Libertarianism, Academic Philosophy

The Ethics of Funding Disclosure and the Argumentum Ad Kochum

A question for my colleagues in ethics and related areas: what are the obligations to disclose funding sources and possible conflicts of interest in an academic setting?

Some are obvious: if I write a study on smoking funded by a tobacco company or on climate change funded by ExxonMobil, the obligation is clear. The principle here is that the results of the study could have a direct effect on the sponsor’s financial situation, which at least gives a reason to be suspicious of the study (though not to reject it out of hand). That suspicion would seem to require disclosure.

But what about those of us who have taken money from and worked with Koch-funded organizations? Here are several scenarios and I wonder what the ethical obligation is in each to disclose that we are have connections to Koch funding:

  1. A Koch-funded organization gives me money to conduct a specific study on an area of the economy in which Koch Industries is a participant (e.g., the energy sector).
  2. A Koch-funded organization gives me money to conduct a study on an area of the economy in which Koch Industries is not a participant (e.g., a study on Uber).
  3. I am the PI for a Koch-funded grant for student programs at my institution and I write a scholarly or popular article defending the Kochs’ investments in higher education.
  4. I am the PI for a Koch-funded grant for student programs at my institution and I write a popular article criticizing a book critical of the Kochs for getting aspects of the Kochs’ beliefs or activities wrong.
  5. I have a history of working with and being funded by Koch-funded organizations and I write an article or blog post defending public choice theory, economics in general, or libertarian ideas in general, with no reference to the Kochs, from attacks by a book that criticizes any or all of those as well as the Kochs.

It seems to me that I have an obligation to disclose my Koch relationships in cases 1, 3, and 4 for sure. I am not persuaded I need to do so in cases 2 and 5.

If there’s no clear relationship between the work and the bottom line of the Kochs, why is there a need for disclosure?

Case 5 is of interest at the moment because of the controversy over Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. Her defenders have invoked the “argumentum ad kochum” in their responses claiming that the Koch connections of the critics undermine the legitimacy of their criticisms. They also claim that we are being deceptive in not revealing those connections.

Again, I can be persuaded I’m wrong here, but it’s simply not clear to me why a defense of public choice theory, or an attempt to show that aspects of MacLean’s book that have nothing to do with the Kochs and have everything to do with her misreading of the textual and historical evidence about the work of various scholars, especially James Buchanan, require that I state my Koch connections. (I have no problem doing so, but the question is whether it’s an ethical obligation.)

It strikes me that one reason MacLean’s defenders think we have an obligation to disclose and that those relationships undermine our arguments is that they believe that any argument for freer markets or critical of government intervention is ipso facto “pro-business” and therefore enhances the bottom line of Koch Industries. So, by definition, defending things like public choice theory or Austrian economics are suspect because everyone knows that the biggest beneficiaries of a free economy are the owners of capital. Therefore, we are simply shills for the Kochs and should disclose that.

If I’m right, this only adds to my view that the MacLean book is one long exercise in question begging. She already knew libertarianism is wrong. She already knew free markets benefit “oligarchs” exclusively. She already knew that people who like markets must be racists. I could go on. Once you take those as your operating assumptions, it’s easy to find, often creatively, evidence their favor. Your priors will adequately be supported by a combination of confirmation bias and the conviction that you are fighting off the forces of evil. But it all begs the questions as she assumes her conclusions.

In any case, I’m genuinely curious how others see this set of issues. I’m totally open to persuasion about the obligation to disclose on cases 2 and 5. I only ask that the comments stay civil. It does no one any good to give fuel to the cause of MacLean and her defenders.

Published on:
Author: Steve Horwitz
  • Sean II

    Here’s a case for disclosing even with 2) and 5):

    A) The Kochs are known to spend huge sums of money on projects that can never repay them. So it’s obvious their financial interest is not their only interest. Indeed, it’s obvious they are willing to subordinate their financial interest to their political goals. Limiting disclosures to financial gain seeking only misses the whole point of people like Soros and the Kochs. These guys aren’t trying to turn cultural influence into money. They’re trying to turn money into cultural influence.

    B) Money isn’t special. The arguments that work for disclosing financial conflicts of interest, also work for disclosing other conflicts. Think of two other things besides cash that can turn humans into liars: sex and family. We rightly expect people to tell us when the book they’re reviewing was was written by a girlfriend or nephew. Why should ideology be exempted? We know it’s powerful enough to make people crazy and dishonest. And we definitely know the Koch’s have one. Only a crazy dishonest ideologue would deny that.

    C) It’s not the Koch’s financial interest which creates the conflict. It’s yours. The reason why they’re paying you is less important than the fact you’re getting paid. As long as you might face a choice between “say X => stay funded, or say Y => get lost”, the thing we’re worried about with conflict of interest is in play. You have a reason to lie, distort, spin, frame, finesse, etc, and you are in a position to do it.

