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Of Definitions, Real and Straw

Charles Koch takes to the pages of the WSJ to fend off the attacks of the “collectivists” against himself, his foundation, company, etc.

The piece itself is fairly banal, to be honest.  I am not a fan of the Kochs,* but I will say that he has a point about the unnecessarily personal attacks that have been flung in the Koch brothers’ direction.  I am not sure, for example, how casting them into the role of Bond villains furthers the political and economic positions of the critics (just as folks on the right have been known to attacj George Soros).

However, that is not what inspired comment.  Rather, it was Koch’s definition of “collectivists” that leapt out at me:  “those who stand for government control of the means of production and how people live their lives.”

Of course, the issue of controlling the “means of production” derives from Marx and communist doctrines after Marx.  I think it is fair to say that  while I suppose that there are some lurkers on certain internet fora who want the government to control the means of the production, this is not, you know, a thing in American politics.  The political choices are not Austrian economics and communism; the spectrum is a tad more complicated than that.

Definitions matter. They matter even more if one is trying to be taken seriously.  As an educator, I am weary of this kind of sloppy deployment of terms and concepts.

We also see the return of everyone’s favorite, Saul Alinksy, with a new dash of Schopenhauer:

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.

I will be honest:  this kind of thing strikes me as pseudo-intellectualism (at best).

Also, Kevin Drum is right:  the use of an old Daily Kos emblem as clipart for the piece is rather odd, if not amusing.

*I have two fundamental problems with the Kochs.  One is fairly general:  I find it very difficult to take seriously claims about how the unregulated market (or close thereto) is great for everybody when they come from billionaires (especially when they were born into success in the first place).  Second, and this is more specific, the Koch Foundation tries to buy intellectual outcomes that they prefer (whether it be through think tanks or via contributions to universities).  They do not simply provide funds for general area of topics that they want researched or discussed, but they try to influence the outcomes of that work.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Rick DeMent says:

    And why does Charles Koch get to write an op ed in the Wall Street Journal? I mean can’t he afford to buy his own free speech these days?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 4

  2. Tillman says:

    Second, and this is more specific, the Koch Foundation tries to buy intellectual outcomes that they prefer (whether it be through think tanks or via contributions to universities).

    Buying things you prefer is natural. Buying things you prefer and then pretending it’s what everyone should prefer for their own well-being is, to use the vernacular, dickish.

    I honestly have few problems with libertarian rich people who are libertarian to avoid taxes or regulation. I only have that problem when they insist their version of government is somehow good for me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 3

  3. C. Clavin says:

    If you just take the column on it’s facts it’s nonsensical.
    Koch complains about critics saying he’s anti-environment…well he’s one of the worst polluters and he wants to do away with the EPA so that he is free to pollute more.
    Talk about a lack of self-awareness.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 4

  4. mantis says:

    Considering how Schopenhauer posited that one arrives at compassion by transcending egoism, I can see why Koch dislikes him so. H

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 4

  5. C. Clavin says:

    And his critics are using character assassination…but when he compares them to Alinsky and despots…that’s just him being a good American.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 15 Thumb down 5

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Thanks for writing this, Steven. It basically absolves me from writing about it over at my place.

    I would have articulated this point:

    I find it very difficult to take seriously claims about how the unregulated market (or close thereto) is great for everybody when they come from billionaires (especially when they were born into success in the first place).

    a little differently. The promise of neoclassical economics is not that no one will go hungry or naked or be homeless or go without healthcare. It’s that the market produces “optimum welfare”, a term of art that doesn’t mean what they might think it does.

    Many of us think that a society worth living in is one in which no one goes hungry, etc., there is ample evidence convincing us that private charities aren’t up to the task, and that means government intervention at some level.

    Although there are reasonable arguments for a less expansive federal government, he doesn’t make any of them.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 2

  7. Kylopod says:

    One of the ironies of the piece is that, by using the term collectivist, he is doing exactly what he accuses the left of doing: discouraging free and open debate by painting his opponents as radicals outside the mainstream of American thought.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 2

  8. Scott says:

    I’m so over the whining of these people.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 3

  9. matt bernius says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    The promise of neoclassical economics is not that no one will go hungry or naked or be homeless or go without healthcare. It’s that the market produces “optimum welfare”, a term of art that doesn’t mean what they might think it does.

    Many of us think that a society worth living in is one in which no one goes hungry, etc., there is ample evidence convincing us that private charities aren’t up to the task, and that means government intervention at some level.

    Great points all around. And as to this quote, if you are following neo-classical economics (or arguably neo-libralism), its possible to that “the market” itself has decided that government based welfare is the most efficient way to deliver on the promise of “optimum welfare.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  10. Franklin says:

    “collectivists” that leapt out at me: “those who stand for government control of the means of production and how people live their lives.”

    And we haven’t even gotten around to attacking the second part of his “definition” yet. Or am I just not aware of the Kochs being pro-choice and gay marriage advocates, et cetera?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  11. Michael Robinson says:

    this is not, you know, a thing in American politics.

    No, no, no, no, no.

    You fail to understand.

    “government control of the means of production” = “taxes”

    If the government has the power to tax production, the government ipso facto controls the means of production.

