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How Effective is Conservative Philanthropy?

William A. Schambra

On December 6, 2006, William Schambra was guest lecturer to an audience of faculty and students assembled by Duke University’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy as a part of its Foundation Impact Research Group seminar.

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Since this is, after all, a seminar devoted to the study of philanthropic effectiveness, it seemed to be a good occasion for me to take a closer look at my own particular field of practice, and pose the question, how effective is conservative philanthropy?

Now, that’s a question that seems fairly easy to answer. Even, or perhaps especially, the leading critics of American conservatism will say that its foundations have been enormously effective. The storyline – developed in countless scores of articles and books breathlessly tracking the flow of dollars on the right – is that conservative foundations like the John M. Olin, Bradley, and Scaife foundations have conspired to erect a tightly integrated, deadly efficient intellectual fighting machine. It includes idea-generating and propagating think tanks, advocacy and grassroots nonprofits, media outlets, academic centers, and leadership training institutes.

More to the point, we are told, this idea machine has managed over the course of two decades utterly to transform the American policy agenda. Almost single-handedly, in this account, conservative philanthropy and its vast network of nonprofits have managed to persuade the American people that the federal government is dangerous, ineffective, and out of control, incompetent to regulate the economy, to battle social ills, or to care for the vulnerable. In place of big government, conservatism proffers a Social Darwinist political philosophy of unfettered markets, savage indifference to the poor, and cynical electoral exploitation of America’s benighted religious bigots.

I might be a bit more generous in characterizing the nature of conservative doctrine, of course. But I might also be a bit less generous in praising the effectiveness of conservative philanthropy, at least insofar as it’s described as the central and decisive factor in the rise of conservative power in America over the past three decades. My view is that it did play an important role, but not the one it’s typically assigned in the National Inquirer version of the vast right wing conspiracy.

But before we can ask how effective conservative philanthropy has been, we have to understand what it is, and before that, we have to understand what liberal or progressive philanthropy is. For in spite of the claims that conservatives have somehow invented an entirely new way of influencing public policy, in fact the conservative apparatus is nothing but a modest effort to imitate, and thereby to challenge, the progressive intellectual institutions that had maintained such a hammerlock on American public policy for much of the twentieth century.

As you well know, the rise of the modern foundation is directly tied to the American progressive movement, and very much an element in its success. At the heart of our progressive movement was a profound dissatisfaction with the American constitutional order, based as it was on the dispersion and decentralization of political authority into the hands of myriad petty, parochial local interests and factions. In order to meet the massive and complex global challenges of the 20th century, in the progressive view, we needed an altogether new kind of political system.

In it, power would be wrenched away from corrupt local communities, and be concentrated and centralized upward, into the hands of detached, dispassionate experts trained in the sophisticated new social sciences, which alone enabled us to analyze and master those challenges. Public policy would no longer be the haphazard product of a chaotic jumble of self-interest and ambition, but rather would be coherently and rationally planned by scientifically trained professionals, looking toward an objective, comprehensive public interest.

The first large foundations – Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Russell Sage, later joined by Ford – eagerly bought into this notion that the new social sciences offered an indisputably objective and rational way to order public affairs — to deal with the causes, not just the symptoms, of social dysfunction. As a Rockefeller mission statement put in the 1920s, its funding aimed to “increase the body of knowledge which in the hands of competent social technicians may be expected in time to result in substantial social control.”

Hence, they bankrolled institutions that would insure the triumph of expertise over popular ignorance: modern research universities like the University of Chicago, the first think tanks like Brookings, scholarly social journals like Survey, and planning and coordinating agencies such as the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Social Science Research Council. They funded the social experiments that would over time, they believed, add up to a coherent body of social knowledge. And they funded the professionalization of the major disciplines that would help rationalize, centralize, and manage public policy, including law, medicine, public administration, and social work.

