Koch's Infiltration of Brown University:

A Call to Action from a Concerned Faculty Member


Editors Note: UnKoch My Campus was asked to publish the following letter anonymously on behalf of a concerned faculty member at Brown University who fears the consequences of offending administrators. University leaders are evaluated on how much money they raise, so they will not look kindly on faculty who draw attention to the unsavory nature of their donors. We at UnKoch acknowledge the climate of administrative pressure felt by faculty, and others, and believe taking any action is courageous. We hope that others are inspired to start and inform critical conversations on campus. If you have a tip or concerns to share,  please contact us here! - Jan 23, 2018.

It is by now well-known that Charles and David Koch, billionaire industrialists famous for funding climate change denial and the Tea Party, are actively infiltrating universities [1]. Although it is only a fraction of their overall political project, they have spent over $140 million attempting to legitimize far-right economic ideas in universities across the country [2]. One of the lesser-known Koch think-tanks is the Political Theory Project, which is hidden away in the “Liberal Ivy,” Brown University [3]. Libertarian professor John Tomasi founded the Center, which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation [4]. As the first Ivy League school to allow a Koch-funded center on campus, the Project serves as a beachhead of the Koch network among elite Northeastern Universities [5].

On the spectrum of economic thought, Charles Koch lies on the extreme right, considering even Milton Friedman a sellout for working to to make government more efficient rather than dismantle it [6]. Koch’s allies employ innocuous terms like “liberty” and “economic choice” to disguise their ultimate goals of cutting taxes for the wealthy and privatizing government services, and their academic work is more likely to consist of abstract political argument than empirical research (which would be very unlikely to prove that dismantling the welfare state will make life better for everyone) [7]. Tomasi has admitted that his teaching goal at Brown is to convert students to this ideology. Speaking of his freshman students, he “slyly” said that “after a whole semester of Hayek, it’s hard to shake them off that perspective over the next four years” [8]. But it’s not just Hayek: while American libertarians play up their debt to aristocratic European economists like Menger, Hayek and von Mises, in fact their ideas and goals owe at least as much to the bitter resistance of wealthy white southerners to Federal government “interference” in slavery and segregation [9]. In either case, the ideas add up to an unabashedly political project to advance the interests of the rich and powerful by attacking the ability of states to redistribute wealth.

The Political Theory Project should be shuttered, and Brown students left to study free from the political projects of billionaire extremists.   
— -Anonymous Faculty

Tomasi does not deny his links to the economic far right: they are clearly stated in his CV [10]. He was awarded both the Charles G. Koch Prize at George Mason University (amount unknown) and the $50,000 Hayek prize by the Manhattan Institute, a Koch-funded think tank which has been called out by US senators for actively promoting climate change denial [11]. He spent a year at the Koch-funded Freedom Center at the University of Arizona [12]. He is a board member of the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, which aims to “work against the thrust of programs and courses in gender, race and class,” and has given Tomasi over a million dollars to hire postdoctoral fellows [13]. He has been funded by the Atlas Network [14]. Most tellingly, he is now on the selection committee for the Hayek Prize, as well as the Koch-backed “Humane Studies Fellowship” at George Mason, evidence that he is a Koch insider [15]. Tomasi has written books with titles like Liberalism Beyond Justice (which argues that the Liberal order should be broadened to accept ideologies opposed to the redistribution of wealth [16]) and Free Market Fairness (“call it: social justice, American style” [17]). He is a sophisticated spinner of the Libertarian idea that there is something unjust about taxing people who don’t want to be taxed. But the real injustice is that the top ten richest people in the world (which includes both Koch brothers separately, each worth over $48,000,000,000) have far more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population combined [18].

