Was the Movement Con Mind Ever Open?

by Jeremy Beer on April 9, 2010 · 10 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power,Short

That is the question raised by Larison, in response to Noah Milman’s post on the “closing of the conservative mind.” Both posts are worth reading, but what caught my eye was this spot-on insight from Millman.

Blame the money. Is there a major patron of conservative intellectuals who is a patron primarily because he or she wants to generate new ideas, insights, works of the spirit that do not already exist in the world, as opposed to advancing arguments for ideas that are already well-established in defense of interests that are well-entrenched? If there is, please let me know that person’s name. Ron Unz is the only person who comes immediately to mind, and honestly I don’t think he’s quite in the wealth category one would ideally want.Nobody, of course, is just going to hand out money willy-nilly. But there is an enormous difference between bankrolling a person or organization because you like what they think, and bankrolling a person or organization because you like the way they think. If a multi-millionaire says: I am interested in education, and I believe that vouchers are the answer, so I’m going to give $100,000 per year to a think-tank to produce pro-vouchers research and advocate for vouchers, well, that’s not really intellectual patronage. If, on the other hand, that same multi-millionaire says: I am interested in education, and I am skeptical of the way the system works now, how we train teachers to how our schools are financed, and impressed with some of what’s been achieved following new models. I’m going to find the smartest, most informed, most independent-minded people I can, who are also skeptical of established practice, and give them money to do whatever research they want. If they can impress me with their independence and intelligence, then I want to know what they can learn with a bit of money to work with – and I want other people to know as well. That second millionaire might wind up funding Diane Ravitch – and getting a very different report than he or she expected. And why would that be so bad? If Diane Ravitch has lost faith in a certain kind of school reform, that’s a hugely important fact – her arguments are ones that any advocate of school reform needs to know and grapple with. Even if she doesn’t change her patron’s mind, he or she should be glad to have funded her work. Ultimately, you can only have an intelligentsia if you have patrons who are interested in learning things they don’t already know. And so, if you want a conservative intelligentsia, you need patrons of a conservative temperament who want to learn things they don’t already know – things that may unsettle them. If all the patron wants is advocacy for established views in defense of established interests, then you don’t actually have intellectual patronage at all, and pretty soon you won’t have an intellectual establishment.

I have never been a movement conservative, and I’ve never worked for a conservative institution, so any impressions I have are from a considerable distance – second-hand impressions at best, generally third-hand. Having declared that caveat, I will say that my general impression is that the money going to purportedly intellectual conservative organs is vastly more interested in advocacy than in developing intellectual talent or generating new insights. If I’m right, then that is something that has to change if you want an open conservative mind.

As someone who used to work at ISI and whose day job involves working with many right-of-center philanthropists, I will confirm that in my own experience few people indeed qualify under Millman’s definition of true intellectual patrons. The conservative philanthropic community, unfortunately, takes its lead from the movement’s ideological whips, who of course use every opportunity to “educate” — i.e., keep in line — this community. Breaking this bad cycle is one of the major challenges facing those of us who would like to see the revival of smart, independent-minded, intellectually honest and creative thinking that takes place within, or at least in fruitful engagement with, a living “conservative” tradition, broadly understood.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bruce Smith April 9, 2010 at 12:49 pm

So what millionaires are going to fund research into why the Republic Party has had a tendency since 1945 to increase the U.S. Federal debt as a percentage of GDP far higher than the Democratic Party? Secondly, if the system is such that there is over reliance on millionaires to fund research you are very much likely to get biased results. So shouldn’t we be trying to establish systems of funding research that produce less biased results or at least research that reflects a wider spectrum of bias?

avatar John Médaille April 9, 2010 at 2:57 pm

When corporate money funds “think-tanks,” it is an investment on which the intend to make a high return. It is no different from other lobbying efforts. And think tanks themselves are suspicious; generally, they tend to be places where people go to stop thinking, and start propagandizing. I am sure there are exceptions, but could a scholar at a think tank survive there if he challenged its basic assumptions? I doubt it.

avatar Jeremy Beer April 9, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Right, John. The conservatives posited think tanks as alternatives to the university. And think thanks have by and large proved to be substantially *more* politicized than the universities. So much for that strategy.

avatar Matthew Reed April 9, 2010 at 4:40 pm

What I like about ISI, and you can tell me if I am wrong as I don’t know much, is that they seem to try to encourage right-leaning scholars and students who are still involved with colleges and universities, such as they are, rather than trying to be completely separate. Perhaps that’s why they seem to respect more diverse points of view. I can’t imagine there are many other large conservative organizations that host conferences on both Wendell Berry and Milton Friedman.

avatar Carl Scott April 9, 2010 at 8:15 pm

Something about that American Scene scene, with Millman and Freidersdorf, just makes me groan. They’re so serious about conservatism that they wind up hating it as it usually exists in this mediocre world of ours. Gadflies with none of the Socratic humor.

