Charles Koch’s Olive Branch to… Bernie Sanders?

Yes, you read that headline right. Recently, Charles Koch penned an op-ed in the Washington Post aimed at emphasizing areas of agreement between principled leftists and libertarians.

If this sounds strange to you, you can certainly be forgiven. On the left, the billionaire Koch brothers are commonly seen as the symbol of all that is unholy and wrong about American politics. And in certain ways this association is a plausible fit. Their company, Koch Industries, is significantly involved in the petroleum industry, it is the second largest private company in the US, and they are politically active. The combination of these factors naturally created a big target.

But when one looks beyond these surface-level characteristics, the logic breaks down a bit. The Kochs identify themselves as libertarians after all. And even when you find an attack on them from the left, their libertarian ideology isn’t denied. Rather, it just illustrates how “extreme” and dangerous they are.* It’s almost as if these critics think that if you believe hard enough in the Republican party, you somehow become a libertarian.

In reality, however, lumping libertarians in with modern-day Republicans is deeply lazy. It’s also confusing. How many Republicans do you know that are antiwar, pro-marijuana legalization, and supportive of criminal justice reform? If you got above five, we’ll need to compare notes.

Libertarians actually have a quite a bit of common ground with liberals. We may not always agree on the solutions, but we care about many of the same problems. Koch’s article is a hopeful step towards reminding us of that.

The whole article is worth reading, but the following excerpt gives you a sense of the conciliatory tone adopted:

The senator [Bernie] is upset with a political and economic system that is often rigged to help the privileged few at the expense of everyone else, particularly the least advantaged. He believes that we have a two-tiered society that increasingly dooms millions of our fellow citizens to lives of poverty and hopelessness. He thinks many corporations seek and benefit from corporate welfare while ordinary citizens are denied opportunities and a level playing field. 

I agree with him.

This is a great article because it seeks to do the important work of breaking down the tired left-right divide in American politics–or what Matt Welch aptly called the “Effort to Make Us All Dumb.”

Surely, some will dismiss the content entirely based on its source.** But liberals that approach it with an open mind may discover an olive branch in a war that should have never started. The opposite of liberalism isn’t libertarianism; the opposite of Bernie Sanders is not Ron Paul. On many issues that matter–wars, criminal justice reform, etc.–libertarians and liberals share a common foe. And that foe is theallegedly moderate politicians in both parties like Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio that supported the very policies that are now in desperate need of revision. We forget this fact at our peril.

*The Rolling Stones piece linked to above has a fantastically dismissive tone which at one point casually references “screw-the-poor ideology” of Ron Paul–since that’s obviously a fair way to characterize the most antiwar candidate either party has produced since at least World War II.

**To be sure, no one is denying that the Kochs may have supported some objectionable groups or candidates at times. Looking at the laundry list compiled by Wikipedia, there are at least a couple that seem seriously incompatible with a libertarian perspective on many issues (Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, for example). In any case, the merits of an argument ought to depend more on the ideas offered than the byline.

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