The Capital Research Center recently reported that in 2002 Teresa Heinz Kerry presided over the disbursement of more than $65 million in grants through various Heinz family philanthropies. A large proportion of these grants went to liberal advocacy groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters, which promote further regulation of business and higher taxes on the American people. Thus do the Heinz philanthropies join George Soros, Ted Turner, the Ford Foundation and scores of other donors in funding left-leaning causes.
This report is simply the latest sign that organized philanthropy, like the academic world, remains firmly in the grip of orthodox liberalism. Among the largest foundations in the United States, liberal foundations have been well represented by such stalwarts as the Ford, Rockefeller and MacArthur foundations, the Carnegie Corporation and the Pew Charitable Trusts—which list combined assets of some $25 billion and annual expenditures of more than $1.2 billion. By contrast, there is not now, nor has there been in the recent past, a conservatively oriented foundation with sufficient assets to make this list. These liberal foundations alone outspend the main conservative foundations by a factor of at least 10 to 1. When smaller foundations—like the Heinz Foundations—are added to the list, the disparity is more like 20 to 1.
Yet this imbalance in resources is one that conservative donors have always faced, and have succeeded in overcoming to a surprising degree. In the immediate future, however, conservative philanthropy will face a challenge that may prove far more daunting.
The conservative foundation movement took shape a generation ago, in the mid-1970s, when Irving Kristol penned a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal challenging businessmen to use their charitable funds to strengthen the system of private enterprise and limited government. At about the same time, William Simon, the controversial Treasury secretary in the Nixon and Ford administrations, published a best-selling book, A Time for Truth, which contained a similar plea.
Liberals were advancing, they argued, because they dominated the nation’s intellectual discourse. Conservative philanthropists should underwrite their own “counter intelligentsia” that would support scholars who were oriented in favor of liberty rather than against it. Simon also announced in that book that he had been invited by the donor to serve as president of the John M. Olin Foundation, a new philanthropy that would pursue precisely this mission.
Messrs. Kristol and Simon understood that a defense of capitalism required also a defense of the deeper cultural assumptions that gave meaning and order to a commercial civilization. Free markets could not be defended without reference to the rule of law, religion, the family and the evolution of our political institutions. This task required a full-blown engagement with the world of ideas—a world traditionally dominated by the left.
They understood also that they were swimming against the intellectual tide in the 1970s, when the future seemed to point in the direction of an ever-expanding welfare state. Nevertheless, while corporate leaders ignored their call to arms, a handful of entrepreneurial foundations took their message to heart. These included the John M. Olin Foundation (where I have been executive director for the past 18 years), along with the Sarah Scaife, Earhart, JM, and Smith Richardson foundations. Their efforts were later augmented by the creation of the Bradley Foundation in the mid-1980s.
These foundations were unusual among conservative philanthropies because they were interested in ideas and in developing intellectual talent. They took the long view, investing to build institutions that might take a decade or more to mature. They also adopted a broad agenda that went far beyond business and economics to include such subjects as foreign policy, law, religion, history and even cultural criticism. Indeed, one of their early collaborative ventures was to provide seed money to launch The New Criterion, a distinguished cultural review edited by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball.
The conservative investment in ideas, though modest by liberal standards, has paid large dividends. There exists today, in contrast to the 1970s, an impressive network of think tanks, journals, and university programs supported by conservative foundations, which are engaged in different ways in promoting the cause of liberty and limited government. As a result, there is now a robust debate in American intellectual life between conservatives and liberals. The one-sided debate, dominated by the left, is a thing of the past.
This historical reversal was noted a few years ago by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He observed that, though universities and the media were still overwhelmingly liberal, the intellectual initiative in American life had shifted from the left to the right. Conservatives, he said, had displaced liberals as “the party of ideas.” The conservatives were now writing the books, publishing the magazines, and advocating policies that shaped public debate.
It was an important achievement—but will it last? That is the question, and the new challenge.
Liberal ideas are not widely popular today, but they have achieved effective control over key institutions thanks to the support provided by large liberal philanthropies. That support will continue and perhaps increase in the years ahead. Meanwhile, the war on terrorism has reignited anti-American and anticapitalist passions on the far left. The battle of ideas, far from being over, is now being joined with new energy and fervor. At the same time, the foundations that helped to make conservatives “the party of ideas” are undergoing changes of their own. Death and retirements, along with changing circumstances, have brought changes in leadership and focus to many of these institutions. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of socialism as an alternative to market capitalism, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have forever changed the political framework that shaped the strategy and programs of the conservative foundations. The John M. Olin Foundation, one of the mainstays of the movement, will close its doors next year in accordance with the instructions of its late founder, who feared that his foundation might eventually be captured by people with views hostile to his own.
The conservative foundation movement that took shape in the 1970s thus seems to have run its course. Looking back, we have a good sense of what it accomplished. But what can we say about the future?
There are few final victories in the contest of ideas. The ground gained by conservative ideas in recent decades can be quickly lost if those ideas are not renewed and persistently articulated in public forums. This requires talent, energy—and money.
The historic achievements of the past generation did not happen by accident, but because our nation was guided to a great extent by conservative principles. These principles must maintain a central place in the debates over our future—and a new generation of conservative philanthropists is needed to make sure that they do.
James Piereson is president of the John M. Olin Foundation. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Wall Street Journal. For a longer account of the Olin and Bradley Foundations’ work, see The Philanthropy Roundtable’s guidebook, Two Foundations That Changed America, available free to donors.