Sunday, January 30, 2022

Has the Liberty Fund Departed from its Founder's Original Intent? Can Liberty be Promoted by the Intellectual Study of Liberty without Political Partisanship?

I have been thinking about the two questions in the title for this post after reading a disturbing article by Adam Wren in the Indianapolis Monthly about the turmoil within the Liberty Fund and the tragic suicide of Nicolas Maloberti last summer after he was fired from his position as a Liberty Fund Fellow.

On this blog, I have often mentioned my participation in conferences organized by the Liberty Fund.  From 1989 to 2019, I have participated in over 30 conferences, and I was the organizer for 15 of them.  I regard this as one of the highlights of my intellectual life.

The Liberty Fund was founded in 1960 by Pierre F. Goodrich, a successful Indiana businessman.  Its headquarters was in Indianapolis until it was moved a few years ago to Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis.  Goodrich was a lawyer, with his law degree from Harvard.  His family was prominent in Indiana.  His father had been Governor of Indiana.

He was an avid reader of the Great Books--the classic texts of Western Culture in philosophy, poetry, theology, history, science, and the arts.  For a time, he was President of Mortimer Adler's Great Books Foundation.

In his reading of the Great Books, his primary interest was the idea of liberty.  For many years, he worked on making a list of those written texts that taught something about liberty.  This led to his supporting the building of the Goodrich Seminar Room at Wabash College, which had the names of the authors of these texts arranged chronologically on the marble walls.  The first symbol on the walls was the cuneiform symbol amagi, which is thought to be the Sumerian word for "liberty." The room has bookcases containing the books identified on the walls and a huge seminar table in the middle of the room.  I have written about this room.

This room manifests Goodrich's vision.  He wanted people to consider how the history of thinking about liberty could be traced through the Great Books, which would require that people read those books and then meet around a seminar table to talk about them.

Goodrich founded the Liberty Fund to execute this vision, endowing it with most of his wealth, which was close to $400 million.  The Liberty Fund would support the publication of some of the Great Books of liberty, and it would also support scholars who were writing about those books.  But the primary activity of the Liberty Fund would be conferences in which small groups of people (about 15) would be invited to read some texts and then meet for two or three days to talk about those texts that taught something about liberty.  The participants would be paid for their travel expenses and also receive a small stipend.  The number of these conferences per year has been as high as 200.  Now it's around 100.

Goodrich had a classical liberal's understanding of liberty--in the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Friedrich Hayek.  He was a friend of Hayek and one of the founding members of Hayek's Mont Pelerin Society.  As one might expect, therefore, the Liberty Fund has been generally identified as politically right-wing, conservative, or libertarian.  But those invited to Liberty Fund's conferences have always included many people who would identify themselves as left-wing or progressive liberals.  At the beginning of each conference, the Liberty Fund representative made it clear that the conference was not intended to promote any particular point of view, because people should be free to speak their mind without feeling compelled to agree to any pre-determined conclusions.

And in any case, in Goodrich's founding documents for Liberty Fund, he made it clear that this would not be a politically partisan organization; and that as a tax-exempt educational organization, it would be legally prohibited from engaging in any political activity, political journalism, or any attempt to influence public policy making.

In recent years, however, there has been some controversy over whether the Liberty Fund has departed from Goodrich's founding vision for the organization, because some people within and outside the organization have seen it as becoming politically partisan in favoring the Republican Party (and particularly Donald Trump's Republican Party), and thus violating Goodrich's plan that Liberty Fund would be free from partisan political debate.

The most shocking effect of that controversy was Maloberti's suicide on June 22.  Although I did not know him well, I was acquainted with him from meeting him at a Liberty Fund conference in 2015 on "Liberal Thought in Argentina, 1837-1940."  He was an Argentinian who had moved to the United States for his graduate education in philosophy.  He then worked for Liberty Fund for almost 14 years.  His most important work was organizing conferences about liberty in Latin America, many of them located in Latin America.  When he died, he was only 46 years old.

In recent years, Maloberti had become worried that Liberty Fund was moving away from Goodrich's purely intellectual and educational mission in studying liberty in the Great Books.  He saw that the organization was sponsoring political journalism--commenting on political events and politicians--with a slant favoring the Republican Party and political conservatism.  He saw this most clearly in the blog that the Liberty Fund had started in 2012--"Law and Liberty."

As you can see if you go to this blog, much of what it publishes is conservative political journalism.  (I have written one essay for this blog on "The Biological Sociology of the Good Society.")  Maloberti and other Liberty Fund Fellows have complained to the Liberty Fund's Board of Directors that this political journalism is not what Goodrich wanted the Liberty Fund to do, and that it is illegal insofar as it violates the legal terms for the organization's tax-exempt status.  

In his article for the Indianapolis Monthly, Adam Wren suggests that the political slant of "Law and Liberty" clearly favors Trump and Trumpism.  But I would say that's an overstatement.  For example, Wren notes that the title of one of the essays on the blog is "The Trump Trial Is Unconstitutional."  But if you look at the essay, you will see that the author (Stephen Wirls) is actually criticizing Trump: "I am generally conservative in political matters and lean toward the Republican Party, although less so given the loyalty of some and craven silence of others in the face of Trump's gross disregard for the constitutional and legal order.  I would be very pleased if Trump were disqualified from ever holding any national office.  There is, however, no constitutional path for achieving this outcome."

