Businesses have no obligation to give away money, writes editor, author, and think-tank scholar Irving Kristol, and if they choose to, they should do so in ways that serve the interests of their enterprise. This should include support for people and organizations devoted to the preservation of a strong private sector. The following is excerpted from an article published in the Wall Street Journal on March 21, 1977. Copyright Dow Jones & Co. All rights reserved.
The majority of the large foundations in this country, like most of our major universities, exude a climate of opinion wherein an antibusiness bent becomes a perfectly natural inclination. . . . If one reads a publication like the Foundation News, one gets a pretty unambiguous impression as to the attitudes that prevail. Thus, last year the board of the Council of Foundations passed a resolution urging all foundations “to recognize the urgent obligation to help bring about constructive social change.” One would have to have spent these past decades on another planet to believe that “constructive social change” might involve limiting governmental powers rather than expanding them. In our universities, in our foundations, and in our media too, “constructive social change” is always something that government does for and to people, never something that people do for and to themselves—and most definitely nothing that American business does for or to anyone.
Since foundations and universities are the idea-germinating and idea-legitimizing institutions of our society, this bias—and that word may here be used descriptively rather than polemically—is a serious problem for those of us who are concerned for the preservation of a liberal society under limited government. After all, these are the ideas that our children encounter in their textbooks, in their teachers, and on their television screens. It would seem both right and proper to worry about them.
Yet any such expressions of concern are quickly countered by accusations that, should such concern become widespread, “academic freedom” would be endangered. This is a red herring. True, it would be dangerous if angry citizens thought they had the right to prescribe foundation policies, or the content of a university curriculum, or the composition of the faculty. There is even danger in businessmen trying to endow chairs of “free enterprise” on a university campus.
In such cases the liberal ideal of a university, where freedom of thought is respected and where no system of thought—no ideology, to put it bluntly—is given a privileged or official status is violated. Economists in a university, after all, are supposed to teach economics, not free enterprise or socialism. The fact that many professors of economics violate their obligation to teach economics, and teach ideology instead, is indeed a problem—but not one that can be solved by aggravating the condition to a degree where everyone legitimately teaches his own ideology.
On the other hand, it does not follow that businessmen or corporations have any obligation to give money to institutions whose views or attitudes they disapprove of. It is absurd to insist otherwise—yet this absurdity is consistently set forth by college presidents, and in the name of “academic freedom,” no less. When David Packard and William Simon made the perfectly reasonable suggestion that corporations look before they give, and discriminate among friend, neutral and foe in their philanthropy, they were denounced in the most vehement terms by universities which seemed to think they had some kind of right to that money.
They have no such right. If they want money from any particular segment of the population, it is their job to earn the good opinion of that segment. If they are indifferent to that good opinion, they will just have to learn to be indifferent to the money too. That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be, in a free society where philanthropy is just as free as speech.
Many businessmen—most, I imagine—will find this line of thought congenial enough, but will still end up uneasy and confused. Where do we go from here, they will ask? For the sad truth is that the business community has never thought seriously about its philanthropy, and doesn’t know how.
Some corporate executives seem to think that their corporate philanthropy is a form of benevolent charity. It is not. An act of charity refines and elevates the soul of the giver—but corporations have no souls to be saved or damned. Charity involves dispensing your own money, not your stockholders’. When you give away your own money, you can be as foolish, as arbitrary, as whimsical as you like. But when you give away your stockholders’ money, your philanthropy must serve the longer-term interests of the corporation. Corporate philanthropy should not be, cannot be, disinterested.
One such corporate interest, traditionally recognized, is usually defined as “public relations,” but can more properly be described as meeting one’s communal responsibilities. This involves donations to local hospitals, welfare funds, and other benevolent organizations active in the community where the corporation resides. In a sense, this philanthropy is mandated by community opinion, and there are few interesting or controversial decisions about it for the executives to make.
In addition to such mandated philanthropic expenditures. However, there are the controllable expenditures. These latter reflect a movement beyond communal responsibility to “social responsibility.” Different corporations may well have different conceptions of such “social responsibility,” and there is nothing wrong with that. But most corporations would presumably agree that any such conception ought to include as one of its goals the survival of the corporation itself as a relatively autonomous institution in the private sector. And this, inevitably, involves efforts to shape or reshape the climate of public opinion—a climate that is created by our scholars, our teachers, our intellectuals, our publicists: in short, by the New Class.
How are corporations to proceed in this direction? Well, one preliminary step, already mentioned, would be to decide not to give money to support those activities of the New Class which are inimical to corporate survival.
A Positive Step
A more positive step, of course, would be for corporations to give support to those elements of the New Class—and they exist, if not in large numbers—which do believe in the preservation of a strong private sector. For the New Class, fortunately, is not an utterly homogeneous entity. It contains men and women who are not necessarily “pro-business,” and who may not be much interested in business at all, but who are interested in individual liberty and limited government who are worried about the collectivist tendencies in the society. The large foundations regard their views as being somewhat short of “respectable” and they tend to be ignored by the business community, which is often unaware of their existence.
“How can we identify such people, and discriminate intelligently among them?” corporate executives always inquire plaintively. Well, if you decide to go exploring for oil, you find a competent geologist. Similarly, if you wish to make productive investments in the intellectual and educational worlds, you find competent intellectuals and scholars—“dissident” members as it were, of the New Class—to offer guidance. Yet few corporations seek any such advice on their philanthropy. How many large corporations make use of academic advisory committees for this purpose? Almost none, so far as I can determine.
This is a melancholy situation, for in any naked contest with the New Class, business is a certain loser. Businessmen who cannot even persuade their own children that business is a morally legitimate activity are not going to succeed, on their own, in persuading the world of it. You can only beat an idea with another idea, and the war of ideas and ideologies will be won or lost within the New Class, not against it. Business certainly has a stake in this war—but for the most part seems blithely unaware of it.