Politics & Policy

Foundation’s End

The last days of John M. Olin's conservative fortune.

Sometime this fall, the board of the John M. Olin Foundation will meet one last time and approve a final round of grants. By the end of the year, the foundation will release its staff and close its office. There will be a few checks to write in 2006, and perhaps several more as late as 2007 or even 2008. But for all practical purposes, the foundation will shut down–and one of the conservative movement’s most important institutions will cease to exist.

Tonight, in New York City, the Philanthropy Roundtable will host an event honoring the achievements of the John M. Olin Foundation and James Piereson, the man who has served as its executive director for nearly twenty years. “Olin’s history shows that you don’t need the resources of a giant foundation like Ford or Gates to have an extraordinary influence on politics and culture,” says Adam Meyerson, head of the Philanthropy Roundtable.

That’s for sure. The John M. Olin Foundation never had assets of more than $118 million–compared to $11 billion for Ford and $27 billion for Gates last year. Yet it has enjoyed an outsized influence. If conservative intellectuals and organizations were NASCAR vehicles, then just about every one of them would sport at least an Olin bumper sticker–and a good number would have O-L-I-N splashed across their hoods.

Perhaps the best way to think of the John M. Olin Foundation is not as a charitable foundation, but as a source of venture capital for the vast right-wing conspiracy. Consider just a few of the foundation’s major accomplishments:

‐Law and Economics: The John M. Olin Foundation has devoted more of its resources to studying how laws influence economic behavior than any other project. The law schools at Chicago, Harvard, Stanford, Virginia, and Yale all have law-and-economics programs named in honor of Olin. “You should not forget that without all the work in Law and Economics, a great part of which has been supported by the John M. Olin Foundation, it is doubtful whether the importance of my work would have been recognized,” said Ronald Coase, who won the 1991 Nobel Prize in economics.

‐The Federalist Society: It is impossible to say which grant in the history of the John M. Olin Foundation has mattered more than any other, but a strong candidate would be the foundation’s support for a 1982 conference of law students and professors that served as a springboard for the creation of the Federalist Society. “There are many members of the Federalist Society in our administration,” said Vice President Cheney in a speech. “We know that because they were quizzed about it under oath.”

Allan Bloom and Dinesh D’Souza: No two men are more responsible for discrediting the academic Left than these best-selling authors. The foundation supplied Bloom with a grant that helped him write an article for National Review that became the basis of The Closing of the American Mind, and also backed the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy for Bloom at the University of Chicago. D’Souza wrote his own groundbreaking book, Illiberal Education, as a John M. Olin Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute–and sparked the debate that helped turn the term “political correctness” into a familiar pejorative.

‐The Collegiate Network: The consortium of conservative college newspapers got its start in 1980, with a small grant to a student publication at the University of Chicago by the Institute for Educational Affairs, a group supported by the John M. Olin Foundation. Today, most of the country’s top colleges and universities are home to an established student newspaper or magazine that provides an alternative voice on campus and serves as a training ground for future conservative leaders. Examples: Dartmouth Review, Harvard Salient, and Michigan Review.

‐ “The end of history” vs. “The clash of civilizations”: The most important foreign-policy debate in the aftermath of the Cold War was born when Francis Fukuyama delivered his famous “end of history” lecture at Bloom’s Olin Center in Chicago–and then had it published in The National Interest, a journal founded and maintained with Olin dollars. Fukuyama’s most prominent critic has been Samuel Huntington, the national-security expert who headed the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard.

This is only a partial list of the achievements made possible by the John M. Olin Foundation’s commitment to supporting what its long-time president, William E. Simon, called the “counterintelligentsia.” Other prominent beneficiaries of the foundation’s grants have included Linda Chavez, Irving Kristol, Henry Manne, Harvey Mansfield, Charles Murray, Michael Novak, and George Stigler as well as the Center for Individual Rights, the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, the Manhattan Institute, the National Association of Scholars, The New Criterion, and the Philanthropy Roundtable.

James Piereson has run the foundation’s day-to-day operations for the last two decades, ever since his predecessor Michael Joyce left to head the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee. “Before Mike hired me, I didn’t know anything about foundations or think tanks,” says Piereson, a Michigan native who abandoned a career in academia to begin one in conservative philanthropy.

Although Piereson refuses to take credit for the achievements of the John M. Olin Foundation’s grant recipients, they routinely laud him–and not just for providing the cash that pays their bills. “When I was starting my own think tank from scratch a decade ago, Jim was the first person I called for advice,” says Linda Chavez of the Center for Equal Opportunity. “He was both a source of indispensable financial support and a sounding board for ideas.”

But now the foundation is closing down, according to the wishes of its benefactor, the industrialist John M. Olin (1892-1982). He stipulated that rather than exist in perpetuity, his foundation would spend all of its assets within a generation of his death.

Will a new philanthropist now rise to take the place of the John M. Olin Foundation? Piereson isn’t sure what the future holds. “The conservative foundation movement that took shape in the 1970s thus seems to have run its course,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year. “The ground gained by conservative ideas in recent decades can be quickly lost if those ideas are not renewed and persistently articulated in public forums. This requires talent, energy–and money. … [Conservative] principles must maintain a central place in the debates over our future–and a new generation of conservative philanthropists is needed to make sure that they do.”

Adam Meyerson of the Philanthropy Roundtable has some advice: “We have three messages for philanthropists who want to promote liberty as effectively in the next 30 years as Olin has over the past 30,” he says. “First, study the Olin strategy of long-term investment in ideas. Second, choose trustees who share your commitment to liberty and will adhere to donor intent as faithfully as Olin’s. And third, hire an executive director as wise and dedicated as Jim Piereson.”

John J. Miller, a writer for National Review, is completing a book on the history of the John M. Olin Foundation. He has written about the foundation previously for the Philanthropy Roundtable and contributed content to a program that will be distributed at tonight’s event.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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