Davis Merritt: Rand, Marx, Koch overlook human realities

04/15/2014 12:00 AM

04/14/2014 6:28 PM

In a Wall Street Journal commentary recently, Charles Koch lamented that his campaign to change America makes him an almost daily target of personal attacks by “collectivist” critics who do not try to understand his vision of a free society.

“If only they understood,” he seems to be saying. But what if they do understand and simply don’t want any of it?

Koch noted that for 50 years he has fought for his economic and governing principles “primarily through educational efforts,” but in recent years realized the need to engage in the political process. Since the half century of educational efforts was unpersuasive, he has collected a few hundred members of Congress and state legislators to do his bidding, around and over the heads of ordinary Americans if that’s necessary.

His actions thus become very personal for everyone else, and he cannot reasonably expect to avoid being called to personal account for them.

His quaint reference to collectivism was right out of Ayn Rand, the darling of 1950s college undergraduates. Her bloodless objectivism was a philosophical response to Karl Marx’s equally bloodless communism, and was no more a complete descriptor of human nature and needs than was Marx’s.

Each philosophy, standing alone, is unworkable in the real world. Neither cookie cutter requires unusual intelligence to advocate, and each can be, given the power, imposed on everyone. But tyranny, whether from the left or the right, is, finally, just tyranny and not liberty, which always begins with choice.

Perhaps, as Koch argued, he and his company are not some of the things they have been called, such as “un-American,” “evil” and out to “rig the system” to selfish financial advantage. But the motivation for imposing a belief system on others, whether by bayonet or bank account, is irrelevant. Choice forcibly foreclosed is choice denied. And Koch would have all of us live by his lights rather than our own.

Rand’s pure objectivism and Marx’s communism fail because they ignore the realities of the human condition. Human talents, abilities, desires and even opportunities are distributed along bell curves, with the majority of people clustered near the middle and increasingly smaller numbers at the opposing ends. That’s immutable, and attempting to apply either philosophical system across that board is futile.

The ability of Koch to amass a huge personal fortune says a great deal good about him, but it says very little about all those other people, most of whom have neither the ability nor opportunity to do what he has done.

But what of them? Where do they fit into the simplistic framework of extreme libertarianism, which writes them off as poor by choice or for lack of effort? What political or economic philosophy makes it morally acceptable to simply turn away from them?

Government, which Koch would shrink to near-vanishing, arose as a necessary way of organizing society to protect against individualistic chaos, a guard against the animalistic depredations of the jungle. It’s an essential element of any organized society.

Getting the size and scope of government right requires constant adjustment to changing, increasingly complex circumstances plus a bit of good will, not just slogans and easy judgmentalism.

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