(Editor’s note: This feature is adapted from an article that appeared on June 18, 2014, at Forbes.com, where George Leef, the Pope Center’s director of research, is a regular columnist.)
On June 6, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) announced the receipt of the fifth largest donation in its history—$25 million from Charles and David Koch.
Had the money come from any other source, we would see smiley faces all around. But because the Koch brothers have been so relentlessly demonized by defenders of the mega-state (Harry Reid denounces them as “un-American” on the Senate floor; others use language much worse than that), the gift has led to spasms of outrage.
As we read in the Inside Higher Education story about the Koch gift, Koch haters let fly at UNCF. One person fumed that UNCF had “literally sold its soul to the Devil.” (How about a grant to UNCF or some other group to combat the misuse of the word “literally”?) Another declared that by accepting the funds, UNCF “tells children that money comes first and integrity is unnecessary.”
University of Pennsylvania professor Marybeth Gasman argued that UNCF should reject the money because it is tainted with the Koch brothers’ political advocacy, which she says works “to undermine the interests of African Americans and the institutions that support them.” The Kochs want to shrink the federal government, but Gasman objects, saying that federal programs “built the black middle class.”
The notion that government programs have been essential for the upward mobility of African Americans (and other groups) is received wisdom among many academicians like Professor Gasman, but it is mistaken. They look only at the winners from government policies and declare them successful, never seeing the greater number of losers. (This is yet another illustration of Bastiat’s famous point about seen and unseen consequences of government interventions.)
As an antidote for that view, or at least a first treatment, I recommend Jason Riley’s new book Please Stop Helping Us – How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed, just published by Encounter. Riley argues that the net effect of all those “helpful” policies has been to retard economic progress for black Americans. Or we could put Riley’s case this way: If we had stayed with the minimal government philosophy of Charles and David Koch over the last 80 years or so, today there would be far fewer blacks living in poverty.
People like Professor Gasman should reexamine their assumption that expansive government is necessary for minority groups to advance. There is a mountain of evidence to the contrary.
For the sake of argument, however, let’s go with the idea that the Koch brothers are malevolent and desire to do grievous harm to African Americans. Even so, does it make any sense to argue that UNCF should refuse the $25 million?
I can’t see how it does. Money is fungible. Any dollar has exactly the same worth as any other dollar. Money is also sterile—it does not magically transmit whatever real or imaginary evil the person who earned it may have done to the next person who takes the dollar in trade or as a gift. Quite a few people who have done horrible things during their lives make bequests to their churches. Those churches are not contaminated with the crimes of the givers.
If UNCF keeps the Koch funds, it will be able to significantly increase the number of scholarships it can give. That’s a good thing—an outcome desired by both parties.
Refusing the donation would not hurt the Koch brothers in their allegedly nefarious, anti-government political agenda. In fact, it would leave them with more money with which to pursue that agenda, while leaving UNCF with less money for its good works. That would be a bad trade-off.
The opposition to the Koch gift is cut from the same bolt of cloth as the opposition to universities owning stocks in “bad” companies or industries—the divestment movement. Insisting that schools divest their shares of fossil fuel stocks is just a pointless symbolic gesture. By the same token, those who now insist that UNCF divest itself of tainted Koch funds are merely indulging in self-righteous preening. Refusing the gift no more hurts the Kochs than selling Exxon/Mobil shares hurts that company.
Interviewed here by Rick Hess of AEI, Michael Lomax, president of UNCF, commented on the red-hot opposition to the Koch gift, saying “Washington’s partisanship has really poisoned the thinking of some people all across the country. For them, there’s this kind of purity thing that, unless we agree on everything, there is no common ground.”
That’s a very good point. UNCF lobbies for some government policies that the Koch brothers would prefer to see ended, but that did not keep them from supporting its scholarship programs. Similarly, Mr. Lomax would disagree with the Kochs on quite a few policy questions, but understands that’s no reason not to cooperate with them on something where they do agree.
Charles and David Koch favor non-governmental solutions to problems and that view dovetails with the mission of UNCF, to assist needy and capable African American students through voluntary means.
The Kochs also oppose policies that create entitlements because entitlements undermine and distort incentives. The UNCF scholarship programs again dovetail with their philosophy. Students who desire a UNCF scholarship for college have to strive to merit one and work to maintain it if awarded. The incentives are well-aligned with the desired outcome.
I cannot say for certain, but I suspect that Mr. Lomax would agree with the Koch brothers that the federal policy of easy college funding for almost everyone has had bad consequences for many young Americans. The entitlement to government money for college has created bad incentives for students and institutions alike.
Evidently, Mr. Lomax is made of sterner stuff than many higher education leaders (in particular, those who have lately shamed themselves by caving in to protests over speakers) and will keep the Koch money and put it to good use. If he doesn’t, he knows that he might never see another dime from Charles and David Koch; that is also part of a good, long-term, voluntary relationship.