    “Collectivists” are those who stand for the power of the government to levy taxes.

    Similarly, “government control of how people live their lives” = “regulation of economic activity”.

    Basically, any government action is, by definition, collective action.

    That is the point of departure for all Koch political action.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  12. James Pearce says:

    My problem with the Koch brothers rests solely on the non-politically engaged one, Bill. I may be philosophically opposed to the things that David and Charles spend money on, but at least they’re trying to do something useful.

    Bill just buys things and stores them on his private ranch. And really…there’s very few things in this world more useless than a billionaire who thinks he’s a consumer.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  13. gVOR08 says:

    I think in some corners of the right the use of “collectivist” has become fairly common, and includes anyone who’s ever attended a PTA meeting. Even so, its use here by Charles Koch does strike one as an off note, given the absence of Obama having taken control of any means of production. It affirms that along with the oil company and the fortune, they also inherited their father’s whackjob John Birch Society views.

    And do any of these people realize that almost no one on the left knew who Saul Alinsky was until they made us look it up? Again, this rhetoric kind of says where CK’s head is at.

    I am not sure, for example, how casting them into the role of Bond villains furthers the political and economic positions of the critics

    It puts a face on this. Low info voters don’t realize how extreme many GOPs have become. If a Dem says “Scott Walker wants to destroy all unions”, many voters don’t believe it. It helps some to be able to say, “Scott Walker is a tool of the Kochs who want to destroy all unions.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3

  14. grumpy realist says:

    @Michael Robinson: Which leads to the conclusion that he’s against all government-created law, yes?

    If he doesn’t want to be portrayed as a Bond villain, he shouldn’t act like a Bond villain.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  15. Michael Robinson says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Which leads to the conclusion that he’s against all government-created law, yes?

    No, he’s only against government-created law that’s compulsory or costs money.

    Anything that is voluntary and no cost is an acceptable function of government.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  16. Pinky says:

    @Franklin:

    Or am I just not aware of the Kochs being pro-choice and gay marriage advocates, et cetera?

    You didn’t know that they’re pro-gay marriage?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  17. Pinky says:

    There have been volumes written about the difference between controlling and owning the means of production.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  18. mantis says:

    @Pinky:

    There have been volumes written about the difference between controlling and owning the means of production.

    Care to recommend one?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  19. C. Clavin says:

    @Pinky:
    True…but they are also definitely anti-choice.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. Hal_10000 says:

    Second, and this is more specific, the Koch Foundation tries to buy intellectual outcomes that they prefer

    Not necessarily. The Kochs funded the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature program, which produced the most complete and through ground temperature analysis yet, addressing many of the issues that scientists have had with previous temperature analyses (e.g., random resampling of data). It concluded that global warming is real, which is against their preference.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  21. gVOR08 says:

    @Hal_10000: Failure of the plan is not proof that the plan didn’t exist.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  22. David M says:

    @Hal_10000:

    The BEST study was expected and funded specifically to produce results favorable to the AGW skeptics. That the scientists were honest doesn’t mean they weren’t attempting to buy the outcome they preferred.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  23. David M says:

    @Franklin:

    Or am I just not aware of the Kochs being pro-choice and gay marriage advocates, et cetera?

    Given their support for the GOP, isn’t it obvious they are pro-choice and support SSM?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  24. becca says:

    @Hal_10000: that is what is so perverse. They know it’s real and they don’t care.

    Just like Bond villains.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  25. James Pearce says:

    @Pinky:

    You didn’t know that they’re pro-gay marriage?

    When you’re “pro-gay marriage” and you give millions of dollars to the Republican party, you’re not….you know….pro-gay marriage.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  26. Pinky says:

    @James Pearce: You agree with your party on every issue?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  27. James Pearce says:

    @Pinky:

    You agree with your party on every issue?

    No, I do not.

    Which is why I don’t give them any money.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  28. C. Clavin says:

    @Pinky:
    No I don’t…but I’m not giving the party gazillions and dictating policy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  29. Ben Wolf says:

    @Dave Schuler: A lot of content packed into a short statement. Well-spoken

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  30. Ben Wolf says:

    @Michael Robinson:

    If the government has the power to tax production, the government ipso facto controls the means of production.

    The means of production are physical goods. A government levy against a stock of financial assets does not give said government control of capital, land and labor.

    If reducing financial flows in the private sector were “collectivism” then Koch himself would be (by his own definition) a grand collectivist, due to his continuous funding of efforts to balance budgets and reduce social payments. Notice also that Koch was wholeheartedly behind state seizure of land (one of the means of production) desired for construction of Keystone XL, a pipeline which will very much benefit Koch Industries’ oil refineries in Texas.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  31. Tillman says:

    @James Pearce: Ah, but if you were a billionaire, wouldn’t you spend what amounts to a fraction of your fortune trying to change the party closest to your political views into your personal echo chamber?

    I mean, I would. Beats the hell out of forming a third party.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  32. Pinky says:

    @mantis:

    Care to recommend one?

