Conservative Philanthropy Might Be Fractured, but It Can Rise Again  

Daniel P. Schmidt and Michael E. Hartmann deserve our thanks for the many benefits to America that they and their colleagues at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation brought into being and carefully nurtured. Their Liberty Forum essay correctly identifies  some of the individuals who joined them in transforming intellectual life, public policy, and American institutions for the better. These achievements were the product of partnerships between visionary donors and gifted recipients—involving more men and women than can be properly recognized in this brief exchange.

I have personally benefited from, and must thank, those at the Bradley Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, and the Achelis and Bodman Foundation. My colleagues and I at Hudson Institute also must thank in particular Walter P. Stern and his family, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the David Family Foundation, Roger Hertog, and Peter Thiel. There are many others whom I regret I am unable to thank in full.

Schmidt and Hartmann frame well the progress of what is usually called conservative philanthropy, from the Reagan era onward. They would no doubt agree with me that conservative philanthropy leaves out a much larger category of total giving that is intended to sustain many of our most important institutions—medical centers, schools, religious organizations, and private, social assistance programs. The Bradley Prizes that Schmidt and Hartmann helped guide, for example, perform this function. And, as their and my colleague, William Schambra, taught, philanthropy needs a realistic modesty captured by Irving Kristol’s remark that those who want to reform education should “start a school.”

What conservative philanthropy encompasses is, generally speaking, the donors and recipients who created public policy alternatives to the political Left. This was, for better or worse, a less modest project, and it sought to meet the Left on its own terms. It challenged the vestiges of Progressive Era thought, the ideas of the New Left, and the intellectual and cultural forces best described by Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (1987). The goal was not to be better marketed or louder than the Left; it was to be smarter, more compelling, and able to offer better ways to meet legitimate policy goals.

Talented Individuals in a Team Sport

Let us recognize, too, that the most consequential achievements of conservative philanthropy were the work of individuals. More precisely, it arose from two groups of gifted individuals: conservatives who understood the need to meet the Left on its own intellectual, moral, and political grounds; and former men and women of the Left who came to understand its project as profoundly flawed and dangerous. Both donors and recipients counted members of these two groups among their number. The two frequently worked together and learned together. Their views differed from one another, and this individualism shaped some of the institutions they built. It remains visible in some of the differences (and conflicts) taking place among conservatives today.

Originally, the highly individualistic character of conservative philanthropy was not very protocol-based, measured, or managed. Key donors supported promising individuals and organizations, often funding smart people who had good ideas rather than people with strong management plans or evaluation metrics. Donors relied on the advice of those with an “eye for talent” rather than on a formula or algorithm. They frequently made large financial commitments over extended periods and were sometimes disappointed. Neither givers nor beneficiaries spoke in the vocabulary of today’s venture investors, but they proved that those with insight could put resources behind talent and change the world—not in every case, or even most cases, but in a manner producing remarkable success.

Seeking, developing, and managing talent is similar to running an athletic team. It entails recruiting gifted individuals, working to bring forward their talent, and (perhaps most difficult) deciding when prospects have lost their promise. It does not lend  itself well to committee work or group management. There are many “safe” (and worthy) objects of philanthropy, but changing the world is a rare and risky endeavor. Still, it is as important today as it was 50 years ago.

It is all-too-clear that key national needs remain: from the future of the welfare state and free markets, to the continuing failure of elementary and secondary education, to healthcare financing, to immigration, to the “deaths from despair,” to the threat of unfree, semi-market, hegemonic world powers, and the dangers of social-control technology. It is also clear that many of the old policy proposals do not work. They either fail to capture these needs or lack political saliency. The success of conservative philanthropy in the past was only a beginning. America has new and unmet needs of the first order.

How tempting it is to say that conservative philanthropy failed to renew itself after its successes—defeating the Soviet Union, passing welfare reform, causing the decline of the New Left and the rise of Bill Clinton as a New (more “conservative”) Democrat, and establishing the benefits of low taxes and free trade. But calling this a failure to follow up is too simple.

Since the heyday of conservative philanthropy, some of the original donors retired or were replaced, and some new donors on the Right became prominent. Some conservatives have turned to more political giving and more advocacy funding (and less policy analysis). Differences within conservative philanthropy have also become more pronounced. While some donors and recipients continued to follow the principles and practices characteristic of the Reagan era, others (and many newer donors and recipients) shifted to libertarianism rather than pursuing policies that strengthened the more traditionalist elements of Reaganism. The practice of non-Left philanthropy also put increased emphasis on business models, metrics, and what some termed the principles of “effective philanthropy.” These developments were helpful in some areas. However, as a whole, they lacked the strategic vision of Reagan-era philanthropic projects.

