For the past 16 years I have had the privilege, through my employment by Liberty Fund, Inc., in Indianapolis, of serving the vision of a remarkable Indiana philanthropist named Pierre F. Goodrich. Mr. Goodrich created his foundation back in 1960 “to pursue the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.” His goal was to promote a conversation about liberty with opinion leaders, both current and prospective, and through them to leverage the foundation’s resources to enhance the cause of liberty in the world at large. Most of Liberty Fund’s work is done with college faculty, members of the learned professions, and business leaders, though it runs some colloquia for judges, college students, and high school teachers.
I believe this is important work, in some respects the most important work of philanthropy today. For only if the institutions of the free society flourish and expand can we hope that other philanthropic and private endeavors to improve the human condition, both for-profit ones and not-for-profit ones, will have the ability and resources needed to pursue their diverse courses of action
As a program officer at Liberty Fund, I read or reread many of the great classics of world civilization on the nature and destiny of man. These sources teach that the best environment for human flourishing is the Environment of Liberty. This environment is characterized by secure, well-defined, and easily transferable property rights, by low taxes levied through equal rates of taxation, by the rule of law, by a nondiscriminatory political regime, and by a wide array of personal liberties, including, among others, freedom of thought, religion, and personal association, and freedom to work, to travel, and to marry whom one wishes. It is also characterized by a limited and balanced republican government. The Environment of Liberty has appeared relatively rarely in history and has been hard won over the ages.
While liberty needs constant defense against a myriad of illiberal forces arrayed against it, here in America we have been fortunate to live in one of the freer, if not the freest, environments of all time. Our rights and the political order that sustains them stand at the center of the American constitutional establishment of 1787. This historical achievement needs active support from philanthropists today.
David Hume, the great eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and one of that century’s outstanding friends of liberty, had an important insight in this regard: It is “on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.” For our own day, Hume’s message means that if we are to have liberty, we must have the ideal of liberty itself supported by public opinion.
Social scientists have produced rafts of literature discussing how opinions are changed, but I follow the view of Nobel-prize economist F. A. Hayek: Opinion changes, at least in relatively free societies, when the secondhand dealers in ideas (students, journalists, teachers, ministers, policy analysts, judges, public intellectuals) are first persuaded by the work of serious scholars and then begin in their own daily work to disseminate their new conclusions to the public. These secondhand retailers of ideas, like all merchants, provide the invaluable service of bringing producers and consumers together in mutually advantageous exchange.
That means philanthropists who hope to influence the nation’s social agenda need to invest substantially in changing opinion. And changing opinion in turn means supporting the work of individual scholars, of their students, and of the retailers of ideas. Elections and politicians come and go, but politicians will not produce fundamental change until the underlying attitudes of opinion upon which the politicians depend have shifted in the direction of liberty. When it comes to politicians, they need constant encouragement to do the right thing, to take the long view, and not to sell out to what looks like short-term advantage to help their re-election chances. For true friends of liberty, supporting the local symphony orchestra, the new wing of the hospital, the daily work of one’s church, the local faith-based relief mission, or the current campaigns of politicians may well be important activities. But these good works will not make much difference (and could be and often are counter-productive to the cause of liberty) if the fundamental intellectual foundations of the free society are not supported as well. Thoughtful philanthropists will include efforts to influence the intellectual culture among their charitable concerns. In fact, they should make this influence a central interest of their philanthropic investment.
Lending support to the change of opinion is a difficult and risky business. For one thing, it is a long-range investment. It takes years for a career to develop, and an even longer time for new perspectives to receive wide consideration. Often a scholar’s most important contribution is his influence on his students, and this influence may not become manifest for a couple of generations. For another, individuals may fail in their promise, go off the reservation, or develop new interests that lead them far afield from their original devotion to the question of liberty. Productive scholars sometimes lose interest in pursuing their scholarship and coast for years on old accomplishments; famous pundits become stale and predictable; young hotshots never rise to their potential. On the other hand, unpromising youths turn out to be the stars of the future; a retiring and unremarkable scholar, thought to have few prospects, turns out a spectacular contribution in his old age. Finally, supporting people is costly, both in time and money.
Philanthropic investment in people, and thus in the change of opinion, will sometimes be wasted, and often its effects will be indirect and largely unseen. Philanthropists who wish to support the Environment for Liberty will need to be patient and take the long view. Nevertheless, philanthropic expenditures here represent what Pierre Goodrich called “the better hope.” They are investments in the future, and the eventual payoff should be impressive. The philanthropist just needs to cast his seed widely and give his plantings time and space to grow. He will find that somewhat like the power of compound interest, today’s investments in ideas are likely to have remarkable positive effects on society’s future.
We can already see something of the future at work. When I first left for college in 1959, the institutional support for liberty was thin. Yet one of the great developments of the last half-century has been the establishment of an institutional framework upon which to build a sustained defense of liberty. (A handful of foresightful and persistent philanthropists were especially important in supporting this development from the beginning.) While much remains to be done in the academy, hard-working friends of liberty are to be found at many institutions around the country, working in the fields of economics, political science, political theory, and jurisprudence. Other disciplines too have begun to add scholars of liberty to their ranks. These scholars increasingly know of each other’s work and collaborate across disciplines to produce exciting new studies and to propose new institutional arrangements. An array of liberty-loving public policy think tanks and free-standing academic institutions are at work across our land and in our nation’s capital. Many of these groups have an active program of visiting scholars and student interns. More and more we find independent scholars taking up permanent residence at these think tanks, often working on basic academic questions as well as current public policy interests. Other examples of liberty in action are seen in pro bono law groups; in coalitions of law professors, law students, and practicing attorneys; in special-interest organizations working in particular areas such as philanthropy, religion, women’s issues, and environment; in faith-based, hands-on reform movements organized according to the principles of liberty; and in groups working to promote the study and practice of liberty world wide. These groups have developed capable professional staffs and impressive lists of trustees and academic advisers.
Especially encouraging are the several groups devoted particularly to the care, cultivation, and education of students and young people. These organizations, with their optimistic and future-oriented perspective, best understand how a small investment in the career of a young student, thinker, or leader has the potential for the largest return-they are the best practitioners of using the “magic” of compound interest as applied to education and the cultivation of the individual. They especially are devoted to the belief that “ideas have consequences.”
All these groups are worthy of support. They work hard. They have proven programs. They need continual, substantial support if they are to thrive and expand their influence. Foundation and private support for these groups, though often generous, has been fairly thin in comparison with the great flood of funds annually available for political campaigns, universities, and for the major national and local charitable campaigns. Some of this support has dried up or been deflected to other causes; the Olin Foundation, for example, a dominant presence in the field for decades, is in the final stages of spending down its endowment in line with its donor’s intent. (See “The Insider’s Guide to Spend Down,” in the March/April 2002 Philanthropy.) The present essay is a plea that all philanthropists consider carefully the need for more support for the Environment for Liberty to help reverse this alarming trend.
The long and painful course of history has taught us that the Environment for Liberty is the one best for mankind-that this environment separates men from slaves. Working to protect, enhance, and expand that environment is one of the noblest of callings. In the free society, the philanthropist investing in the institutions of liberty is one of the best examples of private virtue in action, and these institutions are some of the best creations of a free society.
William C. Dennis is a senior fellow at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and an adjunct scholar with the Acton Institute. This essay is based on remarks delivered in April 2002 at The Fund for American Studies Donor Retreat in Colorado Springs, Colorado.