Koch Brothers Take Up Advocacy

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1984

From the mid-’70s to mid-’80s, brothers Charles and David Koch contributed to public-policy philanthropy mainly by building the Cato Institute, Mercatus Center, and other research organizations capable of formulating detailed critiques of national problems (see 1977 and 1980 entries). In 1984 the Koch brothers took a step toward more direct advocacy. They provided about a million dollars a year to help launch Citizens for a Sound Economy, which quickly attracted additional funding from other foundation and business donors. The group distributed studies, analysis, polling, and other information to promote a vision of “less government, lower taxes, and less regulation.” It attracted prominent staff like former U.S. Office of Management and Budget director James Miller, economist Larry Kudlow, and retired Congressman Dick Armey. The group rescued the Tax Foundation, since 1937 an invaluable collator of tax data.

In 2004, Citizens for a Sound Economy restructured into two new organizations: FreedomWorks (which over the next few years organized several million activists interested in individual liberty and limited government) and Americans for Prosperity (which built a similar following, including 2 million members, 35 state chapters, and financial support from 100,000 contributors) in order to “educate citizens about economic policy and mobilize those citizens as advocates in the public-policy process.” Both groups were important in building the organizational and intellectual resources of the so-called Tea Party movement as an alternative channel for activism by libertarians and conservatives frustrated with the Republican party establishment.

Over a period of decades, the Koch brothers contributed more than $200 million to three dozen or so advocacy organizations focused on free-market reforms. (Meanwhile they have been only light contributors to political candidates.) In 2003 the Kochs also started convening semi-annual free-enterprise seminars where other donors interested in public policies were invited to discuss topics like budget control, health care, climate change, tax reduction, and respect for Constitutional limits on government, and then encouraged to contribute to advocacy groups promoting market-oriented solutions to such problems. The first seminars included less than 20 people, but donor participation gradually grew, and over a decade several hundred million dollars were donated by attendees to organizations active in public-policy debates. The recent Koch seminars have been attended by as many as 450 donors, with the goal of encouraging hundreds of millions in annual donations to groups active in policy and political advocacy.