The Right Coast

March 08, 2005
"A Bad Idea Migrates from Left to Right"
By Gail Heriot

The always-interesting Andrew Ferguson has an article about the Bradley Awards in the March 7th issue of the Weekly Standard. Ferguson writes:

"CONSERVATIVES FROM ALL OVER DESCENDED upon the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on the evening of February 16 to witness a gala celebration marking the second annual Bradley prizes. As it happened, only a few weeks before, the newspaper Crain's Chicago Business published an eye-opening report on the liberal MacArthur Foundation's "genius grants," which the conservative Bradley prizes self-consciously emulate. The coincidence of these two things, the Bradley celebration and the newspaper report, is the kind of serendipity that grumpy magazine writers live for.

"As every American prone to envy already knows, each year the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation offers $500,000 checks to twenty or thirty writers, graphic artists, social scientists, real scientists, public officials, basket weavers, political activists, and general-purpose busybodies, in return for which the recipients are expected to do . . . nothing. The genius grants famously come with "no strings attached." And sure enough, the reporter for Crain's managed to follow up on a select group of genius grant recipients, those in the literary arts, and found that nothing [or something close to it] is exactly what the recipients produced after they cashed their checks....

Ferguson continues:

"... Slinging around great bags of money, with no expectation of return, ... really does seem like one of those ideas that only a liberal could think was terrific. The entire domestic policy agenda of Lyndon Baines Johnson was based on it, with well-known consequences. Conservatives are made of sterner, or at least more realistic, stuff.

"They are, aren't they? So you might have thought, until the Bradley prizes were conceived...."

I was among the 500 or so attending the Bradley awards gala month and saw my friend and comrade-in-arms Ward Connerly receive his award. I drank champagne and wolfed down hors d'oeurves as if I hadn't eaten in days (the little crab cakes were great). But I'm inclined to think that Ferguson is right here.

Don't get me wrong. I believe that conservatives should take more, not fewer opportunities, to honor their special heroes. Moreover, Ward and his fellow award recipients--Robert George, Heather McDonald and George Will--all richly deserve the recognition they received. If I had unlimited funds, I'd write each one of them a check for ten times the $250,000 (yes,$250,000, the Bradley Foundation is a bit more frugal than the MacArthur Foundation) and more. But I don't have unlimited funds, and neither does the Bradley Foundation or the so-called conservative movement in general. And I'm not convinced that this is the best way to spend $1,000,000 plus the cost of all those nifty crab cakes (though I note for the record that nobody at the Bradley Foundation asked me, nor do they have any obligation to).

I've long thought that conservative/libertarian institutions, large and small, tend to get more bang for each buck than their counterparts on the left. As Ferguson suggests, this may in part because on good days at least conservatives are more sensitive to the incentives they are creating. But I have a feeling that some of it is just the age of the institutions involved. Many of the right's significant institutions are simply younger that the left's. The ACLU, for example, has been around since 1920, enough time to bury lots and lots of bodies in the basement. It surely has more than one employee on the payroll who was once very talented and useful to the organization, but has long since ceased to be at least the latter. Indeed, they probably have quite a few employees who were never worth their salary, each with his or her own story. One might be the idiot nephew of the former vice president of some foundation who really, really wanted to find his nephew a job before deciding on the ACLU's yearly grant. Another might be the guy in the windowless office who threatens to sue any time noises are made about terminating his employment. Over time, budgets get freighted with special expenses of one sort or another. Just think of what the budgets of left-leaning institutions like Harvard University (founded 1636) must be like.

The Federalist Society (1982), the Cato Institute (1977), the Heritage Foundation (1973) and the American Enterprise Institute (1943) are comparative babies. I'm sure that they have wasted a few dollars here or there, but their records are pretty clean when compared to their competitors'. They and their funders shouldn't assume that this will always be so. Sooner or later, the rent-seekers try to move into any successful organization; one way or another, money starts getting wasted.

There's no easy way to avoid those problems. But for foundations to be vigilant about the incentives they are creating (or failing to create) when they spend large sums of money is a good start.