Olin Industries is additionally responsible for Superfund sites in New York, Massachusetts, and Texas among others. The Olin website claims “Sustainability isn’t new to Olin. Our focus on continuous improvement throughout our 130-year history drives our business.” Yet in response to the EPA’s attempts to curtail Olin Industries environmental malfeasance in the 1970’s, John Olin began spending millions of dollars in defense of free enterprise.
Olin began funding conservative legal thought through donations to various political organizations, legal research and writing, and eventually, The Federalist Society. Olin specifically focused on conservative movements on campuses, including college publications such as The Dartmouth Review. Founded by four “discontented campus conservatives,” The Dartmouth Review’s journalistic pursuits included uncovering and publishing a confidential list of student members of the Gay Student Association at Dartmouth College, outing the students to their families and the world in 1984.
The focus on campus conservatism allowed the “counterintelligentsia” movement to present the false narrative that students were simply becoming more conservative of their own accord. It was largely unknown to the public that there were billionaire corporate donors funding the endeavor, with the intent of changing public opinion in America in a way that directly benefitted them and their businesses. Beyond funding a culture war aimed at oppressed student groups on campuses, The Olin Foundation sought to give life to a new legal theory that would be accepted by institutions as apolitical and worthy of legitimate space in legal academia: Law and Economics.
Law and Economics claim as its guidepost a focus on the economic impact of laws. Rather than the floaty idealism of scholars that center on justice, fairness, or equity in their legal analyses, legal economists claim that the fundamental aim of law should be to promote economic efficiency. The appeal of this approach to the corporate billionaire is clear. As they were accosted by the regulatory missions of the EPA, Law and Economics argued that the cost of protecting vulnerable populations from environmental harm ought to be weighed against the financial strain caused to the responsible company.
The Olin Foundation was quite savvy in its support of Law and Economics. The beauty of this approach was its alleged political neutrality—law schools could fund and promote the academic pursuit without acknowledging its conservatizing influence. The Olin Foundation spent over $68 million in support of Law and Economics on law school campuses, with one of its biggest wins coming in the form of acceptance by Harvard Law School.
In the late 1970’s, many professors at HLS were grappling with the law in a new and progressive manner, defined by a group of legal theorists as Critical Legal Studies. Critical Legal Studies sought to expose the realities of the law as a system designed to maintain the status quo and protect the powerful at the expense of the powerless. Concerned by the impact of this movement on the reputation of HLS at prestigious law firms, the Dean of HLS reached out to an Olin Foundation trustee and asked if it would fund a program with a competing point of view. As James Piereson, who served as Executive Director and Trustee of the Olin Foundation from 1985 to 2005, put it, “I think we did have an idea at the time that whatever the top schools did, the lower level schools would emulate. It would have a domino effect.”
The Olin Foundation knew that to gain real political traction, it needed to gain acceptance by the elite, and that doing so would require a veneer of political neutrality. Piereson described this strategy: “Law and economics is neutral, but it has a philosophical thrust in the direction of free markets and limited government. That is, like many disciplines, it seems neutral but isn’t in fact.” Ironically, this argument on the fallacy of neutrality is precisely what Critical Legal Scholars were claiming and still claim about the law writ large.
“I think we did have an idea at the time that whatever the top schools did, the lower level schools would emulate. It would have a domino effect.”
Journalist Jane Mayer detailed the phenomenon of Olin money in legal academia: “As a discipline, Law and Economics was seen at first as a fringe theory embraced largely by libertarian mavericks until the Olin foundation spent $68 million underwriting its growth. Like an academic Johnny Appleseed, the Olin foundation underwrote 83 percent of the costs for all Law and Economics programs in American law schools between the years of 1985 and 1989.”
The emergence and success of Law and Economics was followed closely by the foundation of The Federalist Society, and to an outside view likely seemed independent and spontaneous. In reality, both were made viable in part by the capital and political ideologies of James M. Olin, promulgated by the Olin Foundation. In fact the Olin Foundation funded the very first gathering of The Federalist Society in 1982, and it was that meeting that formed the basis for the many campus satellite organizations that exist today.
The two organizations work in tandem, The Federalist Society making space on campuses for Law and Economics thinkers to spread their ideology, and in turn, providing career opportunities to those students that affiliate themselves with the organization. As a law student, having The Federalist Society on one resume opens to door to an easy pipeline to conservative clerkships, research positions, and job opportunities.
The Federalist Society, like Law and Economics, claims no political identity. In fact, its website goes above and beyond to reiterate in every article posted and event hosted that “The Society is about ideas. We do not lobby for legislation, take policy positions, or sponsor or endorse nominees and candidates for public service.” Nowhere on the site’s description of its history and founding, however, is mention of the fact that the society was given life through the financial contributions of corporate oligarchs both directly and through the concurrent funding of Law and Economics.