The faith in this approach to public policy endured unshaken into the 1960s, when it reached an apotheosis in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Perhaps never before or since have so many social science theories been injected so quickly and immediately into actual public policy. But this was also the moment when we became aware of the price of leaving public policy to experts schooled chiefly in abstract social theory. As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan described it in Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, the war on poverty went astray because “government did not know what it was doing. It had a theory. Or, rather, a set of theories. Nothing more.” The central theory – Cloward and Ohlin’s “thesis of opportunity structure” – had been the basis for the Ford Foundation’s “Grey Areas” demonstrations, but had scarcely been adequately tested before it was rushed to the front as the basis for the war on poverty.

How a shaky, unproven social science hypothesis could have been so hastily drafted into public service, Moynihan argues, can be explained by what he called the “professionalization of reform.” By the 60s, in his account, the growth of social science expertise, the professionalization of the middle class with jobs based on that expertise, and the emergence of foundations eager to fund social science all insured that political reform was no longer driven by genuine democratic movements, but rather by credentialed professionals. And, as Moynihan noted, “professionals profess. They profess to know better than others the nature of certain matters, and to know better than their clients what ails them or their affairs.” When an untested, abstract theory was artificially imposed on the urban political scene by such presumptuous, detached experts, Moynihan’s account suggests, small wonder that the program rapidly became ensnared in conflict and controversy. Yet this is precisely where progressive philanthropy had been so keen to bring us.

The profoundly undemocratic notion that reform should be driven by foundation-subsidized social science experts, rather than by committed citizens, informed and consequently compromised many of the Great Society’s efforts to construct and expand government programs in the sixties. This indictment — that professionalized reform is arrogant, elitist, and undemocratic — is thought by many on the left today to be an immensely clever, if malign, public relations gimmick concocted by conservative foundations during the 80s and 90s to undermine confidence in government.

In point of fact, though, it issued first in the 1960s from the New Left, in its assault on the massive, distant, alienating structures of American technocracy. Their alternative was “participatory democracy” – a return of political authority to smaller, decentralized, self-governing communities as modeled by their own modes of communal organization. This argument, of course, echoed back eerily from the Democratic party’s other wing, where George Wallace stood up for local communities against the intervention of the brief-case-totin’, pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington.

In the course of the sixties, then, progressivism found itself in serious trouble – and here’s the critical point – without any serious interference from the conservative movement. Indeed, the best conservatism could do by way of a challenge to the Great Society was the candidacy of Barry Goldwater, which, in spite of its rosy retrospective glow, was at the time understood to be the death-knell of the movement.

More to the point, virtually none of the think tanks and foundations that today comprise the great conservative war machine was even around in the 60s, much less capable of discrediting the idea of big government. One of the few that tried, the American Enterprise Institute, hardly distinguished itself. AEI’s president, William Baroody Sr., sought to provide modest advice and counsel to Goldwater, which Goldwater would later dismiss in his autobiography as meddlesome and worthless. To add insult to injury, AEI then spent the next several months under the cloud of an investigation by LBJ’s IRS – an application of federal power that many assume had been invented by George W. Bush.

But if the Great Society finally tottered and fell because of its own internal contradictions, rather than outside critique, it must be said that construction on the conservative intellectual edifice got underway soon after the Great Society had suffered mortal wounds from its own allies. Again, in a peculiar echo of the argument from the New Left and the Dixiecrats, there arose in the late 60s a new challenge to the progressive vision of social control from a group of intellectuals who came to be known as “neo-conservatives.” In his introduction to Reflections of a Neoconservative, Irving Kristol traced progressive hubris to origins in the French Revolution, noting that modern heirs of that revolution “affirm that the state, in the hands of the ‘right men’ and following the ‘correct’ policies, could solve, through central planning, the economic problems of society,” as well as its other social ills.

Neoconservatives, he argued, do not believe that the public interest can be “rationally defined, at a moment in time, by any kind of expert or consortium of experts,” but rather that it would emerge “from the process of self-government in all relevant institutions – government at all levels, but also local school boards, religious congregations, professional organizations, trade unions, trade associations, organized charities, organized enthusiasm for almost any imaginable activity.”