The clearest sign that the Political Theory Project is a Koch venture is its close associations with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, which was founded by Charles Koch and remains the beating heart of far-right economic ideology. This is where the Kochs developed their political strategy; they have given it over $58,000,000 [19]. Tomasi is a close associate of the Center, and the other three people listed on the Project’s webpage all received their PhDs in economics from George Mason. While we lack financial information for the Project after 2015, we can speculate that Koch money contributed to paying for Daniel D’Amico to recently become associate director of the Center, “where he plays an instrumental role in furthering the mission of the Political Theory Project (PTP) to invigorate the study of institutions and ideas that make societies free, prosperous, and fair” [20]. D’Amico received his PhD from George Mason and received the Gordon Tullock Prize and Israel M. Kirzner Award, created by the Mercatus Center and the associated Public Choice Society to create the illusion of academic legitimacy for their graduates. While Tomasi noted in 2008 that “a full list of the Project’s donors is posted on our Web site, and has been for several years,” this is no longer the case [21].    

The Kochs often fund professorships, and one of their cleverest tactics is to hire tenured professors, which ensures that they cannot be fired when it becomes apparent that they are Koch minions [22]. Perhaps this is the case with Brown professor David Skarbek, who did both MA and PhD in Economics at George Mason University and was hired with tenure in 2017 (Brown is not starved for cash, so this may not be the case) [23]. Skarbek’s research promotes the idea that government officials are selfish and thus less effective than the private sector, which is the logic he used to argue for the abolition of the Federal Emergency Management Agency [24]. While the experience of other wealthy countries shows that a sure way to fight crime is to reduce poverty by funding education, health care and other social services, Skarbek’s (admittedly insightful) book on California’s prisons instead concludes that the US could reduce incarceration by having more police on the streets [25]. Given that the ideal society for far-right economists is one in which there is no social security net at all, and the state is concerned mainly with police and the military, it is not surprising that both Skarbek and Daniel D’Amico are deeply concerned with prisons, and D’Amico’s dissertation argued that even these should not be under the control of the state (in other words, it is a theoretical defense of private prisons) [26]. Emily Skarbek, another George Mason economics PhD, is Assistant Research Professor in the Political Theory Project [27]. She published an article on poor relief in 19th century Chicago that “advances the understanding of private institutional structures by demonstrating how rules can be designed in the private spheres to solve specific social dilemmas that plague state-led efforts to achieve similar goals,” which was probably not a difficult argument to make using a case study from before the welfare state was built [28]. Another article compares the effectiveness of Wal-mart and Home Depot to the Haitian state in delivering aid after the 2010 earthquake to argue that the free market did it better (it’s easier to prove that states don’t work well if you focus on the ones that don’t) [29]. Even more absurdly, the Skarbek family wrote an article arguing that sweatshops do not deserve their bad reputations because workers interviewed in El Salvador preferred working in sweatshops to their other options [30]. The article failed to mention the war in which the US government spent six billion dollars to prevent socialism in El Salvador, causing the devastation in which people had no better place to work than a sweatshop. But one can’t let reality get in the way of a good free market argument.

The Political Theory Project is just one node in a massive and well-funded network working to dismantle the redistributive apparatus of the state and justify the sale of essential public services to the wealthy, which would turn the rest of us into their employee-customers. In the words of the Charles Koch Foundation’s Director of University Investments: “it’s not just the money, we also bring a network with us. So, the Charles Koch Foundation does a lot of funding of universities and higher education institutions over all, but we’ve got a constellation of network organizations that are focused on applying what comes out of universities to change the world. And so, that’s sort of the core of the partnership. Money plus the network” [31].

Far-right economic thought is correctly dismissed by mainstream academics as a poorly disguised attempt to justify the economic power of the ultra-wealthy. Koch money thus plays an essential role in maintaining a toehold for radically elitist ideology in U.S. academia. (And given the racial division of wealth in this country, the implications of these ideas are blatantly racist, which explains why the George Mason network is overwhelmingly white). The leaders of the Koch network make no secret of their goal to create an army of libertarian scholars. As Ryan Stowers, the Vice President of the Charles Koch Foundation, said in 2014: “between 2004 when the seminar started and 2008, we saw solid growth in the network of scholars…Now, these programs also act as a talent pipeline. Professors refer the most passionate students from these programs and graduate programs, so they're training the next generation of the freedom movement. So this cycle constantly repeats itself, and you can see the multiplier effect it's had on our network since 2008.  Today we work with a network of nearly 5,000 scholars…Now, consider that on average a professor leaves a year with 6,000 students, and this is their career, over a network of 5,000 scholars.  That's 80 million students” [32].

