A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America

John Jos. Miller

200 pages, Encounter Books, 2005

Buy the book »

There are two ways to read this book: as a paean to a hardworking, bristly, moderately visionary industrialist who became a financial angel of the right; or as a step-by-step recounting of how a group of conservative intellectuals allied themselves with a right-leaning wealthy philanthropist to accomplish a massive transformation of American political culture.

On the first count, the book serves up an excessively laudatory tribute to John Olin, a man who inherited substantial wealth and devoted a portion of it to defending the system that afforded that wealth. This part of the story is aptly symbolized by a photograph in the book reproduced from a 1958 cover of Sports Illustrated depicting Olin hunting ducks in his elegant attire of coat, tie, and hat, the gentleman-sportsman wielding one of the products of his industrial empire.

On the second count, however, the book provides a fascinating account of one of the mostly deftly orchestrated political movements in American history. John Olin was one of three sons of Franklin Olin, a wealthy entrepreneur whose company had grown from a black powder mill into a major ammunition manufacturer during World War II, and later into a huge, diversified chemical and ammunition corporation. John and his brother, Spencer, had helped guide the company’s expansion, but in later life John turned his attention toward philanthropy dedicated to, in his words, “the use [of] this fortune to help preserve the system which made its accumulation possible.”

As John became more interested in the potential of philanthropy, his John M. Olin Foundation rapidly evolved – from awarding the usual sort of grants to universities; to serving as a conduit for CIA money secretly channeled to causes designed to spread U.S.-friendly ideas throughout the world; and finally, under the leadership of former Secretary of the Treasury William E. Simon, to becoming a highly strategic financial engine of the growing conservative movement through a coordinated pattern of activity involving foundations, think tanks, and university institutes. The list of intellectuals, political figures, and institutions that interacted with the benefit of grants and other support of the John M. Olin Foundation reads like a “Who’s Who” of late-20th-century conservatism.

For those interested in philanthropy’s role in shaping social policy, the book offers a rare insider’s view of how a group of similar-minded businessmen, policymakers, and intellectuals joined forces under the leadership of a few private foundations to transform the American political landscape. The strategy was smart and straightforward: foster an idea-incubating network of conservative intellectuals; support the creation of institutes, think tanks, and publications through which such ideas get disseminated; forge close ties with policymakers; and persistently seek to steer the course of major economic, political, and academic institutions in the desired direction. This strategy was carried out through highly targeted grants to ideologically compatible programs at elite universities, emergent conservative magazines, selected intellectuals, and new organizations. What is surprising is that it was accomplished for a total expenditure of under $400 million over a 30-year period, substantially less than the current annual grants budget of the Ford Foundation.

Author John Miller summarizes the lessons learned from this approach to philanthropy, the most important of which is that “ideas have consequences.” He points to the John M. Olin Foundation’s defining principle: a commitment to freedom, understood as the values and social institutions that underpin the free market system. He frequently uses war metaphors to describe the tenacity and aggressiveness with which the foundation pursued this principle: “war of ideas,” “culture war,” “war over higher education,” “colleagues in arms,” and so on. Indeed, his profile of William Simon resembles how one might describe a commanding general inspiring his troops, when Simon declares the purpose of the foundation to be the defeat of the “statist, anti-freedom philosophy that was growing like a cancer.”

Miller is hardly a disinterested author. He is a writer for National Review and received a grant from the John M. Olin Foundation to research this book. In celebrating the work of the foundation he tends to ignore other important economic and social forces that aided the growth of conservatism in the late 20th century. Yet even allowing for partisan hyperbole, the story provides one of the most interesting and best-documented accounts in recent years of the work of a highly focused philanthropic institution.

The demonstrated impact of this form of philanthropy suggests yet a third way to read this book – as a case study of the ambiguous role of private wealth in shaping social policy.The Olin story raises important questions concerning the function of philanthropic institutions in a democracy: Does great wealth channeled through philanthropy unfairly distort the marketplace of ideas? What is the role of partisanship in foundations’ work? And, ultimately, is there a danger that foundations, themselves creatures of the holders of great wealth, tend to exacerbate the movement toward the privatization of the public arena that we are experiencing in political life today? “A Gift of Freedom” is worth reading for many reasons, not the least of which is that it provides an opportunity to reflect upon these important, though perhaps unintended, questions about the purpose of philanthropy.

Bruce Sievers is a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Haas Center for Public Service and a senior fellow at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. He was the founding CEO of the California Council for the Humanities and executive director of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund.