Karl Zinsmeister: Relinquishers and polyarchs

by Marvin Olasky

Posted on Monday, February 15, 2016, at 10:26 am

Karl Zinsmeister, journalist and vice president of the Philanthropy Roundtable, was President George W. Bush’s chief domestic policy advisor. WORLD’s Feb. 20 issue included an interview with him. Here’s material we didn’t have room for in the print edition.

In The Almanac of American Philanthropy you use a word that should become part of our political vocabulary: “relinquisher.” Please define it. To be a good administrator, sometimes you need to let go of control and power and let organic forces on the scene, with firsthand information about what’s going on, solve their own problems. Maybe the biggest lesson I took out of the White House is that sometimes leadership is really not what’s needed. What’s needed is deference to local forces that will solve the problem if you don’t get in the way. People in most communities know what the good schools are. From Washington you have no idea which the good schools are. By relinquishing and equipping those local saints to solve problems, you will often have a much better outcome.

Isn’t it hard for people who have spent years to attain political power to be willing to relinquish it once they have it? That brings me to another useful word: polyarchy. Polyarchy is the opposite of monarchy. It’s where power is broadly distributed among many competing power sources. It’s like the power of the internet; you can solve problems better with lots and lots of little actors working independently. Government tends to be a monarchy; philanthropy tends to be a polyarchy.

How does your group, the Philanthropy Roundtable, promote polyarchy? We have about 600 or 650 members who try to find a way to solve problems without getting government involved for several reasons. Philanthropists tend to solve problems in much more inventive, creative, and efficient ways than government does. These little projects are basically votes, people saying, “This matters, and this matters, and funds should be directed to this area.” Government sometimes gets jealous.

Philanthropists often wanted money directed toward libraries. In New York, Peter Cooper set up a college that included a very large library where tradesmen could come train themselves in New York City. One of his early stipulations was: Let everybody in. No women excluded, or manual laborers excluded. Open until 10 at night because working people who are out making a living want to educate themselves, and if you have gentleman’s hours, that’s not possible.

How many libraries did Andrew Carnegie underwrite? Close to 5,000.

When government wasn’t interested in educating black children in the South, Julius Rosenwald was. He got Sears, Roebuck running as the Amazon.com of its day, made a lot of money in the process, and used most of that money to set up 4,500 schools or so in the South, all across these rural areas where there was no opportunity otherwise. At the time Rosenwald died, more than a third of all of the black children in the South, and more than a quarter of all the black children in the whole country, were being educated at one of his schools. One man’s determination.

Those were large contributions, but lots of small ones add up. I admire the Gates Foundation, but do you realize how trivial the Gates Foundation is in the larger picture of things, even in its central passion of overseas global health? The grand total spending of the Gates Foundation on overseas global health compared to the spending of average churches and synagogues around America—contributions coming out of those churches for overseas works is about four and a half times bigger than all of the spending every year by the Gates Foundation.

In your journalistic work you’ve seen that despite all the centralization in Washington, we still have a lot of polyarchy. The fascinating thing in this country is what everyday people do. That’s the huge difference between our country and others. France, Japan, China, there’s a mandarin, an elite class in intelligence that makes most of the decisions and controls most of the authority. Our country is not like that. Our country is radically decentralized, and everyday people really do make the most important decisions. That’s terribly frustrating to the professoriate, the banker class, all the elite classes that think they should be running things.

One side subject: I understand you never rowed until you became a freshman at Yale University, but a year later you were national rowing champion. How did that happen? Neither you nor I were happy at this fancy Ivy League school we both ended up in. I was originally recruited to play football there, and culturally it was a very unfamiliar and unfriendly environment for me, so I threw myself into sports, and when fall was over I met a coach who recruited me into rowing. I had size, a good heart and lungs, and rowing was a delight. You’re on the water. You usually race early in the mornings when the sun is coming up. It’s very fast, a bit like flying. It was great escape.

Is there a lesson in this for improving what people call “human capital”? I was a public school kid from a rural part of New York state and others were in the same boat, but you get people with some germ of talent, and a lot of enthusiasm, then you get a good mentor, and remarkable things can happen. I’ve seen that so many times. It’s not a fairy tale to me. It’s real life.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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