In response to: What went wrong (and right) with conservative philanthropy


We are greatly in debt to Dan Schmidt and Mike Hartmann for their Liberty Forum essay, an insightful and refreshingly frank account of conservative philanthropy’s successes and shortcomings. Of the three “p’s” around which their essay is organized—principle, policy, patience—I’d like to focus on the third. For conservative philanthropy, patience isn’t just being willing to wait a bit longer to reach desired objectives. It’s a fundamental predisposition toward the world.

Patience is possible for conservative donors because we know that we operate within the beneficent horizon of the American constitutional framework, which is well worth preserving. Within the structure of a federally decentralized, extended commercial republic, everyday citizens strive to make a living for themselves and their families, and build communities within neighborhoods, houses of worship, and voluntary associations.

Progressive philanthropy is driven by a fundamental impatience with this arrangement. For over a century, its institutions have been attempting to lift citizenly aspirations beyond what it considers petty bourgeois concerns, to higher ideals like collective provision, national oneness or, more recently, the complete eradication of bias. To achieve this, hopelessly parochial and divergent local communities would have to surrender their autonomy to professional experts gathered in centralized government agencies, who would govern according to an objective, transcendent view of the public interest. That view draws on the findings of natural and social science, which enable us to reconfigure human nature in ways unimaginable to America’s Founders, who had to operate within the confines of human nature as they found it.

Conservative philanthropic patience is rooted in the awareness that that is a utopian vision and destined for frustration. Although it might achieve immediate successes here and there, over the long term, it cannot overcome the limitations (nor can it improve upon the decencies) of human nature as manifested and shaped by the American constitutional order. Progressive philanthropy is nonetheless forever convinced that sharpening techniques and focusing resources can, as progressives so often say, “change the world.” But they’ve indulged themselves in this sort of exaggerated rhetoric for over a century now, with little to show for it.

The primary task for conservative philanthropy has been to cast light on the American constitutional system, and to rescue it from the calumny heaped upon it by impatient progressivism. This means not only a political study of the Constitution—and the philosophical debates that gave rise to it and challenge it today—but also a vigorous cultural defense of the sort of human being it produces, in the face of the contempt of the intellectuals. As Irving Kristol put it, the aim must be to “explain to the American people why they are right, and to the intellectuals why they are wrong.”

The conservative foundations enumerated by Schmidt and Hartmann ably pursued this for four decades, beginning in the mid-1960s. Referring again to the three p’s, understanding and defending the kind of human being formed by our constitutional system is the foremost “principle” inspiring contemporary conservative philanthropy. But note that it’s discovered—or recovered. It is not cleverly concocted in order to win support. As progressivism constantly reminds us, the principles of our constitutional order are by no means as lofty or inspiring as the ones other intellectuals have conceived. But they have produced a solid, decent, prosperous, and free political order, in contrast to regimes aspiring to nobler human purposes.

Illustrations of the effective functioning of our constitutional system are all about us, with citizens quietly pursuing their own lives and building their own moral and spiritual communities. Fending off progressive encroachments into this state of affairs and supporting and nurturing specific local manifestations of it constitute the more immediate and practical aspects of conservative philanthropy. Under normal circumstances, this might seem to be just plain, non-ideological philanthropy. But as progressivism increasingly focuses on transforming human nature (now with the help of Silicon Valley’s unlimited imagination and supply of funds), attending to the simple flourishing of human communities within a vigorous civil society seems to fall increasingly within the purview of conservatism.

The Battle for School Choice

Schmidt, Hartmann, and I learned this together at the Bradley Foundation, above all in the battle for school choice. If ever a field of social policy has been thoroughly colonized by the progressive vision of top-down expert control overriding petty local considerations, it’s public education. By empowering parents to choose the schools best suited for their children with public support, Bradley sought to take authority away from those experts, and to acknowledge the capacity of everyday citizens—even in the most distressed circumstances—to govern themselves, according to their own moral and spiritual lights.

Note that this isn’t to substitute a conservative view of education for a progressive one. The schools chosen by parents reflected every manner of spiritual and secular conviction, employing every manner of pedagogy. Many of the pedagogies chosen by parents would not find favor among conservative educational experts, which shows a willingness to trust—to be “patient with”—the everyday wisdom of parents to make critical decisions on their own behalf. The school choice movement is an effort to restore the constitutional condition of decentralized, community-based decisionmaking in the most important aspects of human life.

