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What Would the Koch Brothers Do? Religion and Libertarian Philanthropy

In a piece of holiday season propaganda, two Koch lackeys spin the brothers into saintly givers.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

A November 28 op-ed written by John and Carol Saeman for The Washington Post begins with a popular refrain on Pope Francis, declaring that the figurehead of the Catholic Church “exemplifies Christian charity” through his outspoken allegiance to the poor.

Pope Francis’ public statements against poverty and his crackdown on ecclesiastical opulence are certainly commendable. Whether or not Pope Francis reflects the radical sea change needed to fully calibrate the church’s less-than-transparent inner workings with its social justice teachings, the pope’s inclusive language and self-critical approach to leading the church are nonetheless refreshingly progressive.

In their piece, the Saemans write that they “strive to adhere to the Holy Father’s vision” through their philanthropic work for several trusts and foundations, one of which offers scholarships to underserved students.

So far, so uncontroversial. The pope’s antipoverty message is a positive force for initiating charitable action, readily visible in the efforts of civic-minded philanthropists.

The writers then proceed to make a rather peculiar assertion.

In their op-ed, titled “Pope Francis, the Kochs, and how the wealthy can help the poor” (sic), the Saemans argue that libertarian activists – exemplified by the Koch brothers – pursue the same noble, egalitarian ends as Pope Francis, specifically through their efforts to dismantle the welfare state.

In addition to heading charitable foundations, it should be added, John and Carol Saeman are also financial contributors to the Koch-backed Freedom Partners Chamber of Congress, one of numerous dark money organizations actively polluting electoral politics.

Human Dignity, Narrowly Defined

The Saemans’ argument prescribes underpaid labor as the just cure for the poverty induced by unemployment and underemployment, propagates the classic right-wing myth that poverty is monolithically self-inflicted, and misdirects blame for social inequality.

Three Catholic pillars prop up the Saemans’ belief system. These include human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity, all of which “are actively under assault by the growth of government and the concentration of power in Washington.”

People on welfare, they argue, are denied the dignity of work. Government handouts deincentivize employment, thereby constructing a barrier between the poor and the great dispenser of human dignity – labor. Welfare can be “more lucrative than work,” so people opt out.

Take a step back, and see the following: The lack of dignity inherent in poverty does not derive from poor living standards, hunger, or perpetual insecurity. No, the indignity is the absence of labor, which is not the chief by-product of unregulated capitalism and a globalizing marketplace, but rather the result of the social safety net.

Furthermore, this argument goes, society should not set a protected financial standard that all citizens can rely on to live better lives. Instead, financial security should be defined by the underpaid wage slavery inherent in millions of nonunion service industry jobs that are less “lucrative” than welfare.

Combined with a screed against centralized government and regulation, this argument amounts to a shut-up-and-work directive, issued by economic elites for the realization of the poor’s “dignity,” defined by the right to work one of countless, miserably compensated jobs in the post-industrial job market. How poorly compensated are many of these jobs? Over half of food stamp-receiving homes include a working adult. It would be an act of giving, according to the authors, to revoke even these meager benefits.

Supposedly the bottom percentile of earners should be thankful for being told to buckle down and labor away for very little, with no government support, while capital returns increasingly outpace economic growth and opportunity.

We Would Like to Give More, But It Will Cost You

So how else does centralized government induce and perpetuate poverty? Taxes prevent philanthropists from giving, and their rich benefactors from creating jobs.

The Saemans state that solidarity (another of their charitable pillars) “stipulates that society should join together in pursuit of the common good.” Solidarity is undermined by government, however, and is only efficiently dealt with through subsidiarity (the practice, mentioned by the First Vatican Council, that social ills are best addressed at a decentralized, local level). High taxes prevent philanthropists like the authors from giving more generously. John Saeman, an executive of an investment company, would certainly benefit from libertarian-inspired tax cuts and – the reader is led to believe – so too would his charitable projects.

This model holds that poverty relief should be left to the whims and judgments of the nation’s wealthiest citizens. Billionaires like the Kochs would give more (and do so more wisely) if it just weren’t for those onerous taxes.

The libertarian fantasy of a self-regulating free market in which charitable business leaders cover up the loose ends produced by such a society is rather difficult to imagine. It assumes that the philanthropic choices made by the wealthy would be sufficient for the task.

A chief incentive for large donations is income-tax deduction, which can reach as high as 50 percent of a donor’s gross adjusted income. Charitable giving can thus enable the rich to redirect resources to organizations that are at best tangentially connected to (if not directly opposed to) the public good.

Consider the Saemans’ own description of the Koch brothers’ philanthropic interests: “The nonprofits associated with the Kochs, which bear the common mission of advancing free enterprise and free societies, reflect our shared conviction that limited government is most conducive to lifting people out of poverty.”

While some of the Koch brother foundation funding ends up in arts organizations or public welfare groups, a significant proportion is allotted for what are better described as advocacy organizations agitating on behalf of libertarian principles.

Of this latter category, recipients of Koch funding have included the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (a think tank dedicated to eliminating environmental regulation), the Institute for Justice (a legal group that successfully defended the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List’s right to make fallacious statements about a pro-choice candidate), and the Heritage Foundation (a leading opponent to expanded health-care access).

In the libertarian charity fantasy, the Koch brothers and their like-minded allies would have more to spend on their own interests, and the government would have significantly less to spend on desperately needed social programs. Much of the privatized welfare funding would end up in the coffers of organizations promoting the very polices that have contributed to growing inequality and the destruction of the environment.

‘Tis the Season . . . To Take Away A Working Family’s Food Stamps

Somewhat comically, the Saemans use Pope Francis to vindicate a world-view that the Holy Father has himself repudiated. In 2012, the pope declared that unfettered capitalism is “a new tyranny,” which disregards the rights those disenfranchised by global capital.

The pope wrote: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

There is more imperfect logic at play in the Saeman piece. The argument for decentralized control over charitable giving seems vacuous when it’s used to support the operations of a particular billionaire’s philanthropy. The foundations of the rich result in a very few people deciding where colossal amounts of welfare spending goes.

The authors assert: “Subsidiarity . . . recognizes that private associations and local or state governments are better equipped to address most social issues. They have a better vantage point from which to identify and address local problems.”

This remark – in a piece extolling the virtues of Koch brothers’ electoral activity – is laughable. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – brainchild of the Kochs – is a wrecking ball destroying the very concept of state and local democracy. ALEC tirelessly wines and dines state legislators, handing them model legislation to eviscerate regulation and government programming. Welfare decentralization – as envisioned by the Saemans – would most certainly mean that necessary government programs would meet the axe, rather than the careful treatment implied by the word “reform.”

The timing of the op-ed is obvious. Released immediately following Thanksgiving in the lead-up to #GivingTuesday, the article appears to be part of a PR blitz to whitewash the tarnished image of libertarian political activism. Another bit of propaganda includes a particularly weird promo video humanizing the Koch brothers’ work. Right-wing political operatives are working to conflate economic greed and wealth accumulation with riotously munificent behavior.

It is a perverse take on what charity means. Philanthropy is meant to enrich lives, either by enabling people to live well or by contributing to their human experience. By hijacking the charity narrative, libertarian activists obfuscate their goals to bring about the nightmarish dystopia that would likely result from a completely unregulated, tax-free, endlessly-polluted economic and social system.

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