James M. Olin has claimed his financial contributions to legal academia as the proudest of his philanthropic endeavors. By the time the Olin Foundation spent itself out of existence, it had donated more than $370 million to conservative legal thought—an amount that could be argued made the foundation more a machine of propaganda than an exercise of philanthropy. His legacy is memorialized by John J. Miller in A Gift of Freedom, who wrote that Olin “funded the conservative movement as it emerged from the intellectual ghetto and occupied the halls of power.” By conservatives, he is remembered with reverence as a man who changed the country. Undoubtedly, he did so.
While Olin was principally concerned with capturing academia on campuses, The Federalist Society has gone on to play a major role in the court system as well through the backing of judicial nominations as well as offering continued “education” to sitting judges. The Olin Foundation began the practice of influencing sitting judges through the Manne Economics Institute for Federal Judges. The Manne Institute, with Olin Foundation backing, put on programs for judges at tropical resorts where they were taught conservative and libertarian theories of the law. At one such event, a legal theorist told attending judges that minimizing air pollution in Los Angeles would be bad for Black people. The farcical economic justification for this argument is not worth detailing.
A study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research in early 2022 indicates that these events for judges accomplished their intended effect. The authors found that “after attending economics training, participating judges use more economics language in their opinions, issue more conservative decisions in economics-related cases, rule against regulatory agencies more often, favor more lax enforcement in antitrust cases, and impose more/longer criminal sentences.”
“Like an academic Johnny Appleseed, the Olin foundation underwrote 83 percent of the costs for all Law and Economics programs in American law schools between the years of 1985 and 1989.”
Law and Economics, The Federalist Society, and the broader emergence of conservative legal thought cannot be attributed to John Olin and his foundation alone. Regardless of Olin, there was undoubtedly an appetite for a repudiation of the leftist push for equity that had found its footing in the 1960’s and 70’s. As co-founder of the Critical Legal Studies movement, Professor Duncan Kennedy put it “the school’s success has got to be explained by something more than money.” But the source of the fortune that was used to remake legal academia and political narratives is illustrative of the ends that the movement seeks.
Legal economists such as Ronald Coase, Robert Bork, and Richard Posner are unquestionably worthy of their own stories of culpability for the captured system of law and economics. Yet even these men acknowledge the essentiality of the money that subsidized their academic work. In the words of Ronald Coase, one of the intellectual founders of law and economics, “Without all of the hard work in law and economics, a great part of which has been supported by the John M. Olin Foundation, it is doubtful whether the importance of my work would have been recognized.”
Conservative academics had found financial backing in corporate philanthropists before and after John M. Olin, as their mission was self-serving. Olin, as John Miller put it, “helped turn a collection of outposts and tendencies into an actual philanthropic movement.” Olin was a trailblazer in the practice of organizing corporate interests into a sustained movement that could be laundered through fictionally neutral Law and Economics and the Federalist Society.
Olin’s successors in corporate support of The Federalist Society are somewhat more difficult to ascertain. While Olin was outspoken about his desire to change legal academia and the political mindset of the country, many modern donors seek anonymity—as does the Society itself. The Federalist Society is a 501(c)(3) organization, making it both tax-exempt and not required to disclose its sources of donation. The Society mentions only that “90% of the funding comes from individuals and foundations; the other 10% comes from corporations.” The Olin Foundation, however, has shown what little this distinction means in practice. A philanthropic foundation on its face, it would not count toward the 10% of donations claimed by The Federalist Society as corporate.
What has been uncovered about The Federalist Society’s financial backers makes it clear that the corporate influence of its founding has continued through to the present. In 2017, The Federalist Society’s annual budget was around $20 million. More than a quarter of this budget came from a dark money organization called DonorsTrust, which allows donors to protect their identities. Despite the efforts undertaken to remain anonymous, journalists have learned that more than half of the money funneled through Donors Trust came from the Koch Brothers, conservative donors that made their billions in the oil and gas industry.
The Kochs have spent millions far and beyond the scope of The Federalist Society alone in perpetuating climate science denial and “principles of freedom” in so far as that means tax cuts for billionaires and the gutting of the EPA. Their focus on Society is particularly with regard to the control it has over conservative judicial nominations, which they are well aware have an outsized impact on the law’s role in the regulations of corporations.
“Access to Trump means access to power and because judges and justices serve on average, 26 years on the bench, the Federalist Society’s influence will long outlast this president.”
The Federalist Society currently claims close affiliation with six of the nine sitting Supreme Court Justices. In fact, during the Trump presidency, The Federalist Society provided short lists to the White House of approved potential nominations for both the Supreme Court and for lower-level courts. Trump promised during his campaign that his judicial nominees would “all be picked by The Federalist Society.” The link between this announcement and the conservative elite’s eventual acceptance of the Trump presidency has been explained by Professor Amanda Hollis Brewskey: “Access to Trump means access to power and because judges and justices serve on average, 26 years on the bench, the Federalist Society’s influence will long outlast this president.”