Liberty, Libertarianism, and Solar Power

Self-described libertarians David and Charles Koch consistently present themselves as defenders of freedom and choice. Thus Americans For Prosperity, the Kochs’ political arm, states on its website that “free markets make free and prosperous people” and that its objective is “getting government to clear the way for every American, not just special interests.”  The linkage between liberty and libertarianism is conveyed as a kind of unwritten law.

There are times, however, when Koch rhetoric seems to collide with Koch interests. A good example is the Koch brothers’ current resistance to the solar energy industry. With a major stake in oil and gas, the Kochs see solar as a potential competitor in the energy market. Watching as solar has become more cost-competitive and increasingly popular with users in recent years, they and their allies in the utility industry have sought to impede the new industry in a number of states. The controversy has led to a stand-off between pro- and anti- solar forces.

The controversy is especially heated in sunbelt states where solar power would seem to be an obvious alternative. The issue takes different forms in different states. In Arizona, for example, where consumers with solar panels on their rooftops seek to sell back their energy on the grid, the issue is whether  participants should pay for this convenience with hefty fees. In Florida, where solar is less developed, it is whether the utilities should be able to maintain a monopoly over the types of energy available. In all cases the issue boils down to openness to competition and the availability of choices for individuals and small businesses.

The Koch brothers’ anti-solar stance raises obvious questions about the consistency of their libertarian principles. How could the defenders of “laissez-faire” become major foes of competition? The preferred line of argument taken by the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is to emphasize the federal subsidies received by the renewable energy industries, a fact that apparently makes them less than legitimate entrepreneurs and unworthy of support. But an obvious rebuttal is that oil and gas companies hardly fare better on that score. While the renewable technologies have received government aid of late for reasons of national interest, the oil and gas industries have been subsidy hogs for generations, receiving a bonanza that makes solar and wind subsidies seem like a pittance. Even now, according to Politifact, oil and gas are granted almost three times more federal aid than solar. Solar’s subsidies are somewhere around five percent of the total federal energy allotment.

The incoherence of the AFP position has eroded Koch support in many quarters. Ideological rhetoric tends to lose its sway when things that immediately affect people’s lives are at stake? The traditional face-off between liberals and conservatives has been largely defused on solar energy matters as a result. Instead, alliances have been forming between liberal green groups like the Sierra Club and Green Peace and conservative groups like Conservatives for Energy Freedom, Tea Party Network, and TUSK (Tell Utilities Solar Won’t be Killed). In Florida, a conservative organization called Floridians for Solar Choice heads a broad coalition that is working to put a proposal on the 2016 ballot to allow energy choice in Florida. The organization makes no secret of its desire to transcend party labels and appeal to the broad populace.

By demonstrating a tin ear on a popular issue, the Koch brothers risk far more than the loss of a few conservative allies. Their ideology itself is on the line. If libertarianism can be used as a tool for billionaires who value freedom and free markets only when it benefits their bottom line, how credible is it as a political creed?

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