    Clearly this ends up as an argument for: just disclose everything.

    And why not? Seems like a fine solution.

    • AP²

      I fully agree. And I also have an environmental argument for full disclosure: even if you are very conscientious about disclosing when it Really Matters, others will certainly not be. By promoting a culture of full disclosure, you make it harder for people to hide their affiliations, since an omission will be noticed and questioned, and the alternative is outright lying, rather than mere editorial decision.

    • Rob Gressis

      Along the same lines, lots of academics are friends with or enemies of each other. This is especially the case when it comes to a sub-specialization (e.g., the epistemology of disagreement). Reasoning in your fashion leads me to think that if you’re friends with or enemies of someone, and you’re reviewing his book, you should disclose that too.

      It would be an interesting response to give to Nancy MacLean types. This wouldn’t, of course, bother them — almost no one is ever bothered by any reasoning that he can dismiss as a “gotcha” — but it would be neat to see why she and her ilk think that it’s morally obligatory for me to disclose that I was a Koch Fellow in 1997 when I write on Kant’s philosophy of religion, but she’s not required to disclose that she’s reviewing a book of a good friend of hers. She’ll come up with something, and it will be convincing to her and hers, but I’d still love to see it, for anthropological reasons.

      • Sean II

        It’s true. The more research-oriented an academic is, the more sure you can be they’re carrying around some grudges.

        “Here comes that prick Edwards.”

        “Oh, I didn’t know you two had history. What happened?”

        “At a conference he said comp bio is really only good for tool development, and that wet labs still generate most of our major discoveries.”

        “When was that?”

        “22 years ago.”

        “Yeah, it must take all you have to keep from cutting his throat.”

    • “Here’s a case for disclosing even with 2) and 5):” Very good points (especially C and D), and I agree with your conclusion. A follow-on question though: How exactly do you think such disclosure should be done, particularly in case 5? A person with a significant history in academia may have accepted past or present funding from many different sources, any one of which someone else might think is relevant when reading that person’s public writings on certain general topics.

      My own situation is not exactly analogous, but my personal rule is that if I were writing something related to information technology I’d specifically mention who employs me, but in other contexts I’d just point to my personal website, which contains a fairly complete list of companies, organizations, and nonprofits I’ve been involved with and thus potentially influenced by.

    • Most research organizations of all kinds are funded by dozens, if not hundreds, of supporters. Does everything written by anyone associated with that programs have to append a list of every donor to that organization past and present?

      Does everyone who ever got a grant from anyone at any time in their past have to append a list of every grant they’ve ever received no matter when or what that grant was for?

      Let’s take that notion to extremes. Any seminar ever attended. Any scholarship ever received. Every logo bearing goods, from pens to coffee cups on up. Every meal that someone who works at another company or organization picked up the tab for and every party anyone has been invited to. Where do you draw the line and why do you pick that point?

      • Sean II

        “Let’s take that notion to extremes.”

        Why? Why the hell would we do that? Why would we intentionally extend an idea to the point of stupidity? How many ideas DON’T become stupid when carried to an exceptionless extreme?

        Lots of other things in life depend on a reasonable proportion standard. Why not this? Free meal – no biggie, no need to report. A $5,000 honorarium – yeah, you probably ought to disclose that somewhere.

        I swear, this search for absolute rules is the brain disease that kills classical liberalism. “How can we ban private ownership of plutonium when we don’t ban private ownership of silver? They are both toxic metals, after all.”

        The answer is: think quantitatively, for christ’s sake. A lot of things start making sense when you do that.

        • My point was that some of the responders in this section have *already* crossed over the line of taking it to extremes. Sorry if you couldn’t see that.

          There are many lines that can’t be drawn precisely. That’s why we have legal “standards” of the “reasonable” man and “wanton” endangerment.

        • ViperRum

          Actually, that is what goes on in the CA regulatory world. I cannot accept a cup of coffee from certain people, nor could I buy them one. Heck even taking a taxi ride together is deemed inappropriate. And this is EXACTLY where you are heading I’m afraid.

      • Aajaxx

        If you have the time to accept emoluments, you have time to make a note of it in an appendix to a bio.

        • Oh – but what they’re asking for is so much more than that. They are saying that if you, or any place you have ever worked, or even just been associated with has ever received any money, or anything of any value whatsoever, from anyone or any company, that has to be listed and pointed out in everything you ever write or say from there on out, no matter how long it’s been, how much it was, or even whether or not it has anything to do with what you’re writing or speaking about. Some even insist that if anyone in your immediate family, friends, or your business or professional colleagues it has to also be listed in the same excruciating detail.

          • Aajaxx

            They can ask for anything they want, but that doesn’t mean they should get it, or that you can avoid standards merely by writing about an ideology rather than a particular business.