No one worked harder than Irving Kristol at developing and proselytizing for a new and more effective approach to funding for conservative ideas. His central message to funders, especially within corporate America, was that they should stop pumping dollars into the same old shallow, stale, manifestly self-serving Chamber of Commerce boosterism that had hitherto passed for conservative argument. Grantmakers should instead, he argued, strive to emulate the early progressive foundations, by replicating the constellation of intellectual institutions that had sustained liberal ascendancy for so long.

At his urging, conservative funders like the John M. Olin, Scaife, and Bradley foundations began in the 70s and 80s to put their money into think tanks, publications, and scholars that took their bearings from the neo-con indictment of anti-democratic, centralized bureaucratic rationalism, and the celebration of the dignity and authority of the ordinary bourgeois citizen. (A quick aside: the centrality of Kristol and neo-conservatism in the rise of conservative philanthropy is nowhere more evident than in the bitter complaints even today from paleoconservatives and libertarians alike that neo-cons had come late to the political game, but had grabbed up all the money.)

One of the most important intellectual products of this period, in my view, was Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus’s To Empower People, a project undertaken at the then-rapidly growing and investigation-free American Enterprise Institute. Building on the critique of top-down, centralized, expert-driven public policy, Berger and Neuhaus called instead for a transfer of authority back to self-governing, decentralized “mediating structures” like family, neighborhood, church, and voluntary association to deliver social services. This theme – restoring power to local communities because that’s where citizens empower themselves – ran through the work of other AEI scholars like Robert Nisbet, Michael Novak, Robert Woodson, and of course Irving Kristol himself.

The effort to re-empower everyday citizens also took the form of a new appreciation for the marketplace, within which individual consumer preferences make the critical decisions, rather than command-and-control bureaucracies. And it expressed itself in a new respect for the traditional values and principles, more often than not rooted in religious faith, which lay at the heart of families and local communities.

Now these notions – limited government, free markets and strong traditional values — are all familiar to you as the “bumper strip” version of the conservative movement that arose in this period. But it’s important to note that at the same time, the conservative foundations were funding another and deeper form of scholarship that’s entirely overlooked when analysts are searching for the secret of conservative philanthropy’s success. And yet, I would argue, this is the scholarship that ultimately tied together the conservative agenda and gave it a potent political punch.

At Kristol’s urging, Olin, Scaife, and Bradley funded studies – especially on campuses like Chicago, Harvard, and Claremont and at think tanks like AEI, Heritage and Hoover – that were aimed at recovering the political philosophy of the American Founding, as expressed most authoritatively in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. That meant support for studies of otherwise obscure and seemingly antiquated political philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, John Locke and the Baron de Montesquieu, as well as of the most thoughtful explications of American political principles like the Federalist Papers and the magisterial Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville. These were, of course, precisely the political theorists and doctrines that American progressivism had long since dismissed as so 18th century – so hopelessly out of step with the needs of modern society.

But through these studies, it now became possible to see that the specific inclinations of conservatism were grounded in the fundamental principles of the America regime. The free market, for instance, was intended to produce not just personal wealth, but also a sober, moderate, and sensible politics, based on safe and enduring human values like economic self-interest and ambition. From Madison and Hamilton we learned that it was foolish to try to eliminate selfishness and parochial allegiances, as the progressives had proposed, but that we could harness these ineradicable human inclinations to the mutual jealousies of dispersed and decentralized political power as a safeguard to American liberty. And we learned from Alexis de Tocqueville that those hopelessly parochial local communities so despised by the progressives were in fact critical nurseries of citizenship, teaching ordinary citizens the science of association and democratic engagement, and enabling them to construct strong local communities reflecting their own moral and spiritual values.

In other words, the recovery and appreciation of the principles of the constitutional order brought together the diverse arguments of conservatism into a unifying, coordinating, overarching theoretical framework, and tied it directly into the abiding patriotic inclinations of the American citizen.

