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Orwellian Advocacy

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Welcome to Aaron Dorfman's and Bob Edgar's Orwellian world, where some advocacy is more equal than others, indeed where advocacy is legitimate and wonderful... but only if it is their advocacy. (Koch 'Philanthropy' Advances Koch Business, Political Agendas, Oct. 27.) Charles Koch and others who share his free market views and emphasis on personal liberty need not apply.

Dorfman's and Edgar's is a zero-sum worldview, where if a policy benefits the Kochs, it necessarily will "hurt the rest of us" and be "bad for the public". Ooooh, those evil Robber Barons!

"Robber Barons" profited because they helped the common man: Carnegie cut steel rail prices by 75%, and Rockefeller cut the price of oil by 80%, thereby helping enrich the American public whose GDP rose 66% in the same time period (see Matt Ridley's excellent new book, The Rational Optimist). The same is true of Ford and Vanderbilt, and more recently Steve Jobs and Bill Gates made themselves fortunes by selling things the rest of us wanted to make our lives better.

However much we all congratulate ourselves on the intentions and achievements of philanthropy and advocacy, the positive moral consequences of offering products, freely purchased, that make life more affordable and information more accessible to human beings of all walks of life almost certainly does more to benefit more people than most non-profit endeavors, however well intended.

There are a lot of insinuations thrown around in their little article and an ample helping of guilt by association, but just as Justices Scalia and Thomas spoke at dinners at Koch meetings, Mr. Dorfman knows he too has been a "featured guest" at Philanthropy Roundtable (where I was then on the board), which hardly constitutes an endorsement of his views or purchasing of his favors.

And it is untrue that there is "little oversight" of private philanthropy -- indeed there are a litany of rules and regulations to keep accountants and compliance lawyers busy and try to ensure that all grants go to legitimate purposes and management is prudent and upright; while there will always be bad apples, the sector has fewer than one might expect. No, what Mr. Dorfman particularly is complaining about is that there isn't greater "transparency", which if you read the rest of his National Center's proposals, is actually code for voyeurism to then achieve their goals of preferring some charitable giving over others.

Mr. Dorfman and Mr. Edgar would like us to believe that there is a charitable merit test based on who is served, and would like to be the arbiters of that judgment. But our courts have wisely held that there is neither a public claim to private charity, however one might justify that covetous instinct, nor that government should be picking which charities are more worthy than others.

And this is a wise policy: Messers Dorfman and Edgar, in their eagerness to vilify, forget that almost ALL of us care deeply about alleviating poverty, improving health and education, and having a cleaner world, and that many of us understand that the policy prescriptions they would advocate will lead precisely to the antithesis of those objectives. Nonetheless we don't denigrate them, and respect their right to be wrong. But perhaps that difference in tolerance is because the item missing from their list of things worth advancing is "liberty", something that would top the list for Charles Koch and many of those of us who appreciate the uniqueness of the American promise to the potentiality of human beings.

A peer of Charles Koch, who had worked with him for many years, told me privately that while many men of accomplishment were not very admirable when you got up close, that he had found Mr. Koch to be a man of consistent integrity and high principle, and went on to describe him as "the most outstanding individual of his generation". Maybe first trying to understand why would be a better use of Dorfman and Edgar's time.

Heather Higgins is a co-founder of the Alliance for Charitable Reform, serves on various non-profit boards, and debated Mr. Dorfman.