by Robert Maynard
With all the fuss about corporate money finding its way into politics in the wake of the Citizens United decision, little attention is being paid to a much bigger source of funding driving ideological agendas that find their way into political discourse. Large private foundations funnel an enormous amount funds to non-profits, whose education work is ideologically slanted toward a particular perspective regarding the role of government on a wide range of issues. By the time such views find their way into our political discourse, they have already been ingrained in much of public opinion as a result of the efforts of various non-profit groups. The funding flowing to these non-profits overwhelmingly supports the progressive vision of an ever expanding government. Vermont has the most non-profits per capita of any state in the nation and there is strong bias among them in the direction of the progressive vision.
The message advantage that progressives have due to the funding of private foundations was recently quantified in an American Thinker article entitled “The Left-Wing Money Machine”. The article gets its information from a book, “The New Leviathan“, subtitled “How the Left-Wing Money Machine Shapes American Politics and Threatens America’s Future”, by David Horowitz and Jacob Laskin. The degree to which the funding of non-profits favors the progressive agenda is staggering:
The central point of the book is that left-wing foundations outweigh conservative foundations by a factor of more than ten, in both total assets and the value of grants awarded. This is exactly the reverse of what the left-controlled media recites over and over again in its drive to promote the Democrats as the party of the little guy.
An exhaustive appendix of tables listing progressive and conservative foundations, their assets, and their annual grants and revenues shows progressive foundations with assets totaling $104.6 billion, compared with $10.3 billion for conservative foundations, and progressive grants awarded totaling $8.8 billion, compared with conservative grants awarded totaling just $0.8 billion.
The book itself quantifies this advantage in detail on an issue by issue basis.
As mentioned above, Vermont has more non-profits per capita than any state in the country. The influence of non-profits in Vermont has always been substantial. That influence is increasingly being used to promote the progressive vision of an ever expanding role for government. True North Reports has written extensively on the political influence of groups like VPIRG. As much political influence as they have, they are just the tip of the iceberg. A window into the perceived mission and direction of Vermont’s non-profits was provided by a June 2007 Report of the Thirty-Second Grafton Conference entitled “The Future of Vermont’s Nonprofit Sector: A Framework for Stewardship and Success”. According to the report: “Vermont has a higher concentration of tax-exempt organizations compared with almost every other state (nearly 2,700 501(c)(3) charitable organizations- one for every 200 residents) and Vermont’s independent sector growth continues to outpace the private sector (74% increase in nonprofits versus 28% increase in businesses although this is not a number net of closings).” In other words, the influence of Vermont’s non-profit sector is already significant and still growing. Included in defining their mission was the following: the “importance of advocacy in government funding and other government policies that affect the sector”. The conference went a step further in taking a stand on what should be the proper role of government:
Participants discussed many ways in which the state government can support the independent sector. The consensus was that state government can and should be the provider of strategic funding, including a social safety net of essential services. Participants said that the government sector can do more to provide a regulatory environment in which the independent sector flourishes—with reasonable accountability and streamlined procedures.
In practice, this stance has almost always resulted in a call for increasing the role of government to address a host of various issues. Taking together, such positions represent a significant expansion of the central government’s power. Free market views that the role of government should be limited in relation to the private sector are given virtually no consideration. Furthermore, the call to increase the role of government goes beyond an honest ideological belief that such an approach is better suited to address the issues in question. There is a section in the report entitled “Pressures on government funds will challenge everyone—not just the nonprofits”. To be fair, their is a call to find alternative sources of funds in the wake of the cut back of government funding, but such a cutback is seen as a challenge to their future. Given the degree of self-interest involved in calling for more government funding, it might be wise to question the objectivity of these non-profits when they call for more government funding as a solution to various issues that arise in our political discourse. Furthermore, it is also not at all clear that continued dependency on government funding is the key to the future viability of Vermont’s non-profit sector. An appendix to the report noted an interesting historical reason for the vitality of that sector in relationship to other states:
Some believe that the quantity of Vermont nonprofits is due to Vermont’s history of nonprofits providing direct services and the lack of county and municipal governments forcing nonprofits to fill many of the niches occupied by the public sector in other states. (Snelling Center Report, mid 1990s)
- As a result of this history, Vermont’s nonprofit sector likely delivers more direct units of service (per capita) than corresponding sectors in other states (Snelling Center Report, mid 1990s)
Perhaps the authors of the report should look at the drying up of government funding, not as a threat to the viability of Vermont’s non-profits, but as an opportunity to recapture the dynamics that made them so vibrant to begin with. They must first understand that this dynamic was not an accidental result of the lack of government provided services that non-profits were forced to fill. It was the result of an ideological position on the part of early Vermonters as to the role of government in relation to the private sector.
Most of us are familiar with the history of how the “New Hampshire Land Grant” settlers first came to Vermont and faced a dispute with the government of New York over the validity of their grants to the land. When Ethan Allen and his family moved into the area in 1769, he became the leader of a grass roots populist resistance movement that would eventually lead to an independent republic. In the midst of the struggle, with the help of radical theorist Thomas Young, Allen developed an ideological justification for the land grantees right to own the land and the right for the people of the area to break away from New York and form their own government. Some of Allen’s thoughts on this matter were captured in his “Brief Narrative” written in 1774, which laid out a theory and justification for rebellion. It also expressed a view of the purpose of government that was quite similar to the arguments advanced by Jefferson in our “Declaration of Independence” and Thomas Paine in “Common Sense”. In fact, Jefferson referred to the notion that the people had a right to throw off a tyrannical government, and set up one of their own as, “The Vermont Doctrine”. For Allen, the preservation of family formed the core justification of political resistance to superior authority, as well as the basic building block of a free democratic polity.
In Allen’s view, sovereignty flowed from individuals to the family and from the family to the community. The only purpose of government was to insure the security of individuals and their families. In early Vermont government was limited because of a suspicion of government power and a healthy respect for the ability of local communities to voluntarily form and solve most of their own problems. We would do well to learn from the insights of Vermont’s founding figures. One of the threats to the kind of sense of community that the report promotes is the lobbying of one group for the government to take from another group and give it to them. This undermines the compassionate community. When the state is divided into tax payers Vs tax recipients, rich Vs poor, environmental activists Vs farmers and property rights activists, etc., our social cohesion is ripped asunder. The Information Age with its proliferation of social networking is tailor made for a return to the community based limited government vision of Ethan Allen and his merry band of revolutionaries.