Now, it’s difficult today – when so many have threatened to throw themselves out the window the next time they hear a Tocqueville quote — to recall that for much of the 20th century, no one in the academy read or studied Tocqueville or the Federalist. Respectable scholarship regarded attention to the American Founding as at best of antiquarian interest, at worst an indulgence in reactionary nostalgia. The Declaration and the Constitution, insofar as they reflected individualistic and local community values, were regarded as nothing but atavistic barriers to the realization of the new, altruistic, elite-driven collectivism of the progressive era. Serious study of the thought of the Founding – that is, study that took seriously the notion that the Founders might have had a piece of truth – utterly disappeared from the academy.

If conservative foundations did one thing during the rise of modern conservatism that was not likely to have been done by anyone else – that was, in other words, its unique and indispensable contribution — it was precisely funding the scholars, university centers, and policy institutes aimed at recapturing the Founders’ understanding of America, which would then animate and unite conservatism’s specific political, social, and economic programs. One could have counted on wealthy corporate elites to fund economic analyses defending the free market. And there would always have been powerful and well-funded religious leaders who would make the case for a revival of traditional values. But only the major conservative foundations saw the need to put serious money behind the otherwise seemingly irrelevant scholarship on the founding principles of our political order, which would ultimately inform and consolidate conservatism’s more practical and immediate policy proposals.

But how could such an arcane study of political thought have anything to do with conservatism’s effectiveness as a political movement, other than to provide an occasional inspiring quote from a long-dead statesman to embellish a policy brief? Putting American Constitutional principles at the center of conservatism provided three critical elements for success, I would suggest.

First, it helped to make American conservatism American. I know this sounds peculiar in light of what today seems to be the right’s hyper-patriotism. But for several decades up through the 1950s, American conservatism was not entirely at home in its own country. Its economic critique of socialism and the New Deal was based on a theory literally imported from Europe – the Austrian economics of Friedrich von Hayek. It was a critique based on abstract rational analysis of the workings of capitalism and socialism wherever they appeared, and had nothing peculiarly American about it.

Similarly, the social conservatism of tradition and religion as expressed most authoritatively by Russell Kirk also looked to European – that is, Anglo-Saxon — conservatism for inspiration. Kirk’s preference for a society based on status, hierarchy, privilege, refined taste, hallowed liturgy and aristocratic manners sat very uneasily with American democracy. While today one can hardly escape a discussion about James Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville and Abraham Lincoln among conservatives, it’s striking that these figures appear nowhere in Kirk’s landmark volume The Conservative Mind. The closest he comes to the Framers is his treatment of that most Anglophilic of the Founding generation, John Adams.

The study of the Federalist Papers and Tocqueville in the 60s and 70s showed the way to talk about the market and the free individual, faith and traditional values, without an exotic and off-putting European accent. The resulting conservative movement was for the first time entirely comfortable with, indeed enthused about, the American political order. It could be fully patriotic.

Conversely, progressivism’s patriotism seemed over this time to become ever more attenuated. After all, it had built itself explicitly on a rejection of, or an attempt to transcend, the American founding. And once the progressive project ran aground in the 60s, it seemed easy to blame quintessentially American character traits like individualism and traditionalism – i.e., to blame Americans themselves — for the failure of liberal utopian plans. Now, liberalism began to feel ill at ease in America, often reaching to European political theories for help in understanding progressivism’s frustration. Gramsci and Foucault, for instance, helped explain how American political structures could be fundamentally oppressive and exploitative, and yet at the same manage to sustain themselves through hegemonic discourse.

If the recovery of the Constitution helped Americanize conservatism, it also helped bring some semblance of order to its political house – its second major contribution. As we all know, the internal conservative conversation between free markets and family values can be fractious and even fratricidal. To this day, no love lost is between the libertarian and traditionalist wings of the movement. Indeed, once again in the wake of the elections of 2006, we hear both strands threatening to abandon once and for all the conservative coalition.

But at least so far, they have been held together by their allegiance to, and their need to articulate beliefs in terms of, the American constitutional order. This constrains them from unmediated appeals to abstract economic theory or transcendental religious doctrine, and holds them in the same room together. While they hardly agree on what our constitutional order requires by way of markets and faith, they nonetheless argue in the same language, within the pages of the same texts. They ultimately agree that our Constitutional order is worth defending – a conviction not conspicuously shared by important elements of the progressive intelligentsia.

