No other country in the world has such a robust number of public policy think tanks than does the United States. When it comes to conservative free-market think tanks, most serious students have credited the special role played by lead funders. During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, several organizations were created, strengthened, and some rescued by the combined efforts of intellectual and business entrepreneurs. One of the most prominent passed away last month: R. Randolph “Randy” Richardson (1926-2015).
He was one of the select group who realized that unless the wealth creators got involved in helping preserve the free-enterprise system, the future would belong to socialism in some of its many varieties. Richard Mellon Scaife, John M. Olin, Joseph Coors, Robert Krieble, are some of the most prominent who joined in this quest. In one of his last policy speeches, Richardson credited other predecessors, Harold Luhnow (Volker Fund), Loren Miller, and Dick Ware (Earhart Foundation), as some of the first strategists in the intellectual battle for the free society. In that same speech, Richardson quoted F.A. Hayek’s analysis that socialists were winning due to the strength of their communications and strategy rather than for their ideas.
All of the individuals mentioned above embarked on helping create room for the giants of the Austrian school and Chicago school of economics as well as the think tanks that would turn some of their ideas into policy solutions. Their success was such that a long critical article in “The Atlantic” in 1986 by Gregg Easterbrook concluded “the terms of debate will never again be the same. Government-imposed solutions will no longer automatically be considered to be in the best interest of the poor … nor will market-mediated approaches automatically be considered apologies for the rich.”
During his 20 years at the helm of the Smith-Richardson Foundation, Randy Richardson supported efforts to promote freedom around the globe. He was an early sponsor of Hernando de Soto and his Instituto Libertad y Democracia. The “Shining Path” terrorist organization had embarked on a path of violence to take over Peru. De Soto wrote a book showing that Peruvians were being exploited not by capitalism but by the regulatory state. His book was titled “The Other Path” and became a bestseller. It was written in collaboration with Enrique Ghersi and Mario Ghibellini and carried a memorable long introduction by Mario Vargas Llosa (now Nobel Laureate), which was the lead story in the magazine of the Sunday edition of the New York Times. This was too much for the terrorists. De Soto became a prime target.
De Soto had been in close touch with think tank champion Antony Fisher since 1979. From Fisher he learned about Randy Richardson and approached him with an unusual request. Rather than funding for public policy research, he asked for funds to buy an armored car. I doubt that the request fit in the guidelines of Smith-Richardson Foundation, but at the time, private, and even corporate donors, were less afraid to assume risks. Randy Richardson gave the grant. The terrorists had a chance to shoot at the car, aiming straight to the gas tank, but the armored plates saved the day. That was not the only scare, ILD’s building was bombed twice.
Richardson understood the need to wage the battle against communism on many fronts. His foundation supported the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), then at Georgetown (now independent), and also the National Strategy Information Center, which later launched the “League to Save Carthage”. The late David Abshire, a founder and first director of CSIS, described the League and the work of its founder, Frank Barnett, as one of the great untold stories of the “Cold War.” Richardson’s lead grant for an Atlas Economic Research Foundation workshop for Latin American think tanks started an ever growing network of free-market groups south of the border.
A few weeks ago, at the memorial service for Mr. Richardson, Richard “Dick” Allen, National Security Advisor in the Reagan administration, described how after returning to the U.S. for his first academic job, Gerhart Niemeyer, his mentor at Notre Dame University, told him “you need to meet Randy.” Niemeyer, had a long tenure as political philosophy professor and an expert on communism. Richardson placed Allen on his board of governors. First generation foundation leaders, a Southern splinter group of the Young Presidents Organization, and key strategists, such as the late Dan McMichael, helped build the think tank network that would be at the forefront of the battle for freedom around the globe. Allen credited Randy for his role in the founding of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, (FPRI) and many other efforts.
Another close collaborator, Les Lenkowsky met Randy on December 25, 1975, for a job interview. As director of research for the Smith-Richardson foundation he became a key lieutenant in the battle of ideas. Both were newcomers to the world of philanthropy. Lenkowsky, who later became a teacher of philanthropy, shared that the main lesson he took out of his many years with Richardson was that the success of grant givers depends on the success of the grantees, empowering them: “Find good people, be patient.” Randy knew that foundations were products of the private sector, of entrepreneurs as himself, and it was key to be efficient, he was not a fan of fancy offices and liked a lean style.
His son, Rod Richardson, also during the memorial, focused on less known aspects of his father’s life. One was his service in World War II. The other, how he considered grantees as part of his extended family. His fight for freedom in the cold, freezing trenches, marked him for life, both physically and emotionally. After his battalion helped liberate several concentration camps, he suffered when he saw the consequences of Yalta. Many liberated from Nazism got stuck in socialist enslavement. Of all the funders mentioned above, Richardson was the one who was more involved in the global battle. He paid attention to defense, strategy, and the world of free enterprise.
Chris DeMuth, who led the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) from 1986 to 2008, credited Richardson for helping rescue AEI which, in 1986, was in dire financial straits. DeMuth was seeking a grant to pay for severance to soften the blow to many researchers who were going to be let go just prior to Christmas. Devon Gaffney [Cross], then a senior program officer, reminded Randy that the donation did not meet the criteria of the foundation but, just as in the case of De Soto’s armored car, Randy gave the money. There is no room here to mention all his philanthropic work, but he was also a lead donor for Milton and Rose Friedman’s “Free to Choose” TV series.
The passing of time and the advent of new generations brings changes. The current Smith-Richardson Foundation, under the control of a different branch of the family, is still a major power house, and focuses more on research than institutional support for think tanks. Daughter Heather Richardson Higgins, head of the Randolph Foundation, focuses mostly on U.S. policy and civil society organizations, and is a major player at the Philanthropy Roundtable and the Independent Women’s Forum. Rod Richardson promotes targeted tax cuts to achieve environmental and health policy goals that have bi-partisan support.
Richardson believed that developing the best idea is half of the battle. The other half required “talented, determined men and women [who] can create and execute strategies which insure that good ideas can displace inferior ones in millions of minds.” His investments in this area continue to bear fruit around the globe.
* Alejandro Antonio (Alex) Chafuen, Ph.D., has been president of Atlas Economic Research Foundation since 1991. A member of the board of advisors to The Center for Vision & Values and a trustee of Grove City College, he is also the president and founder of the Hispanic American Center of Economic Research. Dr. Chafuen serves on several boards including the Chase Foundation of Virginia, the Acton Institute, the Fraser Institute (Canada), and is an Active Honorary Member of the John Templeton Foundation.