Political Entrepreneurs and Lunatics with Money

by Aaron Swartz on May 1, 2009

One of the interesting things about capitalism is that, if you have money, people seem to just magically appear to meet your needs. When it rains in New York City, vendors materialize to sell me an umbrella. When I was walking to the inauguration, the streets were lined with people selling hats and handwarmers. I certainly didn’t ask anyone to bring me a hat; I didn’t even realize I would want one, or I would have brought it myself — but people predicted that I would and brought it for me.

The more money you have, the more crazy these desires can get. If you’re rich, people offer to launch you into space, build large buildings with your name on them, or set up lavish cemetery plots. Or, as Steven Teles demonstrates, push the law to be more to your liking.

What’s striking about the rise of modern conservatism is that it was not, in large part, the creation of big business. Big business, all things considered, was pretty happy with the liberal consensus. They weren’t exactly itching to drown the government in the bathtub, especially when it did so much for them.

Teles makes this clear with his brilliant first chapter1 on the liberal legal network. “From the perspective of the early twenty-first century”, Teles notes, “it is perplexing why these wealthy, well-positioned, white men—presidents of the American Bar Association, leaders of the nation’s largest foundations—put their support behind a project to liberalize the legal profession.” (23) You had groups as respectable as the Ford Foundation, the ABA, and the OEO supporting a project as activist as the Legal Services Program which, Teles writes, “helped transform the administration, and ultimately the politics, of public aid.” (32) Law schools started pro bono clinics, and the Ford Foundation funded a dozen legal activist groups. (Admittedly, the other major foundations refused to join in.)

Corporations did attempt to strike back — as Teles documents in a chapter called “Mistakes Made”. He quotes an influential report on these early attempts, complaining that they simply took money from a company and spent it fighting that same company’s legal battles, a law firm structured as a tax dodge. Afraid of alienating the shareholders of their corporate donors, they shied away from principled ideological stands and didn’t influence the larger political debate.

But the real conservative movement was funded instead by wealthy extremists on the fringes of the business world. It was the creation of people like Richard Mellon Scaife, who inherited part of the vast Mellon fortune from his alcoholic mother. Joseph Coors inherited a brewing company, John M. Olin ran a relatively-obscure chemical company, R. Randolph Richardson inherited the money his father made by selling Vick’s to Procter and Gamble.2 None of them can exactly be called Titans of Industry, or even titans of industry. Yet these are the men who bankrolled not just the conservative legal movement, but the conservative movement in general.

This fact is sometimes obscured by a document called the Powell Memo. Written by Lewis Powell, shortly before Nixon made him a Supreme Court Justice, it calls on the US Chamber of Commerce to defend “the free enterprise system” from “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians” that would dare to criticize it.

The Powell Memo kicks off most histories of the right-wing think tank, not because it was so clearly influential, but because it was so clear: “The national television networks should be monitored”, Powell wrote, “in the same way that textbooks should be kept under constant surveillance.” What passionate critic of the free enterprise system could resist such a quote?3

But the quotes have disguised the fact that Powell’s suggestions didn’t exactly come to pass. It wasn’t the Chamber of Commerce or major businesses that took on these tasks, but a network of independent, ideologically-based think tanks. And these think tanks weren’t founded by eminent Men of Business, but by a new class of people — a group we might call political entrepreneurs.

Dan Burt was a little-known Massachusetts lawyer when he took over the Capital Legal Foundation and turned it into one of the first effective conservative-movement law firms. Henry Manne was merely a legal scholar when he began pitching Pierre Goodrich (millionaire stockpicker) on building a new right-wing law school. Lee Liberman Otis was just a law student when she started pitching Scaife and others on the need for the Federalist Society.4

The field even has its serial entrepreneurs. Paul Weyrich was the press secretary for a Republican Senator when he met Joseph Coors. Over the next few decades, Weyrich used Coors’ money to start the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, Moral Majority, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and various other groups that haunt any history of modern conservatism’s rise.

