New York Times
November 28, 2005


By John J. Miller

Washington -- "Please give me a date," William E. Simon used to ask
the industrialist John M. Olin years ago, when the two men discussed
Mr. Olin's desire to have his charitable foundation go out of business
at some point in the future. Yet Mr. Olin always rebuffed Mr. Simon,
who was president of the John M. Olin Foundation for 23 years. "You
figure it out," he would reply.

The figuring out is now over: tomorrow afternoon, the board of the
Olin Foundation will meet for the last time, approve a final round of
grants that will empty its coffers and then disband forever. Having
given away hundreds of millions of dollars over several decades, one
of the great underwriters of the conservative movement will be no

Many liberals are no doubt pleased to see the John M. Olin Foundation
go the way of the woolly mammoth. Others, however, are studying the
foundation in order to emulate it: the new Democracy Alliance, to
which some 80 affluent liberals have pledged $1 million each, aims to
do for the left what the Olin Foundation did for the right.

Why is the foundation closing, 52 years after its founding? John M.
Olin, who died in 1982, feared that if it were to exist in perpetuity,
it would eventually be captured by hostile forces; the example of
Henry Ford II, who quit the board of the Ford Foundation in
frustration over its liberal agenda, had especially impressed him.

What did the foundation do? After becoming its president in 1977, Mr.
Simon called for the creation of a "counterintelligentsia" to balance
what he saw as the liberal dominance of the universities, the news
media, nonprofit organizations and government bureaucracies. The Olin
Foundation and other right-leaning philanthropies -- particularly the
Bradley, Scaife and Smith Richardson Foundations -- provided a pool of
venture capital that helped build a network of research institutions,
academic fellowships and highbrow journals for the conservative
movement. If it is something of a cliche these days to suggest that
conservatives are winning the war of ideas, much of the credit belongs
to these grant makers.

The Olin model offers many lessons for foundations that would seek to
mimic its success, some of them simply mechanical: restrict the number
of trustees to avoid the creation of factions (there will be only six
at tomorrow's Olin meeting); hire a staff of smart generalists with
diverse backgrounds from outside the foundation world; and make sure
that everybody sticks to a set of clearly defined guiding principles.

Other lessons are more strategic in nature. The Olin Foundation's
leaders understood that success is often unplanned, and so they
focused on creating the conditions for success rather than thrusting a
set of detailed agendas and goals upon grant recipients. Nobody, for
example, expected that Allan Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind"
would become a runaway best seller whose meaning is still debated two
decades after it was published; the John M. Olin Foundation merely
decided in the early 1980's that Mr. Bloom, a political theorist at
the University of Chicago, was a genuine talent who deserved financial

What's more, philanthropists must have Job-like patience, because in
the war of ideas there are few quick payoffs. More than five years
passed between Mr. Bloom's first grant and the publication of his
landmark book; and few of the foundation's successes were as obvious
as his case. The idea was simply to provide a steady source of
assistance to conservative thinkers, who could devote themselves to
writing books and articles rather than to raising cash for next year's

Finally, the decision to spend itself out of existence may seem
bizarre, like an act of philanthropic suicide, yet it magnified the
Olin Foundation's influence. Although it never had much more than $100
million in assets, its refusal to hoard its endowment allowed it to
spend at the rate of a much larger foundation.

So, is it possible to create a liberal version of the John M. Olin
Foundation? I have my doubts. The success of any idea certainly
depends to some extent on whether it can muster financial support, and
it may also benefit from effective marketing. But in the end, not all
ideas are equal. Some are simply better than others. After all, if
money were everything, then liberalism would have nothing to worry
about: the Ford Foundation's coffers alone dwarf the combined
resources of the conservative grant makers.

Conservatives never would have risen to prominence without their
compelling critique of the welfare state, their faith in the power of
free markets to create economic prosperity, and their belief that
religion can play a constructive role in the public square.

The economist Thomas Sowell once joked that Hank Aaron was a lucky
man, because he was always stepping up to the plate when a home run
was about to be hit. Likewise, conservative ideas took flight not
because wealthy philanthropists were suddenly willing to finance them,
but because they identified actual problems and offered sensible

If liberals now want to create a counter-counterintelligentsia, it's
going to take more than money; what they truly need is a set of really
good ideas.

John J. Miller, a writer for National Review, is the author of "A Gift
of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company