A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America by John J. Miller
The most magnificent acts of philanthropy in the United States have often reflected an old-world sense of noblesse oblige but with a public-spirited American twist—the Medicis as channeled by Ben Franklin, perhaps. Thus the great charitable bequests of the first-generation Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Mellons did not primarily fund art for art's sake (much less for a dynasty's sake) but endowed education, culture, and public works as means of civic self-improvement.
But what if "higher culture" and education no longer refine and uplift? And what if property rights and free enterprise, which alone can create great and widespread wealth, come under attack? In the late 1970s, this was the situation that confronted John M. Olin, a stout and principled capitalist, who had accumulated a fortune in the ammunition business. His solution—his wonderful, highly effective solution—was the John M. Olin Foundation.
With sympathy and insight, National Review's John Miller tells the story of how Olin transformed his small, private foundation into a major force for shaping America's cultural and intellectual landscape. After enlarging the foundation with additional cash, Olin hired a politically savvy staff to seek out and finance a "counter intelligentsia," intended to oppose the liberal elites who had ascended in the 1960s and '70s. By 2005, when it spent itself out of existence in accord with Mr. Olin's wishes, the foundation had disbursed some $370 million in support of conservative ideas and institutions. That's about the annual budget of Wichita—spread over more than two decades, no less. But what "a bang for the buck," to use a favorite phrase of the foundation's long-time chairman, William E. Simon.
The foundation's many beneficiaries (including the Claremont Institute) remember Olin's legacy with gratitude, and hope this book will help inspire a new generation of conservative philanthropists.
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This article appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books