Just like the vendors at the inauguration, political entrepreneurs sought out people with money and tried to sell them something they didn’t even know they wanted. (Manne to Goodrich: “the Augean stables were cleaned by diverting a stream of water through them … One law school dedicated to propositions like those you propound … would do more to discipline all the other[s] than anything I can think of.” Note how Manne claims to promote the ideas “you propound”.) Nonprofits are small enough and rich people are wealthy enough that it only takes a handful of lunatics with money to fund a whole forest of think tanks.

And yet, there must be crazy lefty billionaires too. So why do most lefty think tanks rarely go any farther than the Clintonite consensus? (To take a story in the news recently, conservatives have had some fun pointing out the Center for American Progress, like Obama, is in favor of sending more troops to Afghanistan.) It’s easy to understand why big corporations wouldn’t want to push left-wing ideas, but it’s harder to understand why there aren’t any brazen rich people who do.

Which leads me to suspect the limiting factor isn’t the funders, but the entrepreneurs. The average lefty wants to do stuff, not hobnob with rich people and manage a staff. They’re not particularly cut out for organizational work nor do they hang around with the kind of people who are. If they do hang out with entrepreneurs, they’re more likely to be the kind who start small, hip technology companies, which just makes them wonder why they’re not making millions doing that instead of wasting time on this political bullshit. (One friend recently left lefty activism to make Firefox plugins.)

As a good institutionalist, I’m a bit uncomfortable proposing what basically amounts to a cultural explanation for this phenomenon, but while it’s less intellectually satisfying it’s at least more politically optimistic. If one of the things holding the left back is a lack of political entrepreneurs, then all we need to do is make more.

Now I just need to find some lunatics with money.

Full disclosure: Aaron Swartz recently co-founded the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, making him something of a political entrepreneur himself. Before that he was one of those lame tech startup entrepreneurs, founding reddit.com. This piece is written entirely in his personal capacity, of course.






  1. Actually the second — as with most academic books, the first chapter is theoretical background and the story doesn’t begin until after. 



  2. Note how many of them directly inherited their fortunes. I’ll leave it to someone more inclined to psychological speculation to comment on the relationship between an conservative philosophy and strong support for the system that let your father make his millions. 



  3. Kim Phillips-Fein’s excellent new history, Invisible Hands, is notable for how hard it works to put the Powell Memo in its proper context, noting how much was done before the memo was even written and casting a skeptical eye on claims of the memo’s influence. 



  4. For an example in another field, see my previous piece on Roger Bate, whose Africans Fighting Malaria spends its timing trying to claim environmentalists kill African babies. Bate tried to start the organization by hitting up his friends at Philip Morris, but in the end could only get the money from a Californian mining magnate. (Interestingly, many find this hard to believe and argue that Philip Morris must have been the real funder.) 

{ 21 comments }

1

luis 05.01.09 at 3:34 pm

Which leads me to suspect the limiting factor isn’t the funders, but the entrepreneurs. The average lefty wants to do stuff, not hobnob with rich people and manage a staff. They’re not particularly cut out for organizational work nor do they hang around with the kind of people who are. If they do hang out with entrepreneurs, they’re more likely to be the kind who start small, hip technology companies, which just makes them wonder why they’re not making millions doing that instead of wasting time on this political bullshit.
Urgh. This seems instinctively wrong to me (I know plenty of organizationally-minded progressives) but admittedly they aren’t hanging out with entrepreneurs very much, and the proof would seem to be in the pudding. I wish there were a way to understand this issue less anecdotally.

2

ajay 05.01.09 at 4:09 pm

There aren’t lots of lefties who want to found and run organisations? What on earth would lead you to write that? What about the Red Cross, MSF, Amnesty International, ACLU, Liberty, Oxfam, Children in Need, Greenpeace … pretty well every non-religious charity! A lot of the religious ones, too! Every trade union in the world! Lefties organise like dogs chase sticks!

