Which Big Foundation is Backing Free Market Ideas on a Global Level?

The Templeton Foundation has received quite a lot of fame (or notoriety, depending on your point of view) for its efforts to steer science in a more religion-friendly direction. Less discussed, but definitely still important, is how the philanthropic giant is also throwing its weight around in debates over global economic policy. It does so, likewise, with a clear agenda: A lot of Templeton money is funding the case for reducing government regulation and advancing as much unbridled capitalism as possible.

The foundation has five core funding areas, one of which is called “Individual Freedom and Free Markets.” This focus reflects the deep reverence that Sir John Templeton had for the ideas of Milton Friedman and other free market economists. "Freedom fosters competition," Templeton once said, "which yields progress." As a practical matter, the foundation aims to promote business growth and keep government intervention in the economy to a minimum.

Related: What Makes Templeton Tick? And Just How Scary Is This Place? An Inside Look

Now, that focus in itself as not so unusual, since plenty of other foundations put their money behind these same ideas. But most of these other funders are focused on policy in the United States, bankrolling a range of conservative and libertarian think tanks and law groups. What's uncommon about Templeton is that much of its funding for free market ideas is focused on shaping debates in developing countries. There's definitely a logic to that, given the huge populations of many countries that still have highly regulated economies, like India. If your goal is to free as many people as possible from the yoke of statism, places like that are where the action is. 

In fact, speaking of India, Templeton has supported the work of two scholars, Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya, who've been working to push that country in a more pro-growth direction, funding a research program on India's economic policy at the Columbia Business School. 

As we've discussed before, Templeton likes to go big with its grants. It also likes to back cross-disciplinary work and get behind eclectic thinkersthe kind of people who chafe in the siloed worlds of academia. "We try to give great minds the space and resources to stretch their imaginations," the late president and chairman, Jack Templeton, wrote on the site. "We want to work with contrarians, with intellectual entrepreneurs."

Templeton doesn't give out a ton of grants in this area, but it's good money if you can get it. A freedom/free-market grantee will most likely receive a grant of a few million dollars or more and be expected to use it over the course of several years. Here’s an example: a three-year initiative, “The Success Project: New Non-State Perspectives on Individual Liberty and Development,” which is paying researchers in New York University’s Langone Medical Center to study the role of “non-state actors,” such as citizen social networks, technological innovations, or local neighborhoods, in creating social prosperity independently of the government. The Success Project started in January 2013 and runs until January 2016 and is dispensing $2.4 million in grant funds.

Another initiative on market liberalization, meanwhile, is just wrapping up. Called "Incentivizing Reforms That Expand Political and Economic Freedom in Developing Countries: Which Tools Work?," it’s given a research team at the College of William & Mary $303,000 to figure out how wealthy countries and international organizations can most effectively encourage more political and economic freedoms in developing countries. The study’s time frame is October 2013 to September 2015.

Two other Templeton initiatives concluded earlier this year. Both focused on China. “Free Enterprise Solutions for China’s Bottom of the Pyramid” was the first. It ran from October 2012 to June 2015 and gave China-based educational organization Junior Achievement China $1.2 million to help Chinese business students come up with new products and services that even the lowest-income consumers could access and buy.

Is There an Alternative to the Beijing Consensus?” was the second initiative. It gave the South African think tank Centre for Development and Enterprise a $796,000 grant and a time frame of March 2013 to March 2015 to use the money for assessing how Brazil, India, and South Africa each achieved substantial economic growth in recent years as free-market democracies—to underscore that China’s authoritarian growth model is not the only way.