In 1978, Irving Kristol co-founded the Institute for Educational Affairs, under whose auspices The Philanthropy Roundtable was first convened as an informal network and from which it later emerged as an independent organization. On the occasion of Irving’s death (on September 18, 2009, at the age of 89), we note for our readers his landmark 1980 talk at the Council on Foundations, “Foundations and the Sin of Pride: The Myth of the Third Sector.” (It is reprinted in Amy Kass’s 2008 anthology Giving Well, Doing Good: Readings for Thoughtful Philanthropists.) Irving challenged the ideas that philanthropy constitutes a separate “third sector,” that foundations are on the “cutting edge” of social change, and that foundation money is public money. He even challenged the “passion for doing good” that is so central to philanthropy. This “is a noble passion,” he said, “but it is a passion. And . . . all passions are dangerous unless they are controlled.” His words on philanthropy are as important today as they were in 1980: “Foundations are part and parcel of the private sector. They are flesh of the flesh, bone of the bone, blood of the blood of the private sector. The notion that foundations in some way constitute a sector of their own, different from, above, and superior to the other two sectors [private and public] is an act of pride which will only go before a fall.” We mourn Irving’s death, honor his intellectual achievements, and celebrate his service to American philanthropy.
Today, I want to talk about the foundation world and the sin of pride—what the Greeks called hubris, what the church fathers called superbia, namely the desire to do more good than anyone can do, a desire to do good which ends up being a form of the will to power. I think the foundation world today is suffering from the sin of pride.
Let me give you a very clear and specific instance. It is now generally said and widely thought that the foundation world (the nonprofit world, as we say), constitutes a “third sector” in American society. There is, it is said, the private sector, consisting of business enterprise; the public sector, consisting of government; and then we have the third, not-for-profit sector, of which the foundations are the animating core. I would like to suggest to you that there is no third sector. Foundations are part and parcel of the private sector. They are flesh of the flesh, bone of the bone, blood of the blood of the private sector. The notion that foundations in some way constitute a sector of their own, different from, above, and superior to the other two sectors is an act of pride which will only go before a fall. That fall may consist in the fact that foundations will end up depriving themselves of their sustenance, which comes from the various parts of the private sector. Foundations are creations of the private sector.
In fact, there are only two sectors in our society: the private sector and the governmental sector. The voluntary associations in our nation do not make up a third sector; they are part of the private sector. Churches are part of the private sector. Fraternal organizations are part of the private sector. Even political parties are part of the private sector. There is no high ground which foundations can occupy and from which they can look down upon the other sectors and then try to think up policies, methods of improving the world, which are somehow disinterested in a way that those of the other two sectors are not.
The sin of pride to which I refer shows itself in many other ways. For instance, we hear it said that foundations should be setting the national agenda. But it is politics that sets the national agenda. If foundations want to get into politics, that is their privilege, but they ought to know that what they are then doing is getting into politics. They are not acting in some disinterested way; they are not representing something called “the public interest.” In politics everyone represents the public interest, or rather everyone represents some conception of the public interest, for politics consists of conflicts among different conceptions of the public interest. There is no one conception of the public interest which is right as against all others. I want to emphasize that if foundations are inclined to get involved in politics this way, I think that’s perfectly proper—but they ought to know what they are doing. They ought not to think that somehow they are above the political battle. They ought not to think they will not end up bearing the scars of the political battle. They ought not to think that they will be immune to political attack. Shaping the national agenda is part of the political activity of a democracy.
We also hear it said that foundations should stimulate social change, or, to use one of the favorite clichés, be on “the cutting edge” of social change. That, too, is politics. And foundations have no more perception of what is right or wrong in social change, of what is effective or what is desirable, than anyone else who is involved in politics. Foundation people are almost certainly better educated—or at least better schooled—than most people who are involved in politics. But that does not mean that they have a superior understanding of what society needs, in what directions society ought to go, or in what direction society can go.
