“Philanthropy seems to me to have become simply the refuge of people who wish to annoy their fellow creatures,” complains Mrs. Cheveley in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play “An Ideal Husband.”
In our own day, perhaps no philanthropy has annoyed more conservatives than the Ford Foundation. It looms large in the right-wing imagination as a menacing underwriter of left-wing causes. What annoys conservatives above all, of course, is their belief that Henry Ford himself never would have allowed his fortune to be used for the purposes to which it is now being put—millions of dollars for the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and none for the presumably more Ford-friendly American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, and Institute for Justice.
But whatever its flaws, the Ford Foundation, which was started by Henry’s son, Edsel, is a private institution in a free society. It should not have to endure political shakedowns, even when they come from well-meaning conservatives—as is happening right now in Michigan, where Attorney General Mike Cox, a Republican, is demanding that the foundation increase its spending in the Detroit area. Conservatives may be tempted to think they stand to gain from any attack on the Ford Foundation, but in reality they have much to lose. Everybody does, in fact, no matter what his politics.
On a certain level, Mr. Cox’s motivation is understandable. With the domestic auto industry in a slump, Michigan’s nonprofit groups are scrambling for funds. They would certainly welcome a return to the days when the Ford Foundation bankrolled the Henry Ford Hospital, the Henry Ford Museum and other local worthies. Mr. Cox estimates that until the early 1970’s, the foundation gave an average of more than $50 million annually (adjusted for inflation) to Michigan recipients, and that this figure has plummeted in recent years to less than $3 million. “It’s really like the legacy of Henry and Edsel Ford has been kidnapped,” Mr. Cox told the Detroit News.
Yet if the Fords’ legacy truly has been hijacked, then Henry and Edsel are not its innocent victims but its primary culprits. Today’s Ford Foundation is the result of what happens when wealthy capitalists establish charitable foundations with poorly defined missions and then appoint trustees who do not share their principles. The Fords simply did nothing to ensure that their fortune wouldn’t fall into the hands of the left, or into the hands of people who have no special interest in Detroit.
If conservatives choose to ignore this failure, then they are buying into one of Henry Ford’s most notorious comments: “History is more or less bunk.” It is hard to imagine a less conservative viewpoint. Moreover, many conservatives like to describe themselves as strict constructionists who seek to abide by the literal meaning of legal documents such as the Constitution. Their approach to foundations and donor intent should be no different, even when a strict constructionist approach to vaguely worded mission statements yields a displeasing result.
At the very least, conservatives are certainly not entitled to try to correct the Fords’ blunder through political intimidation. Attorneys general have a role to play in monitoring the activities of foundations—they must guard against corruption and fraud—but they should not threaten investigations or lawsuits merely because they don’t care for the content of grants. This is a principle that ought to find adherents on all points of the political spectrum.
Conservatives certainly have much to gain from abiding by it. In Missouri three years ago, the state attorney general questioned the giving of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the largest philanthropy in Kansas City. The Kauffman Foundation is by no means a right-wing outfit—it helps subsidize National Public Radio—but its emphasis on education and entrepreneurship makes it far more amenable to conservatives than the Ford Foundation. After a year of negotiations, the Kauffman Foundation eventually altered some of its bylaws to guarantee a certain level of spending on local projects.
The result was not wholly unwelcome, but the method was worrisome. The heads of many foundations will say, at least in private, that they don’t fear the Internal Revenue Service, which oversees their tax status, nearly as much as they do an attorney general with a political agenda and a hunger for publicity.
Besides, conservatives in Michigan may come to regret it if the Ford Foundation suddenly looks homeward. Some of its recent spending in the state has included support for the University of Michigan’s (successful) legal defense of racial preferences in its admissions policies. This year, the foundation might lavish funds on groups that are working to defeat the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a ballot measure that would prohibit state and local government from granting preferential treatment based on race.
If that happened, Mr. Cox would have succeeded merely in helping the Ford Foundation annoy the right even more.
Contributing editor John J. Miller is a writer for National Review and author of The Philanthropy Roundtable publication Strategic Investment in Ideas: How Two Foundations Reshaped America. This article originally appeared in the New York Times.