William Volker Fund
The William Volker Fund was a charitable foundation established in 1932 by Kansas City, Missouri, businessman and home-furnishings mogul William Volker. Volker founded the fund with the purposes of aiding the needy, reforming Kansas City’s health care and educational systems, and combating the influence of machine politics in municipal governance. Following Volker’s death in 1947, Volker’s nephew, Harold W. Luhnow continued the fund’s previous mission, but also used the fund to promote and disseminate ideas on free-market economics. During Luhnow’s tenure as the fund’s primary manager, the William Volker Fund was one of the few libertarian organizations with significant amounts of money at its disposal, making it a key leader in developing the modern libertarian and conservative movements in the United States.
William Volker and the establishment of the Fund
William Volker was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1859, and his family immigrated to the United States in 1871 and settled in Chicago in October after the Great Fire destroyed portions of the city. According to his official biography, Volker “saw the operations of a vast spontaneous system of relief supported by charitable persons from every section of the world” (23). According to family tradition, the event convinced Volker of the power of private charity. As a young man, Volker moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he started a home furnishings business, the William Volker & Co., which sold picture frames, blinds, and other home furnishings. As his fortune increased in the early 1900s, he secretly started giving most of it away.
Because of his secret charity, locals nicknamed Volker “Mr. Anonymous” and he became an important figure in Kansas City public life. He became an important Progressive civil reformer in the city who helped create important social-welfare programs such as the Board of the Pardons and Paroles and Board of Public Welfare.
In 1932, Volker set aside half of his fortune into the William Volker Charities Fund. The fund’s articles of incorporation claimed it would “care for the sick, aged and helpless”; “provide means and facilities for the physical, mental, moral and spiritual betterment of persons”; “improve living and working conditions”; and provide “education and educational facilities” (209–210).
Harold Luhnow and the post-Volker management of the Fund
When William Volker died in 1947, his nephew Harold W. Luhnow took control of William Volker & Co. and also became the head of the William Volker Charities Fund’s board of directors. Edmund W. Kitch, “The Fire of Truth: A Remembrance of Law and Economics at Chicago, 1932-1970,” 23 Journal of Law and Economics 164 at 180-1 (1983):
William Volker had no children, and he had hired Harold W. Luhnow, son of his sister Emma, to work for him. Born and reared in Chicago, Luhnow graduated from Kansas State University in 1919 and went to work for the company soon thereafter. Luhnow "was involved with a group that succeeded in overthrowing the Pendergast Machine in Kansas City," which acquainted him with Loren B. Miller of the Civic Research Institute. The Fund had assets in 1947 worth approximately $15 million. It operated with a single professional staff person, Herbert Cornuelle (1949-53), and Ken Templeton. In the 1960s the company and the Fund moved to Burlingame, California. The Fund was dissolved after Luhnow’s death and its assets distributed to local Kansas City charities and to the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.
Under Luhnow’s administration the fund shifted its focus away from charities in the Kansas City area and began pursuing a number of strategies for increasing the acceptance of Old Right and Austrian economics thought in the United States. Luhnow's dedication to right-wing and libertarian ideas grew from his association with Loren “Red” Miller at the Bureau of Government Research, a Detroit-based “good government” foundation. During the 1930s, Miller helped Luhnow undermine the Pendergast machine in Kansas City and Miller introduced Luhnow to intellectuals and public figures who shared the businessmen’s hostility to machine politics. During this period, Luhnow read books like F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and became a proponent of classical liberalism.
Luhnow was interested in theories of political economy that are generally called "libertarian" or "classical liberal," but at various times have been called "Conservative," "neoliberal," "right-wing radical," "eighteenth- and nineteenth-century liberal," or Straussian. As Luhnow’s commitment to these ideas grew, he used the Volker Fund to give sizable contributions to libertarian and conservative causes. The Fund was instrumental in bringing Friedrich Hayek to the University of Chicago. It also helped support many other classical liberal scholars who at the time could not obtain positions in American universities, such as Ludwig von Mises and Aaron Director. Through its subsidiary the National Book Foundation, the Volker Fund gave away books authored by libertarian and conservative academics to college libraries throughout the U.S. The National Book Foundation distributed books by wide range of influential authors, including Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Gordon H. Clark, Hayek, Mises, Roscoe Pound, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and many others.
Under Luhnow’s management, the fund helped the then small minority of Old Right scholars to meet, discuss, and exchange ideas. Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, Bruno Leoni's Freedom and the Law, and Hayek's Constitution of Liberty were all influenced by the ideas discussed at such meetings. Among its most significant contributions to such academic conferences, the fund supported North American participation at the first Mont Pèlerin Society meeting in 1947.
Under the directorship of "master recruiter" F. A. Harper, the fund systematically recruited a number of young libertarian and conservative scholars. These researchers and staffers who eventually became important figures in American right-wing. Notable staffers included a young Murray Rothbard who began working for the Volker Fund in 1951 and wrote book reviews for the Fund until 1962. Rose Wilder Lane also contributed book reviews. Prominent Christian Right pioneers Rousas John Rushdoony and Gary North also gained early notoriety because of their association with the fund.
In addition to its own activities, the Volker Fund also helped support the formation of various complementary institutions, including the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (ISI), which was later renamed Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). It also worked closely with similar charitable endeavors, such as the Earhart Foundation and the Relm Foundation.
Controversy and collapse
In the early 1960s, Luhnow’s management of the fund became increasingly inconsistent, and in early 1963 he suddenly fired most of his staff, including Harper and Rothbard. Harper continued the basic nature and spirit of his Volker Fund work by creating the Institute for Humane Studies. Luhnow hired Ivan R. Bierly, an ex-Foundation for Economic Education senior staffer. Luhnow reorganized the Volker Fund as the Center for American Studies and ended the fund’s charitable commitments to Kansas City institutions. Bierly recruited William T. Couch, R. J. Rushdoony, and David Leslie Hoggan to run the new center. Rushdoony hired his future son-in-law, Gary North, as a summer intern in 1963.
Immediately, Rushdoony and Hoggan became lightning rods for controversy. Rushdoony, a conservative Presbyterian minister, alienated many of the fund’s secular and non-Protestant supporters and was fired by Bierly. Hoggan was even more controversial for his explicitly pro-Hitler and pro-Nazi sympathies. He was fired shortly after Rushdoony.
The Rushdoony/Hoggan controversy left Bierly and Couch scrambling to find support for the center even as Luhnow grew old and sick and was no longer able to support the organization. They courted Stanford University and the Hoover Institution with several million dollars in remaining Volker money only to be rebuffed. The center proved short lived and closed late in 1964 when Couch and Birely failed to secure the support of Stanford and Hoover. A decade later, the remainder of the Volker Fund money, amounting to about seven million dollars, went to the Hoover Institution. The Fund's files have disappeared.
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