Tomasi and co. are of course fully aware that their extremist ideology is anathema to most people at Brown, and they thus run the Political Theory Project as a kind of covert operation in which the coexistence of radial right-wing thought with other ideologies serves to legitimate the former. Its webpage emphasizes “a participatory ideal of inclusion” and currently features a picture of Noam Chomsky followed by a reference to Karl Marx. This is a smokescreen. The Project was established with funds from coal industrialist Curtin Winsor who was horrified with the Liberal education his daughters received at Brown. “Tomasi’s and Winsor’s benevolent revenge? Introducing free-market thinking to Brown freshmen” [33]. The goal of the project is to indoctrinate Brown undergraduates with libertarian ideology, something that Tomasi does with great skill, having won several teaching awards. We can be sure that if challenged he would extoll a “diversity of ideas,” or perhaps the “free speech” argument so often abused by white nationalists. But just as we do not allow white supremacy to be taught in universities, nor should we allow the teaching of an ideology which explicitly aims to dismantle American democracy because it is inconvenient for the ultra-wealthy [34]. The Political Theory Project should be shuttered, and Brown students left to study free from the political projects of billionaire extremists.   


[1]  Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Doubleday, 2016); Dave Levinthal, “Koch brothers' higher-ed investments advance political goals: Boost in school funding builds free-market 'talent’ pipeline,” The Center for Public Integrity (2015). www.publicintegrity.org/2015/10/30/18684/koch-brothers-higher-ed-investments-advance-political-goals.

[2] http://polluterwatch.org/charles-koch-university-funding-database.

[3] www.brown.edu/academics/political-theory-project/people.

[4]  $136,050 in 2008, $147,154 in 2009, $116,978 in 2010, $37,500 in 2011, $13,000 in 2012 and $377,674 in 2015. We lack data after 2015, but the center has acquired the funds to hire new people since then. http://polluterwatch.org/charles-koch-university-funding-database.

[5] Harvard’s Center for Constitutional Government is now also a Koch recipient. Note that, unlike many centers at less prestigious universities, neither of these centers were founded with Koch funds.

[6] Roy Childs Jr. et al., “Reminiscences & Prognostications: 10 Key Libertarian Activists Discuss the Significance of the Movement They Helped Build.” Reason (May, 1978). https://reason.com/archives/1978/05/01/reminiscences-prognostications/4. Cited in Brian Doherty, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (Public Affairs, 2007), 443.

[7] On the importance of abstract argument to this type of scholarship, see Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (Viking, 2017), 78-81.

[8] Heather Mac Donald, “Don’t Fund College Follies: Alumni donors should promote the teaching of Western civilization—not the destruction of it.” City Journal (Summer 2005). www.city-journal.org/html/don%E2%80%99t-fund-college-follies-12874.html. (Just to be clear: Mac Donald, fellow at the Koch-funded Manhattan Institute and author of such classics as The Immigration Solution and The War on Cops, quotes Tomasi approvingly. City Journal is a Manhattan Institute magazine).   

[9] MacLean, Democracy in Chains.

[10] www.brown.edu/research/projects/tomasi/cv.

[11] The Manhattan Institute was founded by Antony Fisher and William J. Casey (Ronald Reagan’s CIA director).  http://conservativetransparency.org/recipient/manhattan-institute-for-policy-research/. Jason Stahl, Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture since 1945 (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 112. www.whitehouse.senate.gov/news/release/senators-call-out-web-of-denial-blocking-action-on-climate-change.

[12] Colleen Flaherty, “$5 Million for 'Freedom Centers',” Inside Higher Ed. (April 25, 2016) www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/04/25/arizona-amid-cuts-higher-ed-may-help-centers-supported-charles-koch.

[13] Patricia Cohen, “Conservatives Try New Tack on Campuses” New York Times (Sep. 21, 2008) www.nytimes.com/2008/09/22/education/22conservative.html; Andrea Savdie, “Tomasi’s Political Project gets $1,000,000 gift,” The Brown Daily Herald (Oct. 25, 2007) http://www.browndailyherald.com/2007/10/25/tomasis-political-theory-project-gets-1-million-gift/.

