David Koch Ran for Vice President with the Libertarian Party in 1980. The New York Times Thinks You Should Care, Isn't Sure Why.


The Sunday edition of The New York Times has the latest from 1980 for you, today: David Koch (of those Koch Brothers we're pretty sure you are kind of scared of and hate, for some reason you might not be sure of) is running for vice president with an obscure third party, the Libertarian Party! 

Author Nicholas Confessore brings up little that would even have been particularly interesting in 1980, much less now, past his opening paragraph that explains aspects of libertarianism that might confuse people who see the Kochs strictly as sinister right-wing oligarchs:

[David Koch as L.P. vice presidential candidate] backed the full legalization of abortion and the repeal of laws that criminalized drug use, prostitution and homosexuality. He attacked campaign donation limits and assailed the Republican star Ronald Reagan as a hypocrite who represented "no change whatsoever from Jimmy Carter and the Democrats."

Times researchers were trying to dig up footage of a David Koch speech from an L.P. event in 1979 for this story, saying the story was about the L.P., though it is really about the Kochs. The story does little to contextualize what that campaign meant, either then or now, has few voices to help either reporter or reader understand this strange world they are uncomfortable with, other than the blank voices of documents, among "thousands," that the Times rather fruitlessly dug through from the L.P.'s archives at the University of Virginia. (Deep historical reporting from from an actual archive! Sort of hidden, in a way! That they were "alerted" to, as the story itself honestly admits, by "American Bridge, a liberal political organization that has been critical of the Kochs," who must be very disappointed in the results.)

The headline is "Quixotic '80 Campaign Gave Birth to Kochs' Powerful Network." More accurate headlines might have been "Quixotic '80 Campaign Caused Kochs to Completely Shift Their Political Change Strategy"  or "All-Powerful Political Manipulator Koch Brothers Couldn't Even Bend Tiny Third Party to Their Will for Long," as the Kochs and their lieutenants failed to get their man Earl Ravenal the L.P. nomination for 1984 and left the party in a huff. More depth—any depth—about the ways in which the Clark/Koch campaign was perceived at the time by some on the right as a left-wing takeover of the L.P., and by many of the more radical in the L.P. as a wan mainstreaming of a radical message to mere Kennedy-style "low-tax liberalism," might have educated their readers about this whole "Libertarian Party" thing a bit better.

To be fair to Confessore, it is true that that David Koch's run with the L.P. was at least the zenith in the Koch brothers' first foray into electoral politics after earlier ideological activism more of the Institute for Humane Studies variety in the early to mid-'70s—supporting scholarship and seminars on things like Austrian economics and the possibilities of anarchism, before Ed Crane (who co-founded the Cato Institute with Charles Koch, David's older brother, and helped run the Clark/Koch L.P. campaign) helped convince Charles that electoral politics could be fruitful for libertarian change. After all, the Kochs' earliest mentor in libertarianism was the stridently apolitical Robert LeFevre of the Freedom School who thought any sort of political action both immoral and useless.

I spent a week in that University of Virginia L.P. archive myself back in 1998 when I was researching my book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. I dug back through my old notes today after reading the Times's story and felt a bit of pity for them: it isn't like they missed much interesting, but I suppose upon hearing there was this "unknown" archive with thousands of potentially Koch-damning documents in it, they had to keep going, and to dutifully write up the results, however unilluminating to fans or foes of the Kochs or the ideas they support.

I was however reminded today, going back through those notes of mine, of a couple of things I found amusing then: that the Times itself in writing on September 10, 1979, about the nominating convention for Koch and presidential candidate Ed Clark, seemed to have no idea at all who the Koch family was, referring to David not as part of any petrochemical or engineering company or as superwealthy but merely as a New York lawyer. Also, that David seemed to scrupulously expense back many of his campaign costs on the road to the party. (Although he was often in effect merely round-robin paying for them himself, with $2.1 million of the $3.5 million the campaign raised coming from him. Of course, the ability for him to self-finance his own campaign without running afoul of campaign finance law was entirely the reason Koch became the vice-presidential candidate.)

If one was trying to really study interesting shifts in the thoughts of the Kochs from their more explicitly libertarian movement days to their current role as power brokers in the Republican Party (rather than pretend in a headline as if they are all of a piece, as if those L.P. days "gave birth" to their current "powerful network"), you might look to another part of my book Radicals for Capitalism, in which I quoted from a roundtable in the May 1978 issue of none other than Reason magazine, where David's older brother Charles Koch said:

Our greatest strength is that our philosophy is a consistent world view and will appeal to the brightest, most enthusiastic, most capable people, particularly young people. But to realize that strength, we have to state it in a radical, pure form…the other side of that is our greatest weakness: that is, because we have a radical philosophy we don't appeal to people who are in positions of influence, people with status or wealth….So the temptation is, let's compromise…let's be much more gradual than we should be. As a result, we could destroy the appeal to the comers of the world, and therefore we destroy the movement.