What they don’t do, as a rule, is believe the same sort of things that very rich people believe. Contra your (unexamined) belief, there aren’t in fact that many crazy lefty billionaires. (Why on earth do you think there are? George Soros, I assure you, is not leftwing. Except by comparison.)

So when a lefty founds an organisation, unless he can find one of the very few leftwing billionaires – and most lefties don’t move in billionaire circles – he is going to have to seek funding from a broad base of relatively poor donors, which compels a rather different structure and function on the organisation, because poor people have different objectives from billionaires.

3

Keith 05.01.09 at 4:19 pm

Note how many of them directly inherited their fortunes. I’ll leave it to someone more inclined to psychological speculation to comment on the relationship between an conservative philosophy and strong support for the system that let your father make his millions.

I’m no psychologist, but it’s fairly obvious that there are some strong Oedipal symptoms at work in the Conservative Movement. Not just undermining the source of their family wealth by attacking the liberal institutions that made its accumulation possible, but all the tension surrounding authority figures, and especially all the talk about God.

Traditional Cultural authorities are to be obeyed — by everyone but them, because they are special snowflake children, who should be unshackled by the bonds of history, or the social contract with the poor. But still they are looking for validation or at least attention from someone, but since that someone is dead or absent, they just keep acting out, hoping someone will notice. Creepy.

4

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.01.09 at 4:46 pm

As a good institutionalist, I’m a bit uncomfortable proposing what basically amounts to a cultural explanation for this phenomenon…

Good. Analyzing superstructure as a thing in itself won’t get you anywhere. So, you might want to avoid doing it.

5

Frowner 05.01.09 at 4:50 pm

If we’re going to be all culturalist, I note that a lot of left-wing activists simply don’t believe in initiatives funded from the top by eccentric billionaires, left or otherwise. And that there are serious drawbacks to taking even left-centrist money–see The Revolution Will Not Be Funded if you don’t believe me.

I also wonder how race plays into this–on one hand, I would expect wealthy people of color to skew more liberal/centrist/left than rich white folks, but I would also expect there to be more rich white folks total.

And as a dirty hippie with friends in the fancy big-donor environmental movement, I don’t think it’s all it’s cracked up to be. You’re dependent on big donors, you have to schmooze them and sometimes they just get tired of you and drop you. There seems to be (anecdata rides again!) a big cultural component to working with rich folks–in the situations I’m familiar with, you’ve got to like the same stuff, have the same mannerisms, have the right clothes, etc etc, not embarrass them at parties. This pretty much rules out a lot of working class activists (and probably activists of color, too) even if you leave middle class hippies out of the equation.

Personally, look, I don’t want from-the-top social change. I don’t think that big donors generate good policy, on the right or the left. Projects that last have to evolve from the needs of large groups rather than the whims of the well off. And consider–yeah, the works of the right wing think tanks have lasted, but how much have they done for the various silent majorities that they purport to serve?

6

George W 05.01.09 at 5:43 pm

It’s like you had the germ of a good post, but then it went screaming off in the wrong direction. Agree with most of the above comments, but just editorially, I note that it took you 9 or 10 paragraphs to tie your analysis back in with your introductory observation, and rather tepidly at that. I had almost given up. That should have been a sign that your reasoning is awry.

7

luis 05.01.09 at 5:50 pm

Personally, look, I don’t want from-the-top social change.
Depending on what you mean by ‘social’, I’m not sure there is any other kind of useful change.

Technological, economic, and cultural change- changes that come about as a result of aggregated small changes and small actions on the parts of many different people- can be ‘not from the top’. But they aren’t primarily chosen or led, either, so these sorts of changes are rarely very useful in deliberately attaining specific outcomes. You can sort of try to engineer them, sometimes (see, e.g., Stallman’s attempts to bring software ‘to the masses’ in a particular way, or perhaps Ford’s early attempts at fair compensation to induce worker loyalty to capitalism) but that is hard to attempt and even harder to succeed at.

