A Heartland Letter to People for the American Way

Published August 20, 1996

People for the American Way (PFAW) recently issued a report titled “Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics.” The report sets out to document free-market organizations as belonging to a monolithic movement representing the “far right.” The Heartland Institute was singled out three times in the report. In response, Heartland president Joseph Bast wrote a letter to PFAW president Carole Shields. The letter is reprinted below in its entirety.)

August 20, 1996

Ms. Carole Shields
People for the American Way
2000 M Street NW, Suite 400
Washington, DC 20036

Dear Ms. Shields:

I recently read your report on “The Religious Right” titled “Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics.” I am writing to call your attention to several errors and to set the record straight. (The version I have in front of me was taken from your web site, so page numbers may only be approximate.)

On page 7, the report says “The Heartland Institute . . . received $100,000 from the Sarah Scaife Foundation in 1992,” and calls us “one of several arch- conservative state-based ‘think tanks’ that focus as much energy on media relations as on policy development.” Both statements are false.

The Sarah Scaife Foundation gift was spread over two years: We received $50,000 in 1992 and $50,000 in 1993. Heartland has never received a contribution greater than $50,000 from any of the foundations profiled in your report. In fact, during its 12 years of operation, Heartland never received a six-figure gift from any source.

Heartland is indeed a think tank — we have a national network of nearly 100 scholars and professional economists who participate in our research and peer review process — but we are not “arch-conservative.” We seek out and publish the best available research on public policy issues. We have not addressed religion, abortion, gay rights, feminism, or any other topic that could justify including us in a study of the “Religious Right.”

Most of our research is based on economic reasoning. Your authors seem to have over-reacted — in much the same way as a knee will jerk when hit by a doctor’s hammer, I suppose — to our interest in market-based and voluntary solutions to social and economic problems. In light of the widespread adoption of many of our public policy recommendations, however, the marginalizing label of “arch-conservative” cannot be right. “Economic,” “common sense” or even “moderate” would be more accurate.

On the same page, the title of our bimonthly magazine for state legislators, Intellectual Ammunition, is said to suggest “that its ideas were more oriented toward political advocacy than exploration.” Actually, the title was suggested by elected officials on both sides of the aisle who were looking for facts, talking points, and summaries of the latest research on public policy issues.

On page 8, your report says “The Heartland Institute houses the Madison Group, a network of conservative and libertarian think tanks,” and then refers to the American Legislative Exchange Council as the “parent organization” of the Madison Group.

The Madison Group was not started by ALEC, and the group’s members never viewed ALEC as their “parent.” It was founded by a dozen independent think tanks at the Madison Hotel in Washington, D.C., on November 17, 1986. The letter inviting people to join was signed by four think tank executives; I was there, and still have the letter here in my files.

The Madison Group was indeed a network of think tanks, though many of its members rejected the conservative and libertarian labels. It was never “housed” at Heartland, though we produced a newsletter for it, titled “The Madison Report.” In any case, the Madison Group was disbanded following its last annual meeting in Indianapolis on November 8, 1991.

On page 14, Heartland is included in a short list of groups who are “recipients of Koch largesse,” referring to David and Charles Koch of Kansas. Yes, we have received funding from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. For many years we received annual grants of $5,000, about 1 percent of our budget at the time. Two years ago we received a $50,000 gift (about 6 percent of our budget that year); last year, not a dime.

The small size of gifts received by Heartland from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation illustrates a larger point: unlike the other think tanks you mention, The Heartland Institute does not and never has received a major portion of its budget from any of the foundations (or a combination of the foundations) you name. In any given year, we have not received more than 7 percent of our budget from a single donor.

Although I don’t have the numbers in front of me, I doubt that we ever received more than 10 percent of our annual budget from all of the foundations you profile combined. I’m sure there were many years when the Koch Foundation was the only foundation among those listed in your report that gave us any support.

So who funds us? The Heartland Institute raises almost $1 million a year from a donor base of nearly one thousand individuals, corporations, and foundations. Our largest source of support is gifts of $5,000 or less from individuals and businesses who respect the quality of our research and our responsiveness to state elected officials regardless of their politics. (We fulfill nearly 1,000 publication requests from journalists and elected officials every month.)

This brings me to the conclusion of your report, which seems to be that conservative ideas are in ascendancy only because “right-wing” foundations devote more money to public policy research and advocacy than do left-wing foundations. Speaking as president of a think tank that receives too little funding from either conservative or liberal foundations to shape its agenda, allow me to suggest a radically different conclusion:

Conservative ideas are not in ascendancy, despite the millions of dollars spent by “right-wing” foundations, judging by opinion poll data showing steady or rising approval of abortion, gay rights, extramarital sex, interracial marriage, euthanasia, environmentalism, atheism, and other “liberal” ideas.

Public policy based on sound economic research, on the other hand, is winning support. Public awareness of simple economic concepts such as “incentives matter” and “there is no such thing as a free lunch” is driving the dismantling of those cumbersome government bureaucracies and unjust entitlements begun during the 1930s and carried by sheer inertia into the 1990s.

The millions of dollars spent by conservative foundations is pocket change compared to the billions of dollars in government and foundation funding that supports liberal ideas and socialist dogma on college campuses, in state capitals and Washington D.C., in the arts community, and even in elementary and secondary schools. The EPA, for example, spends $65 million a year on “environmental education” for K- 12 students. The Ad Council donated over $28 million worth of advertising space to Earth Share in a single year (1992).

Market-based solutions to social and economic problems are winning because the alternative has failed. Few people are prepared to overlook the human wreckage caused by welfare programs, urban public schools, and government mismanagement of countless other programs. The vision of free markets and free minds is so much more appealing than the old socialist paradigm that it takes deliberate effort to suppress the truth.

Please tell the authors of your report that nobody “bought” the movement toward free markets and individual liberty. It didn’t need to be bought. It only needed to be heard.


Joseph L. Bast