Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

My thanks to the John M. Olin Foundation

I once met James Piereson, the Executive Director of the John M. Olin Foundation, whose article on conservative philanthropy from the May issue of Commentary was reprinted Friday in the WSJ’s Opinion Journal. It was 25 years ago, at the University of Chicago, and the venue was a seminar funded by the John M. Olin Foundation and organized by Allan Bloom. I’d hadn’t heard of the Foundation before, but I was very grateful for the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Hyde Park reading some interesting books and talking to lots of interesting people. I never met Mr. Piereson again, though I did profit once more from the Foundation’s largesse, spending a year as a Visiting Scholar at Boston College’s Department of Political Science. I’m sad to see the Foundation go, but understand why it must, as it fulfills its founder’s wishes by spending its resources before it can be captured (as many other foundations have) by fashionably liberal philanthropocrats.

Piereson’s article provides a nice summary of the institutional and intellectual history of post-World War II conservatism, though I must note one omission--Henry Salvatori, about whom others (that means you, Peter) can speak much more authoritatively than I. Piereson insists upon the importance of the investment in conservative ideas, which distinguished his foundation and its "allies" from their liberal counterparts, which were so convinced of the unassailability of the liberal consensus (and of the stupidity of their conservative opponents) that they spent most of their resources in recent years on advocacy and activism. The result is a Left that isn’t all that good at waging the war of ideas, at least not on the level of ideas. They’re good at invective and at the pseudo-Marxist impugning of motives, but not at the rigorous and systematic analysis of theoretical issues.

Here’s Jason DeParle’s summary, from a long article in Sunday’s New York Times:

Feeling outmatched in the war of ideas, liberal groups have spent years studying conservative foundations the way Pepsi studies Coke, searching for trade secrets. They say that Olin and its allies have pushed an agenda that spread wealth at the top and insecurity below, and that left market excesses unchecked - and that they have done so with estimable skill.

"The right has done a marvelous job," said Rob Stein, a former official in the Clinton administration who has formed an organization, the Democracy Alliance, to develop rival machinery on the left. "They are strategic, coordinated, disciplined and well financed. And they’re well within their rights in a democracy to have done what they’ve done."

Mr. Piereson says that one Olin secret is plain to see: its interest in abstract ideas, removed from day-to-day politics. With conservatives in power, he worries that foundations and donors will focus too heavily on "public policy sorts of things," like school choice or anti-tax campaigns; by contrast, Mr. Piereson spent millions on the Olin Center for Inquiry Into the Theory and Practice of Democracy at the University of Chicago, where a typical conference examined the legacy of Rousseau.

As a result, Mr. Piereson is spending his last months in office promoting a route to political influence - intellectual armament - as unlikely as it has been effective. "The ideas have to be tended to," Mr. Piereson said. "Only after that can you tend to the policies."

Piereson concludes his article by discussing the next phase of conservative philanthropy:

That next phase will necessarily be different from those that have gone before. For one thing, conservative philanthropy will likely be based more on individuals than has been the case till now. The prosperity of the past few decades, along with the success of conservative groups and ideas, has created a cohort of such individuals, few with enormous wealth but many prosperous enough to make significant gifts to conservative enterprises. At the same time, some conservative foundations--Olin pre-eminently among them--have spent themselves or intend to spend themselves out of business in accordance with their founders’ wishes, and others have begun to shift their priorities.

The reason for this shift has to do with the fact that conservatism has become a governing philosophy, and governance leans toward the practical. This is a natural evolution in a movement that has assumed national responsibility, and that needs workable agenda items--school vouchers, personal retirement accounts, legal reform, elimination of the estate tax and so forth--to propose and enact. In addition, various conservative donors have themselves become involved in promoting one or another specific policy, and see the passing of a piece of legislation, or the implementation of a reform, as the most tangible measure of their success.

There is a temptation here, Piereson notes, to focus on the practical at the expense of the theoretical. If conservatives and their philanthropic supporters neglect to tend the latter garden, as did their liberal counterparts in the past generation, we could, after perhaps a generation of more or less successful conservative governance, be close to where the liberals are today, albeit with fewer resources that can deployed to assist an intellectual recovery. As DeParle notes:

no group is poised to fill Olin’s niche as a benefactor of big ideas. Hoping to encourage one, Mr. Meyerson organized the dinner in New York to celebrate Olin’s achievements, prompting coverage in National Review, The New York Sun and The New York Observer. In the last year, Mr. Piereson has published essays in The Wall Street Journal and Commentary magazine, summoning donors to the "battle of ideas."

But ideas can be a tough sell. "It can take 20 years to have a serious impact," Mr. Meyerson said, and many donors want quicker success.

As for ideas, Mr. Piereson has a new one. He is hoping to start an initiative to counter liberal influence in academia. Liberal academics "don’t like American capitalism, American culture, and they don’t like American history - they see it as a history of oppression," he said. "There are some people who are prepared to spend large sums of money to address this problem."

I can’t help but wish Mr. Piereson as much success in his next endeavor as in the one he is bringing to a conclusion this year. Perhaps he should take a closer look at what’s going on
here and here. At the moment, I have a bit of a soft spot for this enterprise.

Update: As usual, where things conservative and "Straussian" are concerned, Brian Leiter manages to show how not to elevate the tone of the conversation.

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