Matthew Continetti’s generally well-received new The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism is occasioning revival of a serious conversation about the tensions between populism and elitism in American conservatism, which we urge occur in the specific context of conservative philanthropy, too. This revival, in our opinion, has been warranted for some time and should continue, for years to come.

In The Right, we note, Continetti places Michael Novak among many other influential conservative thinkers—in Novak’s case, as representative of a neoconservatism generally believing “that capitalism and Christianity were not opposed but complementary.”

From our overlapping tenures at Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation during the referenced period, we are familiar with and fond of Novak and his work. In large part on the basis of that familiarity, we published the below article here on January 17, 2020, as “Bringing balance, not blurring, to the coming clarification of conservatism.” Thinking—maybe merely forlornly hoping?—it still of relevance, including to philanthropy, we feature the piece again now.


Capitalism is, and some individual capitalists are, under increasing attack, including from prominent commentators and political figures on the American right. Markets, the way they operate, and the results they yield have been quite negatively appraised throughout history, of course. While the current critiques might seem harsher to us than before, none of this is really all that new.

Relatedly, philanthropy and individual philanthropists are also being assailed—interestingly, including from progressive commentators and policymakers. The very wealth endowing philanthropy was generated by capitalism, of course, so this may just be a derivative phenomenon—but it does seem relatively newly brought to bear, by these progressives, to progressive grantmakers. They’ve probably had it coming for a long time, however, one might think. “Whoever sows generously will also ….”

More largely, though, the very system of which both capitalism and philanthropy are a part in America is under great stress. Each of three sectors of the republic—free-market capitalism, a limited but energetic government, and a vibrant and diverse civil society strengthened by philanthropy—needs to function fully as itself for society to be in healthy balance, understanding that there are lots of places where they clash with and modify each other in practice.

Business shouldn’t try fulfilling the role of government agencies or being philanthropic. Government shouldn’t become corporatist or crony capitalistic, much less so philanthropically oriented that it displaces civil society. Civic organizations and projects need to be charitably minded, and they should resist becoming or mimicking companies or government agencies. 

Each sector has its own rightful purpose, and as they healthily cooperate and equally healthily collide with each other, they constitute a robust and workable democratic capitalism, as neoconservative theologian and political theorist Michael Novak used to describe it. Novak led drafting of the 1984 Catholic “lay letter” on the economy, which so well-responded to the Catholic bishop’s letter attacking capitalism then.

A “sense of balance is sometimes lacking in the language of those who either choose individual liberty over all other concerns, and hence a kind of radical individualism,” according the lay letter, or, on the other hand, “seek to enlarge the power and scope of government, and hence embrace a kind of statist meddlesomeness.”

Path to a place

A presently popular idea on the left for taming capitalism is to basically blur business into philanthropy. On the populist right, the idea of government managing a purportedly less-credible capitalism, on behalf of restoring civil society’s family and community, is growing.

“[T]hose who deny the existence of profound social and economic problems in modern America aren’t paying attention,” as Oliver Wiseman recently writes in CapX. Those on the populist right who are paying attention to these problems and promoting this idea of a greater role for government to solve them, however, have much work to do, he notes; so far, they’re “all diagnosis and no prescription,” he says.

At core, they have lost faith in the “Novakian balance” between the three sectors. To this large extent, their position might just be the by-product of a conservatism in confusion—in essence, unsure about how much Jerusalem and how much Athens to which it should appeal.

While the laudably empathetic appeal of this populist position might be understandable in theory, the actual, real-life results of its applications would probably not benefit the common good as much as advertised. They would not reap reward. In practice, for a prime example, confused-conservative industrial policy would turn out no differently than failed liberal industrial policy. This, too, not new.

A serious syllabus of sorts is now finally forming for the coming clarification of conservatism. Those on the path of working through it—as well as those philanthropically underwriting the exercise—should try to restore faith in a proper Novakian balance among sectors, and explore how best to practically do so. It might help conceptually form, as Fred Bauer suggests in National Review, a place “where populists and neoconservatives meet.”

For conservatives and conservative funders, we think, such faith could reap generously.