Dynamist Blog

Think Tanks Cont'd

Dan Drezner has more, including an on-target comment about TV booking from Bruce Bartlett. Arnold Kling weighs in here, with numerous reader comments. Tim Sandefur, like other readers, defends think tanks on the grounds that they're no worse, and perhaps better, than "intellectuals in government institutions, or in overwhelmingly government-supported universities."

I'm not asking think tanks to be universities. I'm asking them to do what they say they're trying to do. Think tanks--or at least the kind we're talking about--say they're about changing minds and affecting policy. To that end, think tank research should be able to pass scholarly scrutiny, if only because the arguments won't otherwise convince anyone but the already convinced. For the same reason, think tanks should seek not simply to repeat the same arguments but to advance the debate by responding to new critiques and new circumstances.

The problem is that think tanks face enormous incentives to do the easy job of making their supporters (moral or financial) feel good, rather than the hard job of persuading the unpersuaded or figuring out how to move policy, rather than simply to complain about it.

Take a recent example, Cato's news release purporting to offer "$62 billion in spending cuts that would offset Katrina relief in the short-term and create savings to reduce the federal deficit over the long-term." The release was great p.r., even garnering an Instalanche. It made a terrific soundbite: Tom DeLay is wrong. It's easy to find $62 billion of waste in the budget.

Unfortunately, anyone who looks at the release, even someone like me who agrees with the cuts, can tell the release is not serious. For starters, all the important details are missing. How exactly do you propose cutting farm subsidies in half? Ditto NASA? What specific programs are you going to zero out? Or how are you going to restructure allocations? How are you going to manage the politics? Do you have some reverse logroll in mind? How do you propose to cut the Army Corps of Engineers budget at a time when people are complaining about too little money for shoring up levees? These are not easy cuts, made even more justifiable by the Katrina crisis. They are a standard libertarian wish list in a new context. The release does nothing convince the typical reader that these programs are wasteful. It's just a publicity stunt--and an effective one--that makes ideological supporters feel good but does nothing to change short-term policy or long-term attitudes.

I'm not against think tanks. To the contrary, I believe they can fill a role no other institution fills. I appreciate the hard work and talent of the people who staff think tanks. My quarrel is less with them than with their short-sighted supporters. When faced with Dan Drezner's original question of why these organizations don't take on the difficult issues of the day, I come back to the same answer: because they need money to fund that research and donors, especially individuals, don't want to pay for it.

I am particularly skeptical of the one-stop-ideological shop, funded by individuals who care mostly about hearing their beliefs repeated in public. These organizations have almost no incentive to take on new or difficult questions or to work on the hard, unglamorous, long-term process of moving specialist opinion. (Unlike many think tank critics, I do not think corporate and foundation donors are usually a big problem, for the simple reason that their specialized program officers tend to be far more sophisticated about the state of debate and don't want their side to lose by making unpersuasive arguments.) I have more confidence in the effectiveness of organizations that focus on a specific discipline or policy area, because they tend to attract staffers with independent reputations in their field and to reward them for tackling the hot questions of the day, even if they don't know the answers in advance. Or maybe I just don't know enough about specialized organizations to see their problems.

As for the critique that there are many kinds of think tanks, not just the portmanteau ideological variety discussed in Dan's original post, all I can say is that Vogue is undeniably part of the mainstream media, but nobody thinks we're talking about fashion magazines when we examine news coverage.

Finally, on a positive note, I think the Manhattan Institute does a good job of funding smart, intellectually curious people and turning them loose to do in-depth research on topics they care about. But then, as its name suggests, this think tank isn't in Washington.

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