Acts of Arrogance
There is an implicit arrogance in the notion, in the very rhetoric, that a foundation should be on “the cutting edge” of social change. First of all, it assumes you know what the cutting edge is, and you know that it cuts this way, not that way. Secondly, to be on the cutting edge of social change you have to have a complete, comprehensive, theoretical understanding of the social order—of how change is brought about and how you bring about the changes you wish as against the changes you don’t wish. There is no such comprehensive theory—never has been, never will be. We do not understand ourselves that well, and we do not understand our neighbors that well. The reason we have politics at all is because the world is full of other people. Other people are never quite like us. That’s the way it’s always been, and that’s the way it’s always going to be. The notion, therefore, that any foundation or any group of scholars or any group of thinkers can have a “disinterested” conception of where society should go, one that is not open to political conflict and political argument, is an act of intellectual arrogance which can only end up creating damage to foundations. For not only can’t we control social change in a disinterested way, in the end we can’t control it at all. We really cannot control social change. We can try. It’s very important to try. But the notion that you can come up with a master plan for social change and institute that plan and get the results that you really intended is to overlook the fact that the basic law of politics is that unanticipated consequences are always more important than the anticipated consequences of your actions.
There have been a number of such instances of intellectual arrogance over the past 25 or 30 years, some of which I have been involved in, some of which I have just witnessed. I’ll mention two of them, both, as it happens, involving the Ford Foundation. Back in the 1950s, the Ford Foundation decided that the behavioral sciences were the key to the future, that the behavioral sciences, like sociology and political science, would really give us a way of controlling human destiny. They would bring about the “politics of the future,” and create a better society at the least cost. And so the Ford Foundation devoted tens of millions of dollars to advancing the behavioral sciences in the universities, with great success. Unfortunately, 15 years later, it turned out that the behavioral sciences were in a condition, and to this day are in a condition, of intellectual crisis; the younger scholars, whether conservative or radical, are all in rebellion against the behavioral sciences, which they find very boring, very tedious, and on the whole ineffectual. But the damage that has been done to our universities by the Ford Foundation’s presumption in thinking that it knew what should be taught in the universities, that it knew exactly what it should impose on universities within the social sciences, has been enormous. Because professors don’t die young. Tens of thousands of professors, with tenure, are now sitting in universities, trained in the behavioral sciences, teaching students who find them all (or most of them) thoroughly unsatisfying.
The other, more famous instance, of course, was the school decentralization fight in New York City. Being a New Yorker, that was something that came very close to the bone. There the act of arrogance was evident, because if there’s one law of New York City politics it is: “Thou shalt not polarize racial and ethnic groups.” That has been the overriding political law of New York City for 150 years now, but the Ford Foundation blithely went ahead and polarized the city, inflicting enormous damage on the public school system, and on the political system of the city. My impression is that having caused that damage, it has now lost interest in the subject and has gone on to something else.
Grand Designs, Sad Results
Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. It is possible to do good. It really is possible to do good. Doing good isn’t even 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, but you can cause a great deal of damage. And, in fact, I think that foundations in this country have passed up enormous opportunities to do good, simply because they have found them not sufficiently ambitious.
In my own experience, I spent several years on the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and it was an organization that I was very much in favor of. In fact, I even helped persuade some of my conservative friends in Congress to vote its appropriation against their inclination. I have avoided speaking to them since. I don’t know what I would now say to them. Basically, NEH did a good job; in all fairness, I think it still does half a good job. At the beginning, what NEH did was quite simple and obvious. We supported archaeological expeditions in Turkey. Someone has to support them; they’re worth doing. They might discover something interesting; it seems right that NEH should do it. We supported critical editions of major texts. Again, very expensive. Again, someone has to do it, and it seems right that the NEH should do it. We went on doing all these very colorless and rather boring, but good things.
But in the end it didn’t satisfy a great many people, including people in Congress, including some of the present leaders of foundations. The result is that, when you proposed something along those lines, the reaction became, “Oh goodness, come on, we don’t want another edition of classical texts. Let’s do something more interesting, let’s do something that has an effect on the world.” As a consequence, the emphasis at NEH, over these past years, has shifted. A lot of the money is now simply wasted, in my view, on all sorts of dubious “community and cultural activities.” I do think that the NEH should support excellent museums. I don’t think it ought to support third-rate museums. But, of course, it’s now in the business of supporting third-rate ballet troupes, third-rate, fourth-rate museums, spreading the money around state-by-state, county-by-county; it has been quite politicized. It still does some good—I’d say half of what it does is still perfectly good. But it just could not be satisfied to do the good things which were not intellectually exciting. They were quite routine but worth doing and now unfortunately very few foundations are doing them.
