You may have missed it, but during a discussion event at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) earlier this month on the past, present, and future of conservative magazines, an interesting little debate about philanthropy broke out—which is somewhat interesting in and of itself, of course.

The event, “The conservative magazine in America,” well-marked the 10th anniversary of National Affairs and its new institutional home at AEI. Moderated by National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, who’s also moved to AEI, its panelists were Commentary editor John Podhoretz, First Things editor R. R. Reno, and National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry.

“[I]f you look at the 100 largest foundations in America, it’s probably 90-10 progressive,” Reno notes, at about 32 minutes into the event. “And it’s not just that they don’t agree with me. They are now super-sized, so we outsource our educational policy to the Gates Foundation.

“So I proposed a billion-dollar lifetime cap on charitable contributions. So there's a proposal. And you know, there’s a kind of anxiety in the room” when he makes the suggestion, Reno continues. “‘Well, whoa, wait a minute. That’s violating free markets. That’s a tax and violating free-market principles.’

“But you know, tax policy is social policy. If you want billionaires to run your country, then you give them huge tax incentives to fund private forms of government. I think this is a serious problem, and we need to address it with very specific, targeted policies.”

Podhoretz responded a couple minutes later, saying

there is the danger in this case of ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater.’ You say that limiting billionaires’ charitable giving to a billion dollars is seen as an affront on the free market. I don’t see it as an affront on the free market. I see that as an affront on free speech, among other things.

And I see it also as [an] issue that is very near and dear to my heart, and should be near and dear to your heart, and for everybody in this room—given that we rely on charitable contributions to function. The whole point about the charitable contribution is that when you give dollar, it is the left that seems to think that the dollar naturally belongs to the government and therefore you're giving somebody a tax break by giving them 35 cents back from that dollar. But that means they’re spending 65 cents they don't have to spend otherwise to give the money away to somebody else.

Podhoretz then concluded his impromptu rebuttal by declaring, “Now, we may not like where they’re giving it. … I agree with you. I don’t like the fact that it's all these little foundations who get so much of this money, but we live in a society in which I don’t want you to be dictating that they’re bad, just as I don’t want them to be dictating that my foundation” is bad.

Lowry then good-naturedly remarked, “It’s only at National Affairs that you can start a conversation about conservative magazines and a seminar about charitable giving breaks out.”

Reno later briefly came back to the subject, noting Gates’ prominent role in international health policy—using quite-spicy, don’t-miss (and some didn’t) language for the “spirited nature” of which he subsequently apologized.