Tuesday, April 11, 2006

“With the Bradley Prizes, now it’s our turn.” That was one conservative’s telling remark to a Denver Post columnist after last year’s Bradley awards were granted, and it well captures the spirit of the awards: Intended to recognize outstanding conservative achievement, they’re also a conscious echo of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grants.” The Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation established the prizes three years ago to compensate for the undue bias of the major liberal grantmakers. For that reason alone the Bradley Prizes are welcome.

This year’s recipients are Fouad Ajami, a scholar of the Middle East at the Johns Hopkins University; Hernando de Soto, a Peruvian economist and the leading free-market voice in Latin America; Shelby Steele, a scholar of race relations with the Hoover Institution; and Clint Bolick, co-founder of the libertarian public-interest firm the Institute for Justice. Each is a hero to conservatives in his own way, and each is unlikely to be embraced by the major liberal grantmakers. Half a MacArthur, that is, a grant of $250,000, awaits each of the four in a ceremony next month at the Kennedy Center.

Bradley came in for criticism last year for what its critics took to be mimicry of the most ostentatious practices of listless liberal grantmakers like MacArthur. In the critics’ defense, there is plenty wrong with the MacArthur “genius grants”: Not only do they appear to be little more than pageantry these days, but on more than one occasion a novelist or do-gooder favored by MacArthur has succumbed to the moral hazard of half a million dollars with no strings attached. Not to mention that the conservative movement need not parrot liberals and their activities: Our ideas can stand on their own merits.

But the critics have gotten ahead of themselves. Bradley is lean and effective; it is nothing like MacArthur. The fact remains that many great intellectuals and activists — including most of the heavyweights behind the conservative ascendancy over the last three decades — are still shut out of deep-pocketed grantmaking institutions like MacArthur and Ford, places whose heights were long ago scaled by the political left. If a private foundation like Bradley chooses to award its millions to some of the best people overlooked by moneyed liberal institutions, that’s a prerogative we applaud.

The Bradley Prizes are a recognition of the lasting merit of conservative ideas. They are a helpful corrective to liberal bias in its field and should be regarded as such.

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