Political change in a large, modern polity- which is what Aaron is talking about, and I think what you’re really talking about as well- is a different beast. Because it involves organizing large groups of people to take explicit, conscious actions, it always has leaders, elites, and supporting institutions. They may or may not be well organized (in this particular case it seems like ‘less’ though I haven’t read the book yet). They may be more or less responsive to the interests of their particular masses, and their particular masses may be larger or smaller. They may or may not style themselves as populists; may or may not actually be populists. But these leaders and institutions are always there, consciously seeking specific change. So it is really hard to see what social change is that isn’t, in some way, ‘from the top’, at least as you seem to be defining it here.

8

lemuel pitkin 05.01.09 at 6:01 pm

Aaron Swartz is right that the average leftist isn’t interested in founding or managing organizations.

Just like the average baseball fan doesn’t care about batting or pitching, just fielding.

And like the average bookstore hardly carries novels and doesn’t even have a fiction section.

The average moviegoer has no interest in films made after 1950 or so.

The average economist takes it for granted that central planning is more efficient and dynamic than markets.

Yup.

9

Matthias Wasser 05.01.09 at 8:52 pm

As a good institutionalist, I’m a bit uncomfortable proposing what basically amounts to a cultural explanation for this phenomenon, but while it’s less intellectually satisfying it’s at least more politically optimistic. If one of the things holding the left back is a lack of political entrepreneurs, then all we need to do is make more.

If a thesis strikes you as intellectually dodgy but poliitcally convenient, that’s usually a cue to disregard the thesis.

Occam’s Razor, here: isn’t “where are all the left-wing billionaires?” kind of a self-answering question?

10

Lupita 05.01.09 at 10:10 pm

Venustiano Carranza started a socialist revolution in Mexico with funding from rich people. The American left gets no funding because there is no American left, that is, socialists or anti-imperialists. The void has been filled by self-described progressives who focus exclusively on narrowly defined, national issues that probably seem very boring and inconsequential to rich people, as they do to the rest of the world.

11

Frowner 05.02.09 at 12:52 am

I don’t want to be all contrary, but I was just at a large immigrants’ rights demonstration just full of anti-imperialists, probably split about 33/33/34 between liberals/progressives, socialists and anarchists. One of the reasons “there is no American left” is because actual radicals and anti-imperialists here routinely get dismissed as just a bunch of dirty hippies/students/non-serious-people by those who ought to know better. No matter whether our projects are the Allied Media Conference or the Incite Collective or indigenous rights or anti-border activism, we’re all just a bunch of silly students who smell bad, or whatever the insult of the day is. And the idea that we ought to belt up and court billionaires to prove that our projects have worth–well, if that’s the spirit of the Mexican revolution, I bet Zapata is spinning in his grave.

12

PD 05.02.09 at 3:03 am

Except that Mr. Goodrich didn’t actually give any money to fund GMUSL, and the school has been underfunded relative to its peers, often woefully, from the beginning. GMUSL under Manne came into being, ironically, because the president of a poor state school wanted a “name” law school, not because of funding from a rich donor. As Teles’s book shows, by the time the Manne became dean at GMUSL, the rich donors had largely given up on him.

13

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.02.09 at 10:04 am

Zizek in his Violence describes what he calls “liberal communists”, represented by Bill Gates, George Soros, etc. Shorter version in his piece here. Pretty obvious stuff, really. Zizek:

…We should have no illusions: liberal communists are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today. All other enemies – religious fundamentalists, terrorists, corrupt and inefficient state bureaucracies – depend on contingent local circumstances. Precisely because they want to resolve all these secondary malfunctions of the global system, liberal communists are the direct embodiment of what is wrong with the system. It may be necessary to enter into tactical alliances with liberal communists in order to fight racism, sexism and religious obscurantism, but it’s important to remember exactly what they are up to. [...]
They may fight subjective violence, but liberal communists are the agents of the structural violence that creates the conditions for explosions of subjective violence. The same Soros who gives millions to fund education has ruined the lives of thousands thanks to his financial speculations and in doing so created the conditions for the rise of the intolerance he denounces.

