It is probably unwise to attempt to describe Irving Kristol in a few paragraphs. He is a onetime Trostkyite but also the former co-editor, in London, of Encounter, a post-war political and literary magazine that received funding (unbeknownst to Kristol) from the CIA. He has founded two influential conservative magazines, The National Interest and The Public Interest, and spent more than two decades as a columnist for The Wall Street Journal.
Kristol’s most memorable contributions to the body of knowledge about foundations stem from his work as a theoretician of the corporation, that new (in relative terms) form of ownership that sometimes proves shockingly ignorant of the conditions of its own survival. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the area of corporate philanthropy, where companies routinely shell out grants to their ideological adversaries.
Says Kristol: “When you give 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 cannot, and should not, be disinterested.” Actually, Kristol applies a variant of this standard to private foundations, citing the example of Henry Ford II, who tried to remind the trustees of the Ford Foundation upon his resignation that “the system that made the foundation possible very probably is worth preserving.”
Kristol finds much in private philanthropy worthy of praise, but his criticisms tend to be of a piece with his observations in the political realm about the law of unintended consequences: “Doing good isn’t [that] hard. It’s just doing a lot of good that is very hard. If your aims are modest, you can accomplish an awful lot. When your aims become elevated beyond a reasonable level, you not only don’t accomplish much, you can cause a great deal of damage.”
Philanthropy spoke with him at his Washington, D.C. offices.
PHILANTHROPY: In May 1980, you gave a speech at a gathering of foundation executives that is still referred to as the “hubris” speech. In it, you deride the notion that there is a “third” sector in American life, that the foundation world, and the nonprofits that are nourished by them, are in fact part of the private sector. Why is it a bad idea to think in terms of three sectors?
MR. KRISTOL: Because it gives the foundation sector delusions of grandeur. They think that they have a completely independent role to play, and they are therefore all tempted to move in the direction of something called the “cutting edge.” But the notion that they by themselves can play an independent role in American life is absurd. The Bradley foundation, for instance, supports [the American Enterprise Institute], they support other groups, but it’s those groups that do the work. [Bradley Foundation President] Mike Joyce doesn’t bring them into existence, in most cases. They come into existence and he decides that they are worthy of support.
What I worry about with some foundations is that their basic tendency is not to support people who are doing worthy things, but to get people to do what they think are worthy things. Foundations, except in very special cases, should not try to start something new, because the truth is, in most cases, if it were something worthwhile, someone else would have thought of it and would be doing it already. Foundations have to be parasitic on intellectual enterprise. And most of them are, most of the time. But the Ford Foundation, for example, for many years suffered from delusions that they could, on their own, get some smart people together and get them to take the Ford Foundation’s ideas and run with them.
PHILANTHROPY: What are the consequences of refusing to be “parasitic”?
MR. KRISTOL: One example is the Ford Foundation’s role in promoting school decentralization in New York City in the late 1960s. The whole thing became an enterprise for ambitious politicians who got control of those decentralized school districts and were utterly corrupt and incompetent.
The result is that they lost a lot of very good teachers, who fled. They got rid of some very good principals. It led to a debasement of the New York City school system from which they are now trying to recover. New York City is now, years later, trying to undo the effects of decentralization.
PHILANTHROPY: You have written that the conservative triumph in public policy has been mirrored by a failure in the cultural arena. How should foundations think about supporting cultural institutions?
MR. KRISTOL: Well, I have a conservative view on this, which is that cultural philanthropy should support existing cultural institutions which have demonstrated their value. They shouldn’t try to found new ones, which is beyond their talents, always looking for geniuses for whom they can claim credit. There is nothing wrong with giving to the Metropolitan Museum, or the New York Public Library, or the National Gallery of Art. Foundations should favor the existing cultural world, not some brand-new imaginary institution.
PHILANTHROPY: Milton Friedman has described the “suicidal impulse” of America’s corporations, which consistently fund programs that are not only left-of-center but some of which seek to undermine the free market system on which they depend. What motivates companies to give away money in this manner?
MR. KRISTOL: Because they don’t know what they are doing most of the time. They establish a corporate philanthropy program, which leads to the question: “Whom do we hire to run this?” Well, there are two kinds of people you can get: an executive you want to dump somewhere, or you can go out to the philanthropic world, and odds are, you’re going to get someone from the Left. Business executives know nothing about the cultural world. They know nothing about the ideological world. They simply want to be seen to be doing something good. And the result is, they often do a lot of harm. Giving away money is not all that easy, it turns out.
I served on several corporate boards, and no one on the boards of directors paid much attention to anything involving philanthropy. If you’re a director of a large corporation, and you’re dealing with tens of millions of dollars, and someone asks you if you should give $75,000 to some group—you just don’t want to be bothered.
PHILANTHROPY: People talk about good works as the natural activity of good “corporate citizens,” which is fine except of course that corporations are not “citizens.” What is the basis of corporate philanthropy?
MR. KRISTOL: Well, the corporation is not just an abstract economic entity. All corporations operate within communities. They have plants, headquarters, and so on. All businesses give money to community enterprises, like summer camps for poor kids, or housing, or even for policing. That’s unavoidable. You can’t be a wealthy institution in a community and not give money to help the community.
PHILANTHROPY: Could we talk a bit about the early days? After editing Encounter, you started the Public Interest. Did you receive foundation funding at that point?
MR. KRISTOL: Well, not at first. At the beginning it was a small grant from a few friends. But then the Smith Richardson Foundation came in. They were giving money to conservative groups, real old fashioned free-enterprise groups. They came to us, and we became friendly. Then the Olin Foundation funded us, and eventually the Bradley Foundation, when it was formed.
PHILANTHROPY: In 1977 you and [John M. Olin Foundation President] William Simon started the Institute for Education Affairs. What did IEA do?
MR. KRISTOL: We wanted to do something within the cultural world, and especially in the educational system. We had one great success, which was an initial grant of perhaps $40,000 to the Federalist Society, and the purpose was to please do something about those poor conservative professors and students in law school, who are always in the minority. We tried the same thing in divinity schools, and it didn’t work at all. Divinity schools are so far left these days that there is no wedge to get in there. The next thing that we did was to support conservative newspapers, which were student organized and student run newspapers on college campuses. That worked fine, on the whole.
PHILANTHROPY: If you had $100 million to spend on philanthropy right now, where would you put the money?
MR. KRISTOL: Jewish day schools. Simple as that. If I was Catholic, I’d give it to Catholic day schools. They work. They give the kids a good education. They are moral institutions for the most part. They are a great alternative to our public schools.