Who are Young Voices UK, where did they come from and who is behind the group?
The new group is an offshoot of Koch funded campus activism in the US
In recent years, young right wing commentators like Tom Harwood and Darren Grimes have become fixtures on British television. Now, a new group, Young Voices UK, is aiming to promote a new crop of young talking heads who are starting to appear regularly on GB News and Talk Radio shows with the likes of Jeremy Kyle and Mike Graham. So where did they come from and who is behind the group?
But first, please allow me a slight historical digression.
Nancy MacLean’s 2017 book Democracy In Chains recounts the life of James Buchanan. Buchanan led a group of reactionary right wing academics who aimed to push back the government expansion of the New Deal and Great Society era in the US, with remarkable success, arguably contributing more than even Milton Friedman to the neoliberal economic consensus in the West.
Buchanan’s programme sought to protect the power of white, wealthy elites against progressive economic policies. When schools in Virginia tried to desegregate, Buchanan pushed for the total privatisation of public education in order to allow private schools to remain all white. Despite losing this battle, Buchanan gained powerful and wealthy friends, like Charles Koch, who funded his projects and has gone on to bankroll numerous right wing and reactionary organisations, including Spiked magazine in the UK.
In the 1980s, Koch’s funding began to spread out to so many organisations that his network was sometimes referred to as the ‘Kochtopus’, according to McLean.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, to discover Young Voices, the US parent organisation of Young Voices UK, grew out of right wing campus politics groups supported by the Charles Koch Institute.
Young Voices’ US website says “Young Voices places a diverse roster of classical liberal writers under 35 in top media outlets”. Classical Liberalism only really makes sense as a term when you understand that its adherents don’t want freedom for just everybody. That would be ridiculous. But of course they want freedom for the right sort of people. People like them, with money.
Casey Given founded Young Voices in the US after working for the Koch backed Students for Liberty. After that he worked as a Policy Analyst for Americans for Prosperity Foundation, another Koch funded vehicle.
Asked what motivates Given’s ‘belief in freedom’, he told one interviewer that “The next Bill Gates or Elon Musk could be running a bodega in Bangladesh right now. If only government got out of the way, humanity could flourish even further.” That’s right kids, if only the Bangladeshi government would stop taxing its market sellers, they too could one day grow up to be the son of a guy who owned a emerald mine in Apartheid South Africa.
Young Voices was listed by the Charles Koch Institute’s website as a partner organisation in 2019 and 2020, although the link now returns a 404 error. According to the Centre for Media and Democracy, “The Charles Koch Foundation and Charles Koch Institute distributed 2020 grants to America’s Future Foundation ($75,000), Students for Liberty ($18,000), Young Americans for Liberty ($340,000), and Young Voices ($560,000).”
According to Colombia Journalism Review, “Liz Wolfe, a former Koch fellow and current deputy managing editor at The Federalist, says the group spent a lot of time discussing the line between journalism and activism. During her fellowship, she worked as managing editor at Young Voices, a nonprofit public relations organization that trains students and young professionals to write op-eds and provide live commentary “in the classical liberal tradition.” The majority of Young Voices clients advocate for libertarian and free-market ideals in line with the Kochs.”
Young Voices’ website describes its ‘Contributor Program’ as “the cornerstone of our operations”. The benefits of being accepted to this program include “access to Young Voices’ staff of editors and media experts. “We’ll act as your nonprofit PR agency, editing and pitching your articles to top publications and scheduling interviews in broadcast media.” In the US, the organisation had a busy year in 2020, “placing 454 articles and 229 broadcast interview hits (e.g. radio, TV, podcast, etc.) in noted outlets including Fox News, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal.”
I asked a number of Young Voices UK contributors including UK lead Jason Reed about the philosophy and funding of the group. Contributor Connor Tomlinson told me that “As for the philosophy of Young Voices, I think it’s fair to summarise both the UK and US branches accept (in broad-tent fashion) the core tenets of the Lockean liberalism that came from Common Law, and informed the American Constitutional promise of inalienable and individual freedom to speak, associate, exchange, and pursue property ownership and prosperity”. He added that “As for funding: can’t comment, not involved in that bit. I’m not paid in any way by YV.”
Right wingers citing Locke, the ‘father of liberalism’, is nothing new, as Domenico Losurdo pointed out in his book Liberalism: A Counter History, right wingers in the Liberal tradition like John C. Calhoun were quoting Locke in the 19th century in support of the continuation of slavery, because “Locke was ‘the last major philosopher to seek a justification for absolute and perpetual slavery’.” Losurdo’s point is that the Liberal tradition has always contained people who were very much into the idea of freedom, but wanted to limit the sort of people who got to enjoy it.
Both in Locke’s time and in ours, elevating the right to dispose of property above other kinds of rights is a concern largely of elite groups with property to protect. “It goes without saying that people cannot be property. Our philosophical forebears had blindspots”, Tomlinson told me when I asked whether Locke’s 17th century Liberalism was applicable to our 21st century world.
Jason Reed told me that “Young Voices UK and US are not two separate organisations. Young Voices is an international non-profit, registered in the US, which is also active in the UK and Australia and has contributors based all over the world. British writers and commentators are part of the same program as American ones and there is often crossover between the two (UK contributors write for American outlets, and vice versa.)”
Reed says that the organisation uses the terms ‘Classical Liberal’ and ‘Libertarian’ interchangeably, and that “We believe in some basic values like free speech, free trade, immigration and the free movement of people, the rule of law and property rights. Beyond that, we don’t take organisational stances on issues. As a non-profit, we also don’t involve ourselves in electioneering or endorse any particular politician or political party, although our contributors are free to do so of their own accord.”
Reed acknowledged that while Koch was not the group’s main funder, “It is public information (which Young Voices is required to disclose as a non-profit organisation) that the Charles Koch Institute donates to Young Voices. It is one of a number of donors to Young Voices, and we receive support from donors both in the US and the UK. Donors have no influence whatsoever over any of Young Voices’ output, as we state on our code of ethics page.”
This contradicts what we learn about how Charles Koch operates from Nancy McLean’s book: “Koch was known for wanting to maintain control over enterprises in which he invested: large contributions to nonprofits were no different in his mind, from commercial investments. It was his money.”
It will be interesting to watch the stances that Young Voices UK members take on environmental issues in particular, as Koch is first and foremost an oil baron who has identified environmental movements as one of his primary enemies since the 1980s. My guess is that for the classical liberals, the right of billionaires to make money will trump the collective right to protect our natural world.
John Lubbock heads up the Right-Watch project at Left Foot Forward