Finally, the recovery of the constitutional order by conservatism contributed to its success because the Founders may just have been right – that is, right in their sober estimation of the permanencies of human nature and how its often unattractive features might be harnessed to reasonable political goods. We seriously doubt today, of course, that there can be right and wrong in such matters. But it must be said that the 20th century American progressive project seems to have run into trouble at least in part because it had a mistaken view of human nature – that is, that it overestimated it, and asked far too much of it by way of secular objectivity and disinterested public-spiritedness. At the same time, a conservatism comfortable with materialist self-interest and the “old time religion” might have prospered precisely because it had a sounder view of such matters – it works with, rather than against, the grain of human nature. By rooting itself in the Founders’ view of human nature, conservatives may have been better equipped to understand and work productively with the political forces set in motion by the Founders’ Constitution.

When we consider the effectiveness of conservative philanthropy, then, I would argue that it doesn’t lie in some uniquely crafty or compelling architecture of think tanks and scholars. As we’ve seen, the conservative apparatus is itself nothing more than an imitation of the progressive network that preceded it by half a century. At any rate, progressivism had begun to unravel itself well before the conservative network had even been conceived.

Nor is conservative effectiveness explained by simple and appealing ideas like freer markets and stronger values. As we’ve seen, those ideas had long been in circulation on the right, but without much purchase on the American electorate, and without being able to remain long in the same room together. I would argue that it’s only with the recovery of the principles of the American constitutional order – a genuinely unique contribution of the conservative foundations – that conservatism achieved the degree of theoretical coherence, patriotic allegiance, and fidelity to human nature essential for political success.

Now, I can almost hear you say, thanks for the lecture on American political thought, but this has absolutely nothing to do with philanthropic effectiveness as we typically understand it. Where are the benchmarks? Where are the metrics? Where are the data and statistics showing measurable outcomes against concrete problems?

I would suggest that those kinds of questions reflect only one way of understanding effectiveness, and a rather limited and constrained way at that. As we’ve seen, at the heart of the progressive philanthropic project was the faith that social problems could be scientifically analyzed into manageable segments lending themselves to the application of professional expertise. Accordingly, it should indeed be possible to approach a social problem with a rational plan of intervention, broken into discrete project components with anticipated measurable benchmarks. Although the utopian dream that experts could solve our problems has long since faded, the large mainstream foundations today typically still practice grantmaking as if this were a reasonable expectation. Hence they make short-term grants for narrowly defined, technocratic projects, accompanied by a blizzard of statistics and reports.

Had conservative philanthropy approached grantmaking with this cramped and confined understanding of effectiveness, it would never have succeeded. Leading conservative philanthropists like Bill Simon, Michael Joyce, Jim Piereson, and Les Lenkowsky – taking their bearings from advisors like Irving Kristol – understood that resurrecting an understanding of the American constitutional order that had been airbrushed from history by a century of scholarship would be no quick or easy task. It was not something to be accomplished by three-year, project-specific grants, but rather would require decades of broad and open-ended support for institutions and scholars engaged in the patient reconstruction of political philosophy, and in the development of specific policy proposals reflecting the principles of the American founding. Effectiveness against this much broader standard could have been measured only over generations, with countless setbacks along the way, many of such a character that short-term, fast-results grantmakers would have been driven quickly from the field.

But here’s a final thought about the effectiveness of conservative philanthropy. It didn’t set out to be effective. It set out to be right. Conservative philanthropists and the scholars they supported were often quite convinced that they were, as Whittaker Chambers famously noted, on the losing side of history. They were doing what they were doing not because they wanted to see measurable results – indeed, it seemed almost too much to hope for any positive results at all, given the surmounting domination of the political world by utopian collectivism. But they were simply determined to stand up for their principles, whether or not they proved to be effective in any concrete way, whether or not they ultimately prevailed or succumbed. I have no doubt that this ultimate indifference to effectiveness was itself a powerful ingredient of their effectiveness.

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