Move Over, Bernie. This Foundation Wants Millennials to Love the Free Market

If nothing else, Bernie Sanders’s unexpected success in the 2016 primaries proves what many conservatives long feared: Young Americans just aren’t that bothered by big government. By some polls, millennials favorable to the term “socialism” actually outnumber their peers who prefer “capitalism”—unsurprising, perhaps, from people who were either small children or not yet born when the Berlin Wall fell.

To conservatives, this is just another symptom of the creeping liberalism that has beset American schools and colleges since the 1960s. Their response over four decades has been to fund an alternate narrative by supporting free market thinkers and young scholars with a more compatible set of beliefs.

It's worked, to some extent. Funders like Bradley, Olin, Scaife and the Kochs collaborated with organizations like the Philanthropy Roundtable and funds like DonorsTrust, setting up a powerful conservative infrastructure to do battle against what they view as a liberal plot to brainwash the young on campuses everywhere. Right now, no funder plays a bigger role in this effort than Charles Koch, who annually gives over $20 million to support libertarian ideas and activities at several hundred campuses across the U.S. 


Also receiving funds from this conservative coalition are several educational organizations like the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). FEE creates educational materials, holds seminars, offers internships, and connects alumni, all to attune the younger generation to a free society and free markets.

This month, the John Templeton Foundation stepped in with a $1.8 million grant to FEE to “define new and better ways to communicate with millennials about the humane values and ethical principles of a free society.”

In other words, Templeton is trying to solve a big public relations problem. But despite millennials’ strong social liberalism, I think FEE has reason to be hopeful, with some polls suggesting that millennials are more open to libertarian ideas than Bernie mania might suggest. One survey last year found that one in five millennials described themselves as libertarian. And boy, are these kids into business, creating startups in huge numbers. 

This gift is actually one of Templeton's more straightforward grants. We’ve discussed at length how Templeton’s giving differs from that of most other big foundations, liberal and conservative alike. Its mission, to fund research into “Big Questions,” leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It doesn't hesitate to back quixotic projects. Patterns have sprung up around science funding with more than a hint of religion, psychological conundrums, and even the pursuit of happiness.


This funder’s conservative grantees include the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Mercatus Center. A 2009-2012 grant for $4 million supported “free enterprise education” by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Templeton has also channelled over $3.6 million to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute to support similar work.

Templeton tends to follow the specific interests of its founder, another hallmark of conservative philanthropy. Its support for FEE is in line with Sir John Templeton’s admiration for the free market and for thinkers like Milton Friedman.

The foundation’s princely endowment (over $3 billion, with over $150 million in yearly outlays) gives it options other libertarian funders lack. For example, Templeton has actively promoted free market ideas in developing countries like India, where global capitalism is booming but American political philosophy is in short supply. (Whether it should remain that way is another question.)