[14] Named after Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and previously known as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation: Sarah Husk, “Free-market group gives to Political Theory,” The Brown Daily Herald (Oct. 27, 2008). www.browndailyherald.com/2008/10/27/freemarket-group-gives-to-political-theory/.

[15] https://theihs.org/fellowships-for-graduate-students/. It was previously the Claude Lamb fellowship: http://conservativetransparency.org/donor/claude-r-lambe-charitable-foundation/.

[16] “The material egalitarian ambitions of high liberalism are inappropriate within a social world where reasonable Romantics and many other citizens espousing “non-liberal” life views are now recognized as having equal political standing… Even in areas where justice sets out certain responsibilities to the needy, for example, political liberals should emphasize that this does not necessarily require that governmental agencies provide the services themselves.”
-John Tomasi, Liberalism Beyond Justice: Citizens, Society, and the Boundaries of Political Theory. (Princeton University Press, 2001), 127.

[17] John Tomasi, Free Market Justice (Princeton University Press, 2012), 272.

[18] “The World's Billionaires 2017,” Forbes. www.forbes.com/billionaires/list/. Oxfam, An economy for the 99% (Jan. 2017) www.oxfam.org/en/research/economy-99.

[19] MacLean, Democracy in Chains. http://polluterwatch.org/charles-koch-university-funding-database.

[20] https://asp.mercatus.org/news/2015/11/23/alumni-spotlight-daniel-d-amico.

[21] John Tomasi, “The Political Theory Project: thinking uncomfortable thoughts,” The Brown Daily Herald (Oct. 30, 2008). www.browndailyherald.com/2008/10/30/the-political-theory-project-thinking-uncomfortable-thoughts/.

[22] See, for example, the official agreements between Koch donors and Florida State University, Utah State University, Clemson University, University of Kentucky and Ball State University at www.unkochmycampus.org/agreements-and-proposals/.

[23] https://asp.mercatus.org/david-skarbek.

[24] Emily Skarbek and David Skarbek, “It’s time to get rid of FEMA,” The Atlantic (Sept. 11, 2012).  

[25] David Skarbek, The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System (Oxford University Press, 2014), 167.

[26] Daniel D'Amico, “Dissertation Summary: The Imprisoner's Dilemma: The Political Economy of Proportionate Punishment,” Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics. 1.1 (2008), 181-84.

[27] https://asp.mercatus.org/emily-skarbek-0.

[28] Emily Skarbek, “Aid, ethics, and the Samaritan’s dilemma: strategic courage in constitutional entrepreneurship,” Journal of Institutional Economics 12:2 (2016), 371.

[29] Emily Skarbek, “Coordinating the Reconstruction of Haiti: An economic analysis of making the recovery work,” Journal of International Peace Operations 6.2 (2010), 25-28.

[30] David Skarbek, Emily Skarbek, Brian Skarbek and Erin Skarbek, “Sweatshops, Opportunity Costs, and Non-Monetary Compensation: Evidence from El Salvador,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 71.3 (2012), 539-61. On the latter point, see Raymond Bonner “Time for a US Apology to El Salvador,” The Nation (April 15, 2016).

[31] Charlie Ruger, speech at the Association of Private Enterprise Education Annual Meeting 2016 “Successful Models of Programs in Private Enterprise.” www.unkochmycampus.org/successful-models-of/.

[32] Ryan Stowers, "Leverage Science and the Universities" (June 15, 2014).

[33] Mac Donald, “Don’t Fund College Follies.” Curtin Winsor is an industrialist in the coal industry who was Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Costa Rica.

[34] MacLean’s Democracy in Chains explains how Charles Koch and James McGill Buchanan initially hoped to implement their ideas through elections, but the defeat of favored candidates like Barry Goldwater gradually convinced them that they would never convince the electorate to support their goal of dismantling the welfare state, so they turned their attention to undermining the electoral process itself, a strategy that Buchanan practiced in Pinochet’s Chile, and that the Koch network is actively pursuing in the US.