    I don’t know if you’re being serious. Did you ask that to imply that I was making it up? You could check the Wikipedia page for “means of production” to see the distinction I was making. And a lot of political and economic theory revolves around the distinction. I assume that Steven is aware of this, even though it ruins the point he was trying to make.

    If you’re looking for a recommendation, I’d start with a basic economics textbook. I’ve never read Thomas Sowell’s Marxism, but he’s a good writer. Anything labeled “political economy”, as long as it’s not labeled “public choice theory”, which is sort of the opposite (that is, the use of economic theory to analyze politics).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  33. James Pearce says:

    @Tillman:

    Ah, but if you were a billionaire, wouldn’t you spend what amounts to a fraction of your fortune trying to change the party closest to your political views into your personal echo chamber?

    If I was a millionaire, sure. The echo chamber would actually be useful to me. But as a billionaire, there’d be no point. You would almost have to do it for fun.

    Like Bill and his miniature train.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  34. Kylopod says:

    @Pinky: I agree that there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with supporting a party you disagree with on some issues. The problem I have with the Kochs is that, for men with such influence, they do absolutely nothing to advance the non-Republican causes they allegedly support, and they seem to do everything in their power to elect politicians with a strong tendency to pursue policies they claim to oppose. The impression they give is that they don’t care about much beyond the unfettered accumulation of wealth.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  35. dazedandconfused says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Bond villains? More like Austin Powers villains, by the look of their Uncle Sam gynecologist and other ads.

    It’s for the best that the Koch’s are pressured into having to answer the press as every other power broker at their level must. If it takes some nastiness so be it. They’ve been as nasty as they wanna be through their meat puppets.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  36. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Pinky: In other words, no?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. wr says:

    @Pinky: “I’ve never read Thomas Sowell’s Marxism, but he’s a good writer”

    If by “good writer” you mean “sleazy hack cutting and pasting Republican talking points,” sure.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  38. @Pinky: Ok, so you think you have made some key distinction that undermines my point and your evidence is that there are volumes written about the topic. However, when asked for specifics you refer to Wikipedia and a book that you, yourself, have not read?

    You can see how this might not be a convincing position on your part, yes?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  39. mantis says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Ok, so you think you have made some key distinction that undermines my point and your evidence is that there are volumes written about the topic. However, when asked for specifics you refer to Wikipedia and a book that you, yourself, have not read?

    QED, baby!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  40. Pinky says:

    Steven – I was trying to be ambiguous about this because I didn’t want to personally attack you.

    The fact is that Koch made a reference to control of the means of production, then you declared that a false choice between freedom and Marxism. That you brought up Marx and ignored the difference between ownership and control of the means of production to make your argument tells me that you’re the one, not Koch, who’s using straw men. That you would do this while declaring that as an educator you’re offended by sloppy thinking is either foolishness or knavery.

    Do you truly not know the difference between control and ownership of the means of production? Aside from the fact that these are common English words, a person could deduce their meaning from the fact that Koch is an owner who believes that companies are losing control of what they own to the government. But, as I said, this is one of the most commonly debated points about political and economic systems. Anyone who’s had a smattering of political or economic theory, or a passing familiarity with modern history, would know the difference. I pointed to Wikipedia and a basic economics textbook because this is about as obscure as the difference between motors and engines would be to racing fans. It is insulting that you’d claim to know anything about political science and fudge the difference between ownership and control of the means of production.

    So seriously, readers, google “economic system” or “means of production” and you’ll know more about this in five minutes than Steven is implying that he does. And next time you sense that someone’s being evasive online, consider the possibility that he’s being polite.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  41. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    That you brought up Marx and ignored the difference between ownership and control of the means of production to make your argument tells me that you’re the one, not Koch, who’s using straw men.

    Then enlighten us. Because I have read Marx and I have no idea what you are alluding to. Nor does the wikipedia page you referred to.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  42. mantis says:

    @Pinky:

    Since you refuse to cite a reference (“Google it” doesn’t count), why don’t you explain what you think the difference between control and ownership of the means of production is, and why it matters. Since it’s so obvious, this should be an easy task.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  43. john personna says:

    Pinky is obviously right in his narrow focus. When the government requires that cars have headlights that is control of production, without ownership.

    Of course outside that focus, calling such things “collectivist” is pretty tinfoil hat.

    Related (and supportive of my past analysis):

    @NateSilver538’s Tweet

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  44. @Pinky:

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. You have never actually explained what you actually mean by your statements, making it rather hard to judge your position (even though you have asserted that your position undercuts mine). Could you at least explain how you think your distinction changes Koch’s meaning?

    2. If you are arguing that government regulations, taxation, laws, etc. place “control” over business then you are, of course, correct, but to what end does that help us out in this conversation? That would mean that any economy beyond pure laissez-faire is one in which the government “controls the means of production” (and hence makes the formulation a useless one).

    3. I have never, to my recollection, ever read or heard the mention of the phrase “the means of production” (forget own or control) in a political conversation that was not an attempt to raise the issue of communism is some way. And, of course, Koch is linking this notion to “collectivists” which provides further evidence of what he is trying to convey. Indeed, I don’t think that the phrase “means of production” tends to crop up all that much in general save in the context of communism/Marx.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0