Recently, though, conservative philanthropy seems to have gone off track. Over time, conservatives have built up a considerable arsenal of think tanks, academic centers, and activist nonprofits designed to go toe-to-toe with similar progressive institutions. (The notion that conservatives “invented” these institutions is ahistorical, given that the progressives had been building them since the early 20th century.) On the one hand, it’s difficult to see how conservatives could “play” in the public policy arena without these think tanks and other organizations. On the other hand, once conservative think tanks and nonprofits are armed with social science techniques, whose very purpose is to reshape human behavior, the temptation is to put them to that use.

A kind of conservative impatience with human nature has set in: Why can’t our state and national policies steer people toward virtue, character, and good behavior?

The new goal of producing conservative behavior coincides with the adoption of tools to measure and evaluate such changes—tools with which conservative board members are familiar from their day jobs as businessmen. Strategic planning with very specific benchmarks and goals; measurable outcomes; logic models; theories of change; social return on investment—all these bits of transplanted jargon are now to be found throughout philanthropic literature on the Right and Left.  

The Elections Distraction  

A final step in conservative philanthropy’s new impatience is the shift toward political engagement. What better way to ensure that one’s policy preferences are efficiently enacted than influencing elections? As a result, a considerable number of nonprofits supported by conservative philanthropy today are, as Schmidt and Hartmann suggest, oriented more toward the next election cycle than the fundamentals of the American political order.

The deficiency of this state of affairs was embarrassingly illuminated by the presidential election of 2016. For all the newly acquired political acumen of conservative philanthropy, very few practitioners thereof would have predicted or hoped for the election of Donald Trump. In our impatience to produce immediate policy and political results—to make people better, just as progressives once sought to do—we seem to have lost our “feel” for broader political currents. We might have noticed them, had we still been operating at a healthy remove from the tumult of daily politics, with quiet confidence in the everyday decencies of the American people and their ability to govern themselves accordingly.  

It’s ironic that conservative philanthropy, long vaunted especially by its foes for being so effective, should turn out to be far less so once it turned wholeheartedly toward activism. As suggested by Schmidt and Hartmann’s painfully skimpy but accurate list of specific conservative policies enacted, conservative philanthropy’s reputation for political acumen might have been exaggerated. What appeared to be an encompassing and diabolical agenda cleverly imposed on the public by conservative donors might in fact have been simply the underlying constitutional order’s resolute resistance to progressive utopian transformation.  

Nonetheless, it’s highly unlikely that conservative philanthropy will disinvest any time soon from its massive policy apparatus. The good news is that many conservative scholars today—some even embedded in that apparatus—are beginning to back away from immediate and incessant political combat. Some are trying to recall us to the fundamental soundness of our underlying constitutional system. That is, they’ve renounced the goal of reshaping Americans into virtuous conservatives, and are instead inclined to trust citizens gathered within their families, neighborhoods, and houses of worship, to produce their own bewilderingly diverse local moral and spiritual communities.  

Listen to Those Who Prescribe a Return to Humility

Charles MurrayYuval LevinRod DreherTim CarneyPatrick DeneenRobert WoodsonRyan Streeter, and David Brooks are all dismayed at the current condition of American politics. But they doubt that launching yet another grand national virtue offensive will solve our problems. They have instead fallen back on the continued vitality of our decentralist constitutional republic, and its capacity to make room for citizens to reconstruct their own lives and communities, free of the tutelage of professional experts with their grand plans for human reconstruction.

Restoring a more patient conservative philanthropy will mean backing away from the obsession with immediate policy and political outcomes. Rather than trying to force short-term results, a more detached, long-term view is required, with philanthropists waiting to see how events unfold, seeking small opportunities here and there to promote good tendencies and inhibit bad ones. This far humbler approach to philanthropy is not available to progressives, because they are persuaded that human nature requires urgent and massive professional intervention and reformation for us to survive. It is available to conservatives because we consciously operate within the horizon of a constitutional order that, we believe, quietly nurtures a range of modest but solid and attainable human virtues.  

We can continue to remind Americans of the necessity and goodness of that order, and we can help decentralized local communities to produce the immediate moral and spiritual orders desired by their own citizens. That would restore the patience of outlook that characterizes conservative philanthropy at its best.

This article originally appeared in Law and Liberty on May 22, 2019.

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