Politics & Policy

Not Only Ideas

At the root of conservatism is friendship.

To hear about the death of anyone “before his time” sends the icy chill of mortality up your back. That chill was part of what I felt when I learned last week that Michael Joyce, former director of the John M. Olin Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, had passed away at the age of 63. But I felt something more too: a mixture of shock and sadness. This surprised me, for I had never met Joyce.

Like many others, I had benefited from him indirectly. I was an Olin Fellow in my final year at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. I was a National Association of Scholars Olin Faculty Fellow during my sojourn in Boston College’s philosophy department. I have learned much from the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal and from the Olin- and Bradley-funded Philanthropy Roundtable.

But my response to Joyce’s death goes beyond regretting the loss of a benefactor. And this reveals something important about conservative philanthropy: As much as its success rests on its passion for ideas–and several people here on National Review Online have emphasized this passion–it is about more than ideas. It is about people. With Joyce gone, I feel as though we have lost not just ideas, or even an “ideas-guy,” but rather a friend.

Not that ideas are unimportant. But try “investing in an idea,” as so many people urge funders to do. You can’t. Ideas aren’t “out there” in the same way as dogs, or trees, or clouds are. Ideas rely upon people–to invent them, refine them, promote and perpetuate them.

“Funding ideas” requires not only intellectual taste, but also the ability to judge people. It requires trust. In more quantifiable fields we get rid of the need for trust by inventing benchmarks. There are no benchmarks for ideas. What seems like a small, scorned, even disreputable idea today may turn out to be a guiding principle for the next generation.

Perhaps the John M. Olin Foundation’s greatest “investment” confirms this point: the discovery of Allan Bloom. Before 1985, Bloom would have placed low or middling in any quantifiable measure of academic success. His eventual fame and his rapport with a small but dedicated group of students had a common root: Bloom’s ideas were his person. He wrote The Closing of the American Mind start to finish in the same way and tone as he would deliver his classroom lectures. Some of his devotees even felt slighted by Bloom, that he would publicize such “personal” ideas and insights, ones that they considered treasured up for themselves. And yet, these personal ideas hit a chord with millions of other persons and helped to validate, if not to launch, the conservative movement in academia.

Commentators at NRO and elsewhere also praise conservative philanthropists for promoting “argument,” and credit the conservative movement’s strength to its openness to argument. Again, two cheers for argument, but it’s not the whole story. One of my most gifted philosophy professors (a wonderful disputant) liked to say, “Arguments are a dime a dozen.” You want arguments? Try attending a planning session for a student socialist club or the local feminist organization. Marxist cells were famous, back in their day, for their all-night theoretical donnybrooks.

Argument is important for spelling out implications and consequences, but just as ideas depend on people, arguments depend on insight: insight provides the starting-point for any argument. Insight in turn belongs to people, and any insight is as good as (or as bad as) a person’s moral seriousness (or lack thereof). The key word here is “moral.” Character is the basis of insight, argument, and ideas. And character forms the basis for trust. Conservative philanthropy has done well, to the extent that it has, not just because it loves ideas or argument or “standin’ by its man,” but because it cares about character. Perhaps this insight into the importance of character played a part in leading Joyce to focus most of his last years on charter-schools. No amount of great ideas or sharp arguments will save people whose character has been warped from an early age.

This reliance on character has an additional benefit: It makes conservatives friends, or at least potential friends. This key to conservative strength has been noticed from the outside, at least in a distorted form, as the “vast-right wing conspirancy.” Conservatives chuckle at such language. What conspiracy? Don’t we disagree in all sorts of ways?

Sure. But there’s something to Hillary’s frothing. Political power, the established ideology, hates friends, because it knows that they share something that politics can’t control. The tyrants of ancient Athens knew this about the friends Harmodius and Aristogeiton. The democracy of ancient Athens knew this about Socrates and his friends. The Roman republic expelled the philosophers from Rome as a subversive group. The later Roman empire felt even more strongly about the Christian friends. The English king hated the “Friends of Liberty.” A shared commitment to character sets the stage for friendship and trust. And friendship drives the powerful crazy: it always looks to them like conspiracy.

This friendly force is the root of the power of conservative philanthropy and the conservative movement more generally. It’s something the Left, from the days of the French Revolution onward, has never grasped. That’s because the modern Left is based ultimately on a materialism that views human beings as mechanistic, or at least anti-social, individuals. In that scheme, friendship is just a momentary alliance for the sake of self-interest–against a common threat, for instance. The dissension and atomization endemic to the Left dramatizes the theory. The Right taps into a deeper wisdom, and so I would not want us to commit the opposite fault of responding to the Left’s materialism with a misplaced “Idealism” of our own.

So, goodbye, friend: I hardly knew you, and yet I did.

Albert Keith Whitaker is research fellow at the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, Director of Family Dynamics at Calibre Advisory Services, and President and Director of the Morton Foundation, Inc.

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