The Charles Murray Effect Is Still in Operation

This is not to say that the election of President Trump, or the policy decisions he has made, are disconnected from the fruits of conservative philanthropy. Many believe that Charles Murray’s book Losing Ground (1984) was the most important single stimulus to the passage of welfare reform in 1996. One would be hard put to find a more widely accepted example of conservative philanthropy’s achievements. A generation later, it was once again Murray who diagnosed the major forces behind our current political situation (and Election 2016), this time in Coming Apart. Murray’s 2012 book documented the dramatic decline of the working class and the growing separation, on the Right and the Left, between the wealthiest and most educated Americans and everyone else.

President Trump did not create the deep divisions in our body politic, but he did recognize these divisions and he spoke to them.

As Schmidt and Hartmann note (and others do as well, such as Victor Davis Hanson in his new book The Case for Trump), most of the major Trump administration policies have come out of the conservative philanthropy/Reagan collection: tax cuts to stimulate growth, deregulation, building military strength, fighting socialism, and nominating constitutionalist judges. The current President’s tactics are quite different from Ronald Reagan’s and Trump has excluded establishment Republicans and conservatives who adopted “Never Trumpism.” However, his administration has turned to some conservatives and, most of all, to key policies and arguments of conservatism as framed over the past 40 years with the help of conservative philanthropy. Indeed, there are few other serious, responsible policy proposals out there.

The unmet policy challenges noted above mark one boundary of realistic policy options. The limits of Reaganite conservative philanthropy mark another. Between these exist most of the realistic options available to policy advocates of the Right and the Left alike.

That this should be the range of possibility is not because conservative ideas are unpalatable; indeed, their appeal brought forth Clintonism and the 42nd President’s New Democrats. Yes, the Left today offers many alternatives—free college tuition, a minimum income via wealth-transfers from the rich to the non-rich, ending border control and security, more subsidies to healthcare, and various proposals to increase the cost of energy with the goal of preventing climate change—but these are unlikely to be sustainable. They might be adopted, but if they were they would cause serious harm, and over time their consequences would almost certainly result in repeal and the discrediting of their political advocates.

Many will strongly object to the statements above. They will dismiss the claim that conservative philanthropy created the center of gravity for American public policy. If it did, they’ll say, why is our political debate so extreme and our political situation so dangerous? If it did, why have socialism and identity politics—why has the extremism of our colleges and universities—spread forcefully into the politics of the Left, and caused the virtual extinction of Clintonism and the moderate policies of the New Democrats?

A Crucial Loss: The Universities

This brings us to what may be the biggest failure of conservative philanthropy, which is that it did not win the intellectual and moral battles on campus. It lost the academy and the results of that loss are now impossible to ignore. Certainly many conservative donors and gifted professors worked together and continue to do so, but the numbers have dwindled, and many university administrators have fostered declines in intellectual rigor and academic freedom. By creating policy and even educational institutions independent of colleges and universities, conservatives found the freedom to do their work. They also retreated from academe. One hears ever more conservatives saying,  “We’ve lost the universities.” Our political situation reveals the unacceptable consequences of this defeatism.

In a bit of a return to my original career, I have for the past decade been teaching elite undergraduates in summer programs in the nation’s capital. We have been inviting the brightest students as recommended to us by faculty friends on campuses across America. We have steadfastly admitted the most gifted without respect to their political views. We teach some of the political ideas that shape our country and our world, and we study public policy and the problems it is designed to address. The students are hungry for serious study of the kind that we provide, and many have gone on to work in public service (including the military), the academy, journalism, and public policy organizations.

America’s most gifted young people are getting a bad undergraduate education for the most part. Those with intelligence, insight, ambition, and seriousness emerge, not indifferent (this would be bad enough), but ready to embrace misguided public policy ideas and toxic politics. The task at this point can’t really be “taking back the academy”; at many institutions, there remain too few impressive teachers or administrators for this to be practicable. The latter should be supported where feasible, since it only takes one or two real teachers to help a young person find a genuine education. But conservatives can also gather together the best teachers to form adjuncts to the failing campus curriculum. The best teachers and the best students can and should be brought together in special programs in greater numbers and on a wider scale.

Conservative calls for “letting the academy fail,” unbundling (or deconstructing) higher education, or bypassing college education are understandable, but profoundly misguided. Changing the education of America’s most gifted undergraduates would produce the most significant results for the decades ahead. My experience of the last 10 years confirms that there is little risk of failure when bringing together gifted teachers and students to examine the principles and problems shaping America today.

The basic calculation for conservative philanthropy today is simple. A better solution to the higher education problem will offer a better future. Without it, many things are likely to get much worse.