          • 35+ years ago, when I was a college student, I did some work for a local inventor on a prototype for an energy recovery system to use the energy of reducing natural gas pressure for local distribution by running it through a turbine hooked up to a generator instead of just valving it down.

            I have no idea if it successfully went commercial or, if it did, who might be producing it or using it or anything else.

            I also worked on a new piston design with a local tinkerer that, as far as I know was never going to work out.

            I also got a grant from ASHREA, not to do anything in particular, but basically just a scholarship structured as a grant.

            I worked in the mainframe unit and also doing grading in math. I taught several labs in both electrical and mechanical engineering and an actual class is thermodynamics.

            My first love was actually nuclear physics. When I was in grade school, I got all kinds of free information and a few doodads from the AEC (the forerunner of today’s NRC).

            If I write a post or comment on net neutrality, gun control, or health care, what of that needs to be mentioned? What of it belongs with this thread?

          • Aajaxx

            1. Did/could any of it obligate you in the future?
            2. Can/could you, or a reader, foresee any future benefit from “siding” with any past benefactors?
            3. Are you presenting yourself as a disinterested scholar on these topics?

            If 3 and either 1 or 2 are the case, disclosure seems appropriate to me.

          • None of those things I listed have anything to do with my life now. I have no idea who or if those people (the first one is probably long dead and I don’t even remember the name of the second) are still around or if what I was working on with them has amounted to anything. I’ve done nothing with HVAC since graduation. University of Louisville and Speed Scientific School are still around, but other than getting my transcripts I’ve had no contact with them in over 30 years. The AEC doesn’t even exist any more and all I did in nuclear physics was to pick those classes where I could as electives through quantum mechanics.

            I’ve been active on and off with the Libertarian Party since 1980 when I was in college. David Koch was our VP candidate that year. That’s the sum total of anything and everything I’ve had to do with the Kochs in any way whatsoever.

            The only holdover from all of those years is the knowledge and understanding I gained. Yet, if any of it comes up in a conversation, I still get accused of being a “shill” for the Kochs or the rich in general or some other mysterious evil movement.

          • Aajaxx

            I did not expect any of your contact amounted to a conflict or undue bias.

            Being active with the LP is probably worth disclosing, if you write on the topics you mentioned, and particularly if you have or expect to run for office.

          • Should all authors or commentators give their personal political identification at all times, regardless of what party they are active in or a member of or even regularly vote for?

          • Aajaxx

            Yes, if it could have any bearing on what they are writing about. Just disclosing being a registered Republican/Democrat and voting one or the other doesn’t strike me as informative, so skip that.

  • Richard Harrington

    It’s been a VERY long time since I took any Latin classes (just after the Maunder Minimum), but I think that should be masculine, plural, accusative case – so “Argumentum ad Kochas” (at least that’s what some Googling seems to indicate).

    Oh, and I deny any and all of your assertions because you’re obviously a Koch shill.

  • What frustrates me is the way conflicts of interest only seem to incite people when the conflict is “truth vs financial gain.” For some reason, people seem to think that conflicts of interest magically disappear if the researcher gets paid by the government or (my favorite) if the doctor that works for the national health service pressures her patient into complying with the state’s recommended therapeutic regimen. In that case, it’s not “conflict of interest,” it magically becomes “science versus idiots.”

    This is unreasonable IMHO.

    • Sean II

      When doctors do grand rounds they always have a little disclosure bit at the start, with the most common thing being “I have nothing to disclose, no financial interest in any of the therapies discussed here…”

      It’s jarring because: oh yes you do. Actually you have an interest in ALL of them, or you wouldn’t be the one talking. But for some reason institutional salaries don’t count as a financial interest. Which seems weird, because some of these guys drive cars you’ve only ever seen one of.

      But no, the stupid custom that’s evolved says you just have to disclose ownership stakes or direct payments from phrama or surgical device companies. As if a dollar acquired from manufacturing Ultram is obviously a bit of filthy lucre, while a dollar acquired from prescribing it is a-okay, and a dollar acquired from teaching people to prescribe it is absolutely pristine.

      Doesn’t make a ton of sense.

    • Peter from Oz

      Good point about the government. Lefties always think that government funded speech is neutral.
      I have always wondered, for example, why governments haven’t given billions to scientists who do not agree that climate change is man-made. Of course they wouldn’t because such a finding would reduce the role that governments have to play in regulating us all to save the planet.