While I like his conception of the ideal think-tank philanthropist, I can’t say I’m that impressed by what Millman’s laying down here (his real insight about some of the Manhattan Institute’s work, fr’ instance, is coupled with a very unfair characterization of their work as a whole). I do accept Jeremy’s report about his own experience/impressions vis-a-vis the influence of money.

But a quibble, Jeremy–when you say in the comment that there have been conservative proponents of think tanks as alternatives to universities, in which there would not only be 1) a refuge for scholarly conservatives, but 2) a place LESS POLITICIZED than the universities, well, it sounds utterly preposterous that many conservative think-tankers would have made that second claim in any sustained way. Again, I’d assume you’d have a better sense of how many ever believed/said such a thing. But here in bloggy mode you present it as something “the conservatives” all did and held. Now, that can’t be right, right?

avatar John Médaille April 9, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Some of the earliest political journals I recall reading are the Intercollegiate Review and Modern Age and I always found a lively intellectual discussion and debate in their pages. I have never felt that ISI was narrow and its catalog seems to represent a variety of conservative thought.

avatar polistra April 10, 2010 at 10:07 am

Millionaires are good, but not because of the money they can give.

Consider recent events in climate “science” for a good illustration. The millionaires AND the governments have been lavishly funding the Carbon Cult since it was founded by Margaret Mead in 1975. Why? Because it gives the governments a “scientific” excuse for totalitarian rule, AND because it gives the millionaires a new bubble.

The Cult was broken by a small handful of long-suffering and hard-working real scientists like Art Robinson, Steve McIntyre and John Coleman. These guys are relatively well-off (nowhere near the millionaire level by modern standards)… but their comparative wealth gave them the time and the INDEPENDENCE to work things out on their own, not to donate to think-tanks.

avatar Boz April 10, 2010 at 1:39 pm

I shared my paltry experience on the other thread, but, in relation to what John wrote, it’s worth noting that the Heritage Foundation just started a lobbying organization.

http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/04/heritage%20to%20launch%20grassroots%20advocacy%20group

I hope there aren’t problems at ISI. In my experience, it was really one of the bright spots on the right.

avatar Daniel McCarthy April 10, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Carl, yes, there really was a time when people on the right talked about think tanks as independent, non-political (in the partisan, not philosophical sense) alternatives to the universities. The Foundation for Economic Education and the Liberty Fund, two of the earliest think tanks on the right, still uphold that tradition. ISI dates to the same period. AEI was originally much more about pure research than policy advocacy. Even Cato began with an interest in history and (libertarian) theory, back in the days of Murray Rothbard and Leonard Liggio. The “think tanks” cased to be counter-universities and became thinly disguised partisan policy shops beginning — or at least accelerating — in the 1970s, and have become progressively worse over time.

In my experience, what drives right-ish nonprofits into partisanship is the tendency to hire washed-up Republican bureaucrats and failed politicians to lead them (rather than, say, academics), coupled with the drive of accountants and publicists to cater to the rock-bottom lowest common denominator of the donors, which usually involves vague flimflam about “Western civilization” and lots of brochures with flags on them. Some of the donors are interesting and eccentric people who might put money behind deeper ideas, but they have even less power over these institutions than alumni and trustees have over universities. (Remember when power to the alumni was a big “conservative” cause?) There is no more perfect example of what James Burnham described as the managerial revolution than the case of the conservative movement.

avatar John Willson April 15, 2010 at 8:05 pm

I’m sorry, I don’t know Noah Milman, but I suspect he is quite young. I would ask him, or anybody on this site, to name ONE PERSON IN HISTORY who fits his description, other than God. I have had direct experience with every one of the institutions named so far, and several more. From afar they all have feet of clay and are subject to labels, as many of my friends have also given one label or another to the Philadelphia Society or Hillsdale College, two institutions that I will defend against sword or computer. “Blame the money,” Mr. Milman, is as reductionist as “blame the________,” and anyone can fill in the blank. One of the reasons I like this site is that everybody who disagrees with me cares not a whit about who has the money. I’ve been involved in raising money for about forty years; not once have I asked anyone to agree with me.

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