By Shane Kastler
In his book Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful & Private Dynasty, author Daniel Schulman tells the story of the Koch family whose patriarch Fred Koch initially made his fortune as an Engineer/ Entrepreneur in the oil industry. A native of tiny, rural Quanah, Texas; Koch would eventually earn a degree from prestigious M.I.T. then travel the world as a global businessman. Some of his travels took him to Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, where he saw first hand the devastating effects of communistic governmental control and learned what it was like to have a government spy follow him wherever he went. The experience deeply affected Koch.
Eventually Koch came to loathe communism and devote much of his life to fighting it. As a founding member of the John Birch Society, and also through a booklet he wrote called “A Business Man Looks at Communism” Koch fought against the perils of an ideology that he felt was threatening the world and had infiltrated America. Koch was a committed free market capitalist; a belief that in large part he passed on to his four sons.
Frederick, Charles, David, and Bill Koch grew up in Wichita, Kansas as sons of wealth and prestige. But Fred saw to it that they didn't act as such saying he didn't want his boys to be “country club bums.” They were taught to work hard and spent many hours doing manual labor on the family farm. Sibling rivalry was a constant way of life, eventually bearing fruit and creating tension well into adulthood. Fredrick, the oldest, grew up to become an art aficionado, who was much different than the other three boys. Rumored to be a homosexual, he was much more mild-mannered; showing no interest in the family business.
Charles, David, and Bill on the other hand, all followed in their fathers footsteps; earning engineering degrees from M.I.T. Being slowly groomed by his father to take over the business, Charles came back to Wichita and was thrust into leadership upon the sudden death of his father in 1967. Eventually, David and Bill would also work for Koch, which under Charles' talented leadership would rise to become the largest private business in America. The Koch family had an incredible knack for business. But they also came to be known for many other things as well.
In the 1960s and 70s Charles came to be a believer in the Austrian school of economics with it's free market principles and it's disdain for government intervention. Charles also adopted a libertarian political philosophy which flows naturally from the Austrian economic mindset. His beliefs would soon influence his two younger brothers (David much more than Bill) and in 1980 David ran as Vice President on the Libertarian Party ticket. Charles would continue to devote much time and energy to spreading libertarian ideology through think tanks, universities, and non-profit educational entities; not to mention political involvement. Charles saw the government as his enemy; and eventually it was clear that the government saw him the same way.
The book portrays Koch Industries as largely thumbing it's nose at government regulations, which became ever more stringent during the 1990s of Bill Clinton. Fines and court battles were a normal part of life for Koch for many years, until eventually Charles tweaked his mindset and tried harder to work with the government. The book quotes Charles, in 1978, showing a clear disdain for government by saying: “We should not cave-in the moment a regulator steps foot on our doorstep. Do not cooperate voluntarily, but instead resist wherever and to whatever extent you legally can. And do so in the name of justice.” (pg. 228) But eventually, being worn down by government antagonism and litigation, Charles acquiesced, at least to some extent. The author concludes that Charles eventually learned “the world he lived in was not the libertarian paradise he wanted it to be.” This cold painful reality has slapped many an American in the face; and it served as a “wake up call” for Charles. His new mantra was that he wanted “10,000 percent” cooperation with all government entities. It seems as though, while Charles remained committed to political activity, he sought to step more into the “mainstream” by supporting Republican rather than purely Libertarian politicians. His libertarianism took a marked twist from being staunchly anti-government to being a major player in partisan politics. Eventually this would lead to the Koch brothers as being major enemies of the Obama administration; and them doing all within their power to keep him out of office. Efforts, which history shows, have failed.
Beyond the political activity, the book goes behind the scenes in telling many of the divisive stories that separated the Koch brothers. Fred's will left a smaller portion of the inheritance to oldest son Frederick, who had no interest in the business anyway. Nevertheless, resentment ensued. Charles and David, who were the most like-minded of the four, would lead Koch into incredible levels of success; yet Bill would grow to begrudge them both. Bill, the most emotional and rash of the four brothers, would eventually seek revenge through litigation, causing a massive schism between he and Charles that never fully recovered. Their mother Mary was also drug into the fray as brothers Frederick and Bill sought her intervention in “evening the score” with Charles and David. At times the brothers would hire detectives to spy on each other; and the bitter back-biting took on a soap opera-like twist that Hollywood would be hard pressed to match. In the end, a certain amount of reconciliation took place. Twins David and Bill became much more cordial; and Charles, though still somewhat resentful of Bill's actions, at least is now on semi-speaking terms with his estranged brother.
The book is an incredible story of entrepreneurial success and interpersonal turmoil. Frederick has made a name for himself in the world of art; Charles and David in industry, philanthropy, and political involvement; and Bill through yachting (he won the 1992 America's Cup) and Oxbow Corporation (a company he started after the ugly divorce from Koch Industries). The story of the Kochs serves many examples to the watchful observer.
From an entrepreneurial perspective, it's easy to admire the Kochs business acumen and commitment to hard work. They didn't simply inherit wealth and blow it; they built upon what their father left them. From a political perspective, it's easy to see the wisdom of Charles' anti-governmental stance in his early days. In large measure his adoption of what he calls “Market Based Management” has caused Koch to be the success that it is; and such free market mentality is tantalizing to those of us who would like to see it unleashed in modern America; where constant government intrusion has left frequent disaster in its wake.
As a Christian, I must conclude with a spiritual word. Though the book has almost no spiritual content (other than mentioning Charles once read the entire Old Testament looking for leadership principles) I couldn't help but be haunted by the words of Jesus, “What good does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Matthew 16:26) I won't pretend to know of the spiritual beliefs of any of the Koch brothers; but the Bible teaches that worldly wealth is of no benefit when it comes to eternal realities. Reconciliation to God, through faith in Christ, brings the true lasting peace that seems to have largely eluded the Kochs. From my perspective, this leaves a sad legacy.
As for literary matters, I found the book quite entertaining and readable. The author being a Mother Jones magazine editor; I certainly wasn't expecting a puff piece. I was suspicious that it might be a smear job; but it seemed to be mostly objective. At times the Kochs are painted as villainous, billionaire, fat cats; while at times they are lauded for their stubborn stand on their principles and their philanthropy. In the end, I would recommend the book. As a third party observer I have no way of knowing how accurate all the private information is, but this is true of any biography. Love them or hate them, the Kochs are definitely a fascinating story. And stand poised to continue their influence for years to come.