Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise
by Andrew Rich
Cambridge University Press, 2004
270 pp., $65.00
The first think tank was a joke. Literally. Aristophanes’ Clouds, a comedy first produced in 423 B.C., skewers the philosopher Socrates by depicting him as the director of a “Thinkery” in Athens. At this thinkery, Socrates instructs promising young men in petty thievery, contempt for the law, and how to get ahead by making the weaker argument the stronger. At the end of the play, the outraged fathers of Athens, with the help of the gods, burn down the thinkery and drive out Socrates and the other corrupt “experts.”
Aristophanes’ comic play poses an enduring question: where in a political community does wisdom reside? Or put another way, whom should we trust to be wiser: experts or ordinary citizens? This question gives Andrew Rich’s book on American think tanks its seriousness. Unfortunately, his ideological presumptions, couched in scientific terms, hobble his ability to address it.
Rich’s central claim—addressed to political scientists, but also applicable to funders of think tanks and other donors interested in public policy—is that American think tanks changed for the worse during the last few decades. In Rich’s view, think tanks began in the early 1900s as independent research institutions, dedicated to bringing the new social science to bear on public policy. These seemingly non-ideological entities, such as the Brookings Institution or later the RAND Corporation, offered policy-makers a range of options from which to choose. By remaining publicly indifferent to the choices made by policy-makers, these think tanks maximized their “effectiveness” in Rich’s view.
But starting in the 1970s a new breed of mostly conservative think tanks entered the national scene. These entities, Rich finds, judge themselves upon their ability to shape policy in particular directions, and so devote more of their money and energy to “marketing.” Rich and other experts he cites worry that this emphasis on politics and marketing ultimately undermines all experts’ credibility. As a result, he fears, all think tanks will become less “effective,” and the country will lose a source of wisdom. If he’s right, funders of all political persuasions may wish to re-examine their commitments to think tanks.
The obvious problem with this argument is that Rich himself concedes that the conservative think tanks, particularly the Heritage Foundation, one of the most ideological of the bunch, have proven quite effective. How to resolve this seeming paradox?
Rich’s standard of “effectiveness” is drawn from the arsenal of modern social science. His mode of speaking and evaluating derives from this new science that the early think tanks “marketed” quite effectively throughout the country, and so it suffers from the limitations—intellectual and ideological—of that science.
Speaking of effectiveness only makes sense in connection with an end that one is trying to reach. Both Stalin and Lincoln were “effective” leaders in the sense that they moved their nations toward the goals they desired. But their effectiveness is vastly less important than the ends which they effected.
Rich says little about the context within which think tanks arose in the United States, but that context is crucial. New and old think tanks emerged as alternatives to another American institution: the universities. Philanthropists established the early think tanks precisely because the colleges and universities at the turn of the last century had largely been unreceptive to modern social science. Most universities at the beginning of the twentieth century clumsily held fast to their age-old, dual purposes: forming character and discovering the truth. They may have pursued these goals well or poorly. But “value-neutral” social science had no obvious place within that framework. The “results” it sought were in tension with both character formation and pure research. And so it had to find a different home.
Ironically, once it roosted in the thinkeries, this new social science effectively conquered both the universities and the government. And as Rich concedes obliquely, social science had and still has an ideological bent best described as “progressive.” One element of progressivism is its preference for experts over popular deliberation. For example, New York businessmen created the Bureau of Municipal Research in 1907 to serve as “an agency dependent neither upon politics nor upon an average public intelligence.” This bureau, and other institutions it inspired (such as the Institute for Government Research and the National Bureau of Economic Research, which eventually merged to create the Brookings Institution), and their funders (businessmen such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, E.H. Harriman, and J.P. Morgan) pursued “efficiency”—another touchstone for progressivism, which emphasizes process over ends. As Rich admits in a telling quotation, these first think tanks sought the “depoliticization of the political process.” Such an anti-political stance—which implies certain value judgments against politics and “the average public intelligence”—is not a product of pure science. It is ideological.
