It wasn’t hard for Roger Hertog to disburse his Simon Prize funds in a way “consistent with what William Simon believed in,” because both men believed that ideas are what matters. “There are crucial debates in any free society—about welfare or health care, national security, the size of the defense budget, or religion in the public square,” says Hertog, and if you want to find the best answers then supporting thinkers and writers and magazines and conferences offers “a high return on investment
Hertog spread his award among 11 small intellectual journals and asked them to create articles and conferences on important topics. National Affairs put together a book for congressmen elected in 2010. National Review commissioned an article from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel that suggests we are not investing in the right things to keep the economy growing rapidly. Articles on the “coming global disorder” that appeared in Commentary, Hertog says, were “quite prophetic” in foretelling current events in Iran, Russia, and Syria. The Claremont Institute and First Things magazine each held conferences on political philosophy. Hertog says he felt “proud to have used the funds for the engagement of ideas.”
For other philanthropists interested in building useful ideas, Hertog advises, “first you have to figure out what you believe in.” With many donors “having spent their lives building capital,” they may have to take some time to find the thinkers, publications, and research organizations that build significant thinking on topics the donor considers important.
It’s not easy to judge the return on these investments, says Hertog. “It’s harder than buying a stock.” For one thing, some of these ideas take a long time to gain traction. He cites Charles Murray’s book, Losing Ground. It was an assessment of what went wrong with social spending in the 1960s, published in 1984, and then it wasn’t until 1996 when Congress and the President finally changed the U.S. welfare system.
“What you’re trying to do,” summarizes Hertog, “is inform the most influential people, give them a deeper understanding of what’s at stake.”