Dr. John Marks Templeton, Jr. (February 19, 1940-March 16, 2015), lived an extraordinarily productive life. He made many contributions as a medical doctor, as a foundation president, as an active member of civil society, and as a family man. I witnessed his accomplishments in many of the above, but it was in his role as leader and overseer of efforts to promote free enterprise in America and around the world that I learned the most. During his tenure as president, the John Templeton Foundation became the largest supporter of innovative efforts to promote free enterprise around the globe.
His vision of freedom was inspired by that of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Dr. Templeton was convinced that having a good understanding of human nature is an essential aspect of all social sciences and the best guide for public policy. In promoting free enterprise and the principles of the free society, he quoted the Founding Fathers more than the great classical liberal economists. He found that, except for Adam Smith, especially in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, the vision of the human being promoted by free-market economists tends to be very limited and narrow. The drama, the conflict, the potential for evil as well as for good moral acts, the role of passion, as well as the relevance of virtues and vices, tends to get lost in simplistic arguments and in a “know it all” attitude.
He noted that during the periods when free enterprise developed and became respected as the road to prosperity, the focus of writers, such as the Founding Fathers, was on human freedom rather than on capital. Is the current decline of economic freedom and the rule of law in the United States rooted in a misunderstanding of human nature? This and other Big Questions fascinated Dr. Templeton. The motto of the foundation he led is “how little we know, how eager to learn.” It was natural for him to have an eagerness to ask big questions as a path to new knowledge. Those who were not aware of this were usually intimidated or surprised by his queries. Dr. Edwin J. Feulner, former president of the Heritage Foundation, recently remarked that, in meeting with him, “when some of us thought we had a chance to speak about our projects he would change topics and ask us: are humans inherently good?”
Knowing that I was born and lived half of my life in Argentina, he once asked me if I thought that the United States was on its path to “Argentinization.” He believed it was. He had studied how some countries had jettisoned their future and was determined to do all in his power that it would not happen in the United States. One of my Forbes columns was devoted to that topic. Dr. Templeton asked so many difficult but interesting questions that I think at least a dozen of my articles were inspired by his comments, insights and doubts.
He was extremely concerned by the intervention of the state and its bureaucrats in all spheres of life, not only economics. Preserving the independence of the philanthropic sector was a primary concern. Religious liberty was another. Under his leadership, the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) became one of the main donors helping confront the challenges in this field.
Whenever he had doubts about whether JTF’s charter allowed for supporting efforts he deemed important, he used his own money. He was convinced, for example, that freedom is not free, that a free and prosperous society needs to be protected from its enemies. So he had an appreciation for the role of the military, and especially for those who are the first to risk their lives: the Special Forces. He even dedicated a book to them. He supported some of this work on national security as vice chairman of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. In addition, he contributed from his own savings to many more causes — and mostly in an anonymous manner.
Dr. Templeton also saw the family as being an indispensable foundation of the free society. Although the role and relevance of family structure for character development fits neatly in JTF’s mission, whenever the topic reached politics, like the effort to have government redefine marriage, he was careful to use his personal money, not the foundation’s.