14

belle le triste 05.02.09 at 11:12 am

“liberal communists are the agents of the structural violence” — this is silly; most of the “agents of structural violence” (if this formulation even makes sense)* are neither “liberals” or “communists”

better would be: “liberal communists nevertheless remain among the agents of the structural violence (albeit in a tiny minority)”

*i know what zizek means but surely the entire point of the term “structural violence” in his argument is to indicate that the agency of individuals, even nominally powerful individuals of good heart, is ultimately neither here nor there

15

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.02.09 at 4:43 pm

Yeah, shouldn’t be “the” there, the editor missed that one. Native slavic speakers have a problem with articles.

16

Jack William Bell 05.03.09 at 5:26 pm

Personally I think the most interesting thing about this trend is the fact the Republican party has moved so far away from the ‘conservative policy’ of small government. Instead they played the game the way big business most wanted: Smaller taxes and more regulation.

I’m sure the second part surprised some people; after all doesn’t big business want to avoid regulation? The answer is no: Big businesses can control the regulation to their benefit in a way that harms them least, while keeping small business from being competitive with them because the regulations introduce costs which may only be covered by scale. Big business has money, money buys access, access leads to laws and regulation favoring the money. Endless circles, independent of which party is in power for closing the loop.

17

hix 05.03.09 at 6:09 pm

Not very convincing. As far as i can halfway pinpoint the political positions of some very rich, they are never left. Being left of some madman does not make you left compared to the average person.

18

Chris 05.04.09 at 7:16 pm

And yet, there must be crazy lefty billionaires too.

Considering that perhaps *the* defining characteristic of the right is the belief that rich people deserve their riches, should have more of them, and should be more revered by everyone by the personal awesomeness that made them rich, I’m not particularly surprised to find a strong political skew within this demographic.

There *are* some lefty billionaires – Gates and Soros come to mind – but I’m not sure if either of them is crazy, and more to the point, there are a lot more Scaifes and Coorses. (Gates, AFAIK, prefers to run his own organization rather than have someone run it for hire. Perhaps that is related to the fact that he is the maker of a fortune (in at least some sense), not the heir to one.)

Overall, you make an excellent case for stronger inheritance taxes – and isn’t it interesting how very vehement a movement funded by the *heirs* of rich people is about the “death tax”? Andrew Mellon didn’t pay the estate tax (AFAIK), but Richard Mellon Scaife sure did. Perhaps that’s why the latter is the one who intensely hates it.

19

Chris 05.04.09 at 7:18 pm

Oops… revered by everyone *for* the personal awesomeness &c. in my first paragraph above.

20

Aaron Swartz 05.04.09 at 8:48 pm

I guess I should have spelled this out, but my point was that I doubt we would have heard of Coors or Scaife and their political views were it not for the fact that they got pitched by political entrepreneurs. So saying “I haven’t heard of any lefty billionaires” isn’t really convincing evidence they don’t exist; you haven’t heard of most billionaires or their political views, you only hear about the ones who have been pitched on projects. And if only center-leftists and right-wingers pitch projects, you’ll only hear of those.

#5 is definitely right that there’s a huge cultural component to working with rich folks, which further limits the supply of political entrepreneurs. The observation also contains the germ of a counterargument: being rich severely skews the people you hang out with and how they act, which can push you to be more conservative. Still, I’m skeptical this is the whole story.

21

ajay 05.05.09 at 3:25 pm

So saying “I haven’t heard of any lefty billionaires” isn’t really convincing evidence they don’t exist; you haven’t heard of most billionaires or their political views, you only hear about the ones who have been pitched on projects. And if only center-leftists and right-wingers pitch projects, you’ll only hear of those.

Tell you what, here’s a link to the Forbes List of billionaires. Why don’t you go through that and list out all the ones who you’d call “lefties”.
http://www.forbes.com/2009/03/11/worlds-richest-people-billionaires-2009-billionaires_land.html

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