I take a more dramatic instance. Everyone is concerned about youth unemployment in the ghetto, as I am, and I have been involved with various foundations and government as well, over the years, in trying to do something about it. It’s astonishing how little has been accomplished. The reason so little has been accomplished is that no one was satisfied with doing a little; everyone wanted to do a lot. For instance, it is a scandal in this country that vocational education is in the condition it’s in. It is absolutely absurd. Can you imagine a United States of America where there is a shortage of automobile mechanics, and yet there are “unemployable” kids in the ghetto who can strip an automobile in four minutes flat? It just doesn’t make sense. But when you try to get a program of vocational education going—and I’ve tried very hard with various foundations to get a simple program of vocational education going—they say, “No! No! We don’t want to train these kids to be automobile mechanics. We want to train them to be doctors, to be surgeons.”
Let’s be reasonable. Not everyone can be a doctor or a surgeon. Some people are going to end up as automobile mechanics. Automobile mechanics have a pretty good career. They make a great deal of money, most of it honestly. But the fact is that it has been impossible to get the resources for so limited a goal.
Foundations talk a great deal about education, and propose grand theories about education. Whenever a foundation comes to me with grand theories about education, I say: “Fine, start a school.” Why not? If you have grand and novel theories about education, start a school. But it turns out that those people don’t want to start a school. They want to reform the whole public education system, or whatever. But it’s very hard to reform the public education system, which is populated by people with interests, ideas, and habits of their own. It’s not in their interest to be reformed. So they will take your program and twist it in all sorts of ways. Whereas, a foundation can always start a school. Thus it seems reasonable to insist: if you have any good ideas about education, whether it be in the ghetto or elsewhere, start a school. But I have never heard of any foundation that started a school, one that would put its theories into effect. A hundred years ago that was assumed to be a very promising way to reform education. These days it is regarded as insufficiently ambitious, too modest in its intent.
Again, turning to the youth of the ghetto, if you say to a foundation: “Look, there are many bright kids in the ghetto who need help, who need scholarships, who need fellowships. Why don’t you help them?” the answer to that is: “We want to help those who are really down at the bottom. That’s the problem.” Indeed that is the problem. Only, helping those at the bottom is not easy, whereas helping those who are at the top, or are moving up, is feasible. It works. If you suggest such a program you are accused of something called “creaming,” namely, taking the most able, the most intelligent, the most ambitious, and moving them up while neglecting the rest. But that is the normal way in which all groups move into the mainstream of American life. This is true for all groups, all immigrant groups, all ethnic groups, all racial groups. You begin by moving up those who can be moved up. Their brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, see them moving up and begin to foresee that it’s possible. They begin to shape their lives and their habits to follow them. The notion that you go directly to the hard-core unemployable, the high-school dropouts, who are “hard-core” for a reason, is utopian. They’re not easy to cope with. The notion that you can cope with these people directly, and transform them overnight into willing and eager students, is childish. I’m not saying you can’t do it in the case of certain individuals. And if a foundation wanted to focus enormous resources on a few such individuals, it would probably work. But it would be enormously expensive, and in the end you would just be helping a few individuals. The more sensible approach is to do what you can do—help those who wish to be helped, who can be helped, who are already motivated, and hope that others will follow in their path. It is, on the basis of experience, a realistic hope.
I’ll never forget my first job, working for a fine mechanic, who was an illiterate and who owned his own factory. After I’d been there a few days, he took me aside and said, “Irving, I want you to remember two things: First, a thing worth doing is worth doing cheaply. And second, if something is too hard to do, find something easier to do.” On the whole, I think that’s good advice. When things get terribly hard and terribly expensive, it’s a sign that—for reasons which you may never understand—it’s not going to be doable. Peter Drucker—many years later I read Peter Drucker on management—ends up saying the same thing as my little machine shop owner did, namely, you pour your resources into things that work. You don’t spend all your time and energy and money on things that don’t work. Do what is doable, and when you do what is doable, it will affect everything else, and you then get the kind of progress in education, or in the economy, or what have you, which brings everyone into the system and from which everyone benefits.
