubled by it than perhaps he should be, but that’s a matter of opinion, and anyway he didn’t ignore it.
Ironically, much of this makes Koch’s point for him. Why is it necessary for writers on the left to pretend Koch said something he didn’t? Because his actual argument is pretty unobjectionable. There seems to be this idea that the wealthy ought to be piñatas–silent as the staggering masses beat the stuffing out of them. Koch didn’t claim he’s deserving of anyone’s pity. But as a businessman whose reputation is being subject to repeated dishonest attacks by prominent politicians, it would be ridiculous for him–and irresponsible to his shareholders–not to defend himself in the public sphere.