Fifty or so years after the founding of these institutions, and after many bitter fights, progressivism had conquered the academy and government. Its preference for bureaucracy and large central government reached their political apogee in the Great Society, just as the actual society had become disillusioned with progressive promises. The anti-progressive or conservative think tanks that arose at this time reflect the nations’ awakening from the progressive dream. But once more, the formation of these new thinkeries depended (and still depends) on the hostility of the universities to the new ideas. Academia since the 1960s has remained either thoroughly progressive or cynical (and academic cynics are merely disappointed progressives). Since the 1970s, conservative thinkers have had little or no chance to secure respectable careers within this setting. Rich is surprised by the proliferation of conservative think tanks. He shouldn’t be. Society was ready for conservative ideas. And the universities would not and still won’t have anything to do with them.
So much for the context of “effectiveness.” The importance of conservative ideas points to the other critical element missing from Rich’s analysis: the ends or purposes of progressive and conservative think tanks. For Rich, as for many social scientists, “ideological” is a bad word. His choice to praise progressive think tanks as “non-ideological” is understandable: they are not about ideas. Since their national losses in 2000 and 2004, progressives have wrung their hands (and wrung their donors for dollars) in the hope of matching the conservative think tanks in the “war of ideas.” But this is a quixotic hope. Progressivism is not about big ideas, it’s about effects.
Focusing on effectiveness (the “how”) is a luxury afforded to people who have already answered the big questions, the questions about the ends (the “why”). In any “war of ideas,” conservatives tend to win, precisely because they don’t assume these questions about the ends have been satisfactorily answered. In contrast, conservatives tend to lose when public debate focuses on questions of the means, of how to “get things done.” Put another way, there are few or no conservative “wonks,” and, for the same reasons, few or no progressive thinkers. Whether they know it or not, liberals and progressives still owe their worldview to Marx, who famously announced that thinkers had had enough time to understand the world—now it was time to change it. Conservatives stand athwart history and yell “Stop!” not just to be obstinate, not just from nostalgia, but fundamentally because they suspect that we humans often do a poor job charting our way. And if we’ve started down a wrong path on some issue, conservatives argue, then we need to figure out how to return to the wiser path. To conservatives, it makes no sense to be “wise” (or efficient) in the service of unwisdom.
From this standpoint, we can begin to make sense of Rich’s muddled claim about the effectiveness of both “non-ideological” (progressive) and “ideological” (conservative) think tanks. The progressive think tanks assume that a government run by experts, rather than politics or “the average public intelligence,” is the solution to our woes. The choices they offer to policy-makers focus on making that solution more efficient. As long as politicians share their assumptions, and restrict their own gaze to the means of governing rather than the ends of politics, such think tanks prove effective.
But when the ends fall into question, conservative think tanks have their day. Indeed, one of their and their funders’ greatest contributions to American public life may be the ability of conservative think tanks to reawaken the question of the end, and hence to reawaken politics in a serious sense. Such reawakening is a profound effect all by itself, though it militates against what the progressives consider effective: growing government. And so to a progressive thinker, conservative think tanks look both effective and likely to undermine think tanks’ effectiveness.
It is tantalizing to hope that, just as the early progressive think tanks helped progressivism conquer academia and government, conservative think tanks and philanthropists could conceive a conservative rebirth in academia and government. But history never quite repeats. At the very least, conservatives must acknowledge that, precisely because they are “institutions,” universities and government agencies are receptive to progressive penetration. “Institutions” are the tools of the modern social scientific mind. Conservatives cannot expect to handle such tools with similar ease. Or to quote another conservative adage, one cannot have one’s cake and eat it too.
Where, then, does all this leave conservative philanthropists? The power of conservative think tanks is obvious, even to progressive analysts. These upstart thinkeries are an excellent investment. The trick is to avoid the institutional temptations. These temptations include giving to universities, which are still by and large asleep in the progressive dream. Another temptation is to over-employ government institutions. In addition to thwarting bad laws and regulations, conservative think tanks should focus on strengthening civil society (the communities of citizens, families, and friends), where the fundamental questions arise almost naturally. Getting people to confront those questions is a tremendous effect. It protects us from much foolishness.
For all its faults, then, and precisely by being so unconsciously “ideological,” Rich’s book does a great service: It shows that the timeless question, “where can we find wisdom?” is still very much alive. And at least Rich, for all his latent hostility to conservative think tanks, doesn’t follow the lead of Aristophanes and recommend a purification by fire.
Albert Keith Whitaker is a research fellow at Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy and director of family dynamics at Calibre Advisory Services. He is also president of the Morton Foundation, Inc.