There is a passion for doing good. It is a noble passion, but it is a passion. And all passions have to be controlled. All passions are dangerous unless they are controlled. We have had long experience in the history of Western civilization with people who spend their lives doing good. Nuns, members of religious orders, working in hospitals, in schools. All of them were under a discipline where they were on regular occasions humiliated by their institutions. That is, if you wanted to do good in the old days, say in a hospital, at some point, you emptied bedpans. Now, I’m not saying that all the professionals at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation should spend one day a month emptying bedpans. On the other hand, it is useful to have an occasion for humility. It is very easy to sit down and devise a new health delivery service, but cleaning bedpans gives you an insight into some of the problems inherent in health delivery service. The passion for doing good, when it was restricted to religious orders, had a self-correcting mechanism in it. We have no such system of self-discipline and self-humiliation, so that the tendency toward pride and arrogance in doing good, the tendency toward an excess of passion and self-righteousness in doing good, is unchecked.
Pluralism and Private Initiative
I want to make one final point, which is really my original point. Foundations came into existence originally to do all the things that needed to be done that the government did not do in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That was the right thing for foundations to do at that time. However, the situation has changed today. We have had a reversal. There is almost nothing you can suggest which government is not eager to do. And it seems to me that foundations, therefore, have a special responsibility to be wary of government and to be a lot more solicitous of their own sector, which, I repeat, is the private sector. You’re not above the private sector, by God, you’re in it. I really am a little sorry, with all due respect to Landrum Bolling and the city of Washington, that the Council on Foundations has decided to set up headquarters in Washington. I think that’s the wrong signal to the foundation world. Foundations should not be an adjunct to government. Foundations should be an adjunct to their own, private sector. There is a tendency these days for everything to become an adjunct to government, just as there is a tendency, when foundations have a good idea, for government to take it and run away with it. My favorite example of the latter is the Meals on Wheels program. This was a marvelous program, a community program, where people got together and delivered meals to elderly people who were either house-bound or confined to their beds. And Congress heard about this and said, “That’s a great idea; we’ll do it.” So it passed the Meals on Wheels legislation, but with all sorts of new regulations, so that the community organizations that had been delivering meals for years were all disqualified because they didn’t have enough professional nutritionists, they didn’t have the right number of this or enough of that, they didn’t have the right inspection of their facilities, etc. So you end up with another government agency doing, in its bureaucratic and, I am convinced, in the end not very humane way, what neighbors were doing in a very pleasant and humane way.
There is clearly a tendency of government, in the name of the welfare state, to expand the conception of the welfare state so far as to be bureaucratically paternalistic. I think foundations should combat this tendency, not encourage it.
In sum, foundations should rethink their situations and their conditions. We live in a pluralistic society. Some foundations are going to be liberal, some are going to be radical, some are going to be conservative, and that’s fine. That’s the way it should be, as long as they realize that they are being either liberal, conservative, or radical, not somehow representing something called “the common good,” which they alone are in a position to define. But I do want to I emphasize, in closing, that all of those activities, whether radical, liberal, or conservative, emerge from the private sector, and are a distinctive aspect of our pluralist society. To the degree that our society becomes more centralized, to the degree that government becomes more intrusive in all the affairs of our lives, to that degree, foundations are going to end up in fact being adjuncts of government or being assimilated into government.
Even now it is said—and I have heard foundation executives say it, and I think most people here would probably say it—that the money you people spend is public money, and therefore you have a public responsibility. Now, in what sense is the money you spend public? Under the tax laws, the contributions made to foundations are deductible from income. If you say that that money is public money, you are saying: “Well, the government has the right to all our money, but it doesn’t exercise this right at all times or in all respects. It leaves some of that governmental money for us to spend, and therefore we have a public responsibility attached to that money.” I think that is socializing money in rhetoric prior to socializing it in fact. The money you people spend is private money. It is not public money. Money that the government does not take is ours. You can have whatever public responsibilities you wish to assume with that private money. But it is private money. It is the life blood of your organizations, and I think it is time foundations gave a little more thought to the source of that life blood and to what might be done to making that life blood a little more abundant and, shall we say, healthier in composition.