The Kochs and the Commons

Charles Koch claims to be very upset about “crony capitalism” (albeit willing to benefit from it personally), but the real triumph of the Koch Brothers and their ilk is in branding the line of work they’re in as any kind of capitalism at all.

Suppose I had a business where what I do is find people who live in flood prone areas and threaten to wreck their houses unless they pay me money. That would be called an extortion racket, not capitalism. I don’t own those people’s houses. Real capitalism requires the government to restrain me from knocking the houses down. Similarly, I can’t just stand in the middle of a busy intersection, cause a traffic jam, and then shout “free market” when the cops try to take me away. After all, I don’t own the intersection any more than I own your house. So what about Koch Industries and its substantial fossil fuel interests. Do they own the air? Do they own the homes of people in flood-prone areas? To the best of my knowledge, that’s not the case. Charles Koch no more owns the air than I own his house or the interstate highway system. So why is “Koch Industries is allowed to spew whatever it wants into the air” considered a free market position? In part, it’s a misunderstanding. But to a much larger extent it’s a branding triumph. The basic point about pollution and regulation was understood by classical economists and political theorists, was understood by Hayek, is understood by right-of-center politicians in Europe, etc. But in America, things are different, and that’s in large part a triumph of some very self-interested philanthropy.

Someone who took the ideas of private property and free markets seriously would be jumping up and down with his head on fire about coal and oil companies wrecking an atmosphere they don’t own and refuse to pay for.