Wren also says that "Law and Liberty" has published essays on "the virtues of Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban."  But if you look at Richard Reinsch's essay praising Orban for his Christian democratic populism, you might notice that on the same day that this essay was published (May 13, 2019), "Law and Liberty" published Marc Plattner's essay on "Orban's Misapprehension of Liberalism," in which Plattner criticized Orban for praising "Christian democracy" as "illiberal" and superior to "liberal democracy."  Plattner indicated that what we see in the debate among conservatives about Orban is a disagreement as to whether conservatives should support the classical liberal tradition initiated by John Locke or whether true conservatism requires endorsing the illiberal Christian nationalism of people like Orban.  Apparently, the editors wanted to present both sides of this debate, which probably shows the debate inside Liberty Fund between the classical Lockean liberals and the traditionalist Burkean conservatives--a debate over the meaning of liberty.

Goodrich wanted to promote this debate over the meaning of liberty.  He included the names of both Locke and Burke on the wall of the Goodrich Seminar Room.  And I can testify to the fact that many of the Liberty Fund conference discussions have become debates between Lockean liberals and Burkean conservatives.  But Maloberti's point was that Goodrich would not have wanted such discussions directed towards partisan political controversies like the debate over Orban's illiberal populism.

Maloberti joined with David M. Hart, another Liberty Fund Fellow, in arguing that Goodrich's founding documents for the Liberty Fund make it clear that he did not intend that the organization would engage in political activity or political journalism.  I can agree with that from having studied those documents for a Liberty Fund conference some years ago.

From his reading of these documents, Hart proposed a standard to guide Liberty Fund:

"I think the rule of thumb for LF should be that we should never mention by name any sitting politician or political party, any piece of legislation which is currently before Congress, or any other policy matter currently under discussion.  If we want to talk about 'free trade' or 'peace' we should do so historically (by referring to past historical debates about free trade vs. protectionism) and theoretically (by referring to classic texts like Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations). That way we can be true to PFG's 'founder's intent' and our tax exempt status as an educational foundation."

Hart was fired from Liberty Fund in 2019.  Maloberti was fired in May of last year.  He took his life a few weeks after that.

The President and Board of Directors have not provided a clear response to the claim of Maloberti and others that Liberty Fund no longer follows the founding mandate of Goodrich.  There would seem to be two possible responses.  They could say that Maloberti misinterpreted Goodrich's founding documents, and that Goodrich actually intended that Liberty Fund should engage in partisan political journalism in promoting liberty.  Or they could say that the current leaders of Liberty Fund have decided to set aside Goodrich's original mandate, so that they can engage in conservative Republican political activity in a way that Goodrich would not have endorsed.

The deeper question in this controversy is whether Goodrich was right in thinking that the intellectual study of liberty through reading and discussing the Great Books is the best way to promote liberty itself, or whether the proper promotion of liberty necessarily requires partisan political activity and political journalism that goes beyond purely intellectual study.

After all, some of the authors of those Great Books of liberty--such as Locke and Burke--were not only political philosophers but also political partisans putting into political practice their intellectual understanding of liberty.  Or would Goodrich have said that the political theory of liberty needs to be developed intellectually by organizations like Liberty Fund separate from and prior to the political practice of liberty?

Even if liberty requires partisan political activity, one must wonder which political party best promotes liberty.  If the choice in the United States is between the Democrat Party and the Republican Party, it's not clear that either of those parties has consistently promoted liberty in all of its forms.  Or should one turn to the Libertarian Party, despite the fact that it has had only very limited success in electoral politics?  Does the fact that the proportion of the American electorate identifying as "Independent" is greater than those identifying as either Republican or Democrat suggest the possibility that a third party devoted to liberty could win if it appealed to the Independents?


Roger Sweeny said...

"I think the rule of thumb for LF should be that we should never mention by name any sitting politician or political party, any piece of legislation which is currently before Congress, or any other policy matter currently under discussion. If we want to talk about 'free trade' or 'peace' we should do so historically ..."

That sounds so Chinese. Even--especially!--if one is talking about a present controversy, one pretends one is not. Instead, one comments on one or more historical stories.

Larry Arnhart said...

I see your point. But then it's not so Chinese to allow for an open discussion of the historical texts without expecting everyone to reach agreement on the conclusions.

From my experience, I know that organizers of Liberty Fund conferences are told that the list of invited participants must not be restricted to those who are likely to agree with one another.

Roger Sweeny said...

I agree. I just felt that the original "rule of thumb" is one of those statements that sounds oh, so reasonable but is actually ridiculous. If you are talking about a history or a theory because it has present day relevance and you pretend that you don't care about and are not thinking about that present day relevance, you are almost certainly not being candid. It makes for a dishonest discussion.

You don't have to make the present relevance the focus of your discussion but if someone brings up the relevance, I think the discussion is less useful if you cut it off, "We're not concerned with present day specifics."

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, you're right. I can remember times when our Liberty Fund discussions became awkward because everyone in the room knew that we were thinking about some contemporary political dispute, but we were not allowed to say this out loud. But then often we would talk about this later with one another over dinner and drinks.