I don’t have very much to add to the long list of obituaries and articles written about the recent death of David Koch. But Darren Dochuk, a historian at Notre Dame, used this event to remind the readers of Politico Magazine about another pair of conservative brothers who became significant philanthropists: J. Howard Pew (1882-1971) and his brother, Joseph Pew (1894-1963).

The Pews, he says, “spent their oil fortune remaking the GOP in their libertarian and conservative Christian image.” According to Dochuk, the Pews “became enraged at what they considered a dictatorial attempt by Washington to squash the libertarian principles on which their company—and, they believed, their country—were built” and then fought back against the New Deal in every way they could.

Some comparisons between the two sets of brothers are accurate. J. Howard Pew, like the Koch brothers, was a libertarian. I am less clear about his brother’s views because Joseph Pew was not a writer like J. Howard Pew was, but it’s accurate to say that Joseph Pew was a conservative. The Pews in the 1930s did buy popular magazines and sponsor radio shows to provide readers and listeners with a free-market viewpoint.

But two differences between the 1930s and today are clear. First, the Democratic Party was far more dominant in the 1930s than either party is today. In 1937, for example, the Senate had 77 Democrats, along with two Farmer-Labor senators and one Progressive senator who caucused with them. The Republicans only had 16 senators.

Second, as David Burnham reminds us in A Law Unto Itself (1989), the Roosevelt Administration frequently used the Internal Revenue Service as a weapon against its enemies. This has one consequence in the history of philanthropy in the case of the Annenberg Foundation. Moses Annenberg, in his old age, was convicted and jailed on income tax evasion charges that were questionable. He died shortly after he was released from prison. Annenberg’s son, Walter Annenberg, was a conservative who introduced Margaret Thatcher to Ronald Reagan. But after seeing what the state did to Moses Annenberg, Walter Annenberg made sure that the Annenberg Foundation did not advance conservative views in his lifetime, which allowed the foundation to be easily captured by the left after his death.

Joseph Pew’s efforts on behalf of conservative Republicans led Democratic National Committee chairman Robert M. Hannegan to denounce him in 1944 as “one of the wealthy group of little-known, power-hungry men whose steady stream of money dominates the Republican party.” But Pew’s efforts took a great deal of courage, particularly given the politicization of the IRS at the time.

I think J. Howard Pew was a more significant figure in philanthropy than Joseph Pew, primarily because of his grantmaking in the 1950s. By all accounts, J. Howard Pew was a very active donor. Randy Richardson, who was president of the Smith Richardson Foundation for several years, told me that Pew was “a little man who wouldn’t stop talking” and once monopolized the conversation during a train trip between New York and Washington.

  1. Howard Pew was also a forceful advocate of donor intent. He made sure that the J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust, would “acquaint the American people” with “the evils of bureaucracy,” “the values of a free market,” and “the paralyzing efforts of government controls on the lives and activities of people.”

“Today, we associate the Pew name with moderate bipartisan organizations like the Pew Charitable Trust (sic) and the Pew Research Center,” says Dochuk. Well, the reason we do this is because Rebecca Rimel, in her quarter-century as president of the Pew Charitable Trusts, transformed the organization from a collection of seven independent, but related foundations funding conservative, libertarian, and Philadelphia-based causes into a nonprofit promoting corporate goodthink. (I write about Rimel here.)

But the stories of the Pews and the Kochs are not yet comparable because the Koch wealth is still controlled by founder Charles Koch, who appears hale and vigorous, but who is also 84.

This why we need to pay attention to Charles Koch’s son, Chase Koch[1], born in 1977 and the only second-generation Koch who could be a plausible successor, since he’s the only child of Charles Koch interested in philanthropy and David Koch’s children are all under age 25. Politico reporter Maggie Severns profiles Chase Koch in this piece.

Severns reports that Chase Koch was fortified with libertarian philosophy at an early age, spending Saturday afternoons home from elementary school listening to the works of F.A. Hayek as books on tape. But Severns says that the younger Koch practices “what one might call a kinder, gentler, libertarian philanthropy.” So the Koch nonprofits are starting to practice what the insiders in Wichita call “the shift” towards cooperation rather than confrontation with the left.

We’ve seen “the shift” in several ways, first in the Koch alliance with the left on criminal justice reform followed by new efforts in foreign policy and, in September 2019, immigration through the “Common Ground” initiative.

These moves could be a smart way for the Kochs to reach out to rather than fight their political enemies. But they could also be the first signals of the Koch’s philanthropy beginning to submit to the ideas of its political opponents.

It’s too early to tell what sort of leader Chase Koch will be. But if the Kochs do not want their philanthropy to suffer the fate of that of the Pews, I’d suggest they carefully study the problems of preserving donor intent in perpetual foundations.

Image credit: Truthout.org CC BY-NC-SA (modifications made)

[1] Chase Koch’s full name is Charles Chase Koch, but he prefers not to use his first name.

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