  • stevenjohnson2

    1.A People’s Republic of China institute like Chinese Academy of Social Science gives me money to conduct a specific study on an area of the economy in which the PRC is a participant (e.g., the energy sector).
    2.A PRC-funded institute gives me money to conduct a study on an area of the economy in which the PRC is not a participant (e.g., a study on Uber).
    3.I am the PI for a PRC grant for student programs at my institution and I write a scholarly or popular article defending the PRC’s investments in higher education.
    4.I am the PI for a PRC-funded grant for student programs at my institution and I write a popular article criticizing a book critical of the PRC for getting aspects of the PRCs’ ideology or activities wrong.
    5.I have a history of working with and being funded by PRC-funded organizations and I write an article or blog post defending state owned enterprises and capital controls, the nationally indenpendent state in general, or socialist ideas in general, with no reference to the PRC, from attacks by a book that criticizes any or all of those as well as the PRC.

    Well, I guess I can see why you’d have no problem not revealing for #2 and #5.

    But this seems to be a pseudo-problem. Acknowledgements should thank everybody funding your work, as a matter of common courtesy.

  • David Sobel

    When the question is put in terms of obligation, as you do, I am less sure. But offhand it seems clear to me it is at least typically better to disclose all sources of funding.

  • dL

    The problem for the MacLean clique is that demanding an “Argumentum Ad Kochum” standard makes an explicit case for the validity of public choice economics itself. Be careful what you wish for, you just might prove it.

  • Steve Horwitz

    I am in full agreement about disclosing who funds my *research*. But suppose this: I teach at summer seminars that IHS (Koch funded) puts on for college students. During the academic year, I write an article or column in which I argue for the intellectual importance and explanatory power of public choice theory. Why in heaven’s name would I have to disclose the payment from IHS for teaching at a summer seminar? It didn’t “fund my research.” If I write a policy brief for Mercatus (Koch funded) then obviously I do. Or if I get a summer research grant from a Koch-funded organization. But why should I have to disclose any Koch funding I’ve ever had on projects that have nothing to do with the Kochs or that were not specifically funded by Koch organizations?

    • Sean II

      That’s silly.

      Indirect payment is a standard trick in influence peddling.

      X doesn’t pay Y to say Z, because that would be obvious enough to invite suspicion.

      Instead, X pays Y to do A, then in some separate event, Y says Z. Which happens to be a thing X really likes hearing and having said.

      Hilary’s speaking fees are a classic example. Those guys didn’t “specifically fund” her legislation, nor even necessarily her campaigns.
      They just paid her to chat for a couple hours. Evidently they thought the impact of those payments would linger, long enough indeed to bet huge sums on it.

      What’s the theory here: that after cashing a check, you just forget any loyalty you might feel for the funder who wrote it? Each little piece of work is an island? Ridiculous.

      Face it: the solution Frank Hecker describes above is excellent, and easy to do. Everyone puts up a disclosure resource page with their clients and affiliations, and anyone who wishes can scrutinize for possible conflict.

      A perfectly good idea.

  • Theresa Klein

    You should have learned by now that the Koch’s evilness is not due to their self-interest in their business, but due to their interest in promoting the wrong ideas.
    It’s not that you might do research supporting an industry the Koch’s make money from. You might do research that supports libertarian theory. That’s where the real conflict lies.

    • Octavian

      I’m pretty sure most leftists think libertarianism is (at least in part, if not primarily) motivated by serving the interests of the rich. So the ‘evilness’ is indeed from the Koch’s self-interest, or perhaps ‘class-interest’ would be a better term. Hence why they analogize the situation to the tobacco industry cynically funding research that would cast doubt on research that would hurt their interests. It’s not just a matter of being on the wrong side. While I’m sure most don’t doubt many libertarians genuinely believe what the exposit, they would say they’ve just been duped into useful idiots by self-interested elites.

      • David Koch was our VP candidate in 1980. Should that, and every other penny they have donated in any way to the Libertarian Party, makes every Libertarian who ever does, has or will, write anything about anything should disclose that they benefited from the Kochs? Does the same hold true for Republicans and Democrats?

        But then ideological, and even logical, consistency has always been a matter of the position a person is arguing from. Anyone’s opponents are always wrong and therefore must be originating from some evil source(s).

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  • Octavian

    Part of the problem with the ‘attack the funding source’ is that, no matter who funds you, it is, to a leftist, a reason to dismiss your work. If you receive funding from *any* private institution, you are (either directly or indirectly) funded primarily by wealthy capital-owners (this is true of left-leaning private institutions as well of course); poor people don’t donate much money to fund research, for obvious reasons. So, by definition, a scholar defending free markets is serving the interests of ‘the rich’ who are also responsible for funding his/her research.

    So the only appropriate source of funding is the government, right? But then, any leftist critic may point out that, if the government were as limited as the hypothetical libertarian researcher wanted it to be, their research arguing for limited government would’ve been impossible. Ergo, he/she is a hypocrite who’s research itself demonstrates the usefulness of the very state it purports to attack.

    There is (from the point of view of the leftist critic) no source of funding for libertarian-leaning research that isn’t immediately suspect.