A common question I hear in the course of my work is “what is a think tank?” It’s sort of ironic since I don’t technically work for a think tank, but I suppose I work closely enough with them that I ought to have something at least approaching an answer.
A recent BBC News story defines think tanks as ”organisations that conduct research with a view to causing political policies to change.” Not a bad short definition, but also not very revealing. Back in 2002 the U.S. State Department put together a “think tanks for dummies” resource that is pretty limited, but does profile a few think tanks to provide a flavor of their structure and content.
A much better explanation of the origin, role, and importance of think tanks was provided in 2005 by John C. Goodman, president of the National Center for Policy Analysis. He refers to think tanks as “idea factories” and outlines how they can and do incubate ideas to solve real problems and then disseminate those ideas to effect change. Also interesting is how Goodman describes the value of “ideological” think tanks, as well as the way think tanks are responding to changes in communications and the internet.
To contrast, Sourcewatch, a site that would be extremely useful if its users would stop blurring the line between well-researched whistleblowing and partisan straw-grasping libel, gives us a much harsher definition of the think tank:
A Think Tank is an organization that claims to serve as a center for research and/or analysis of important public issues. In reality, many think tanks are little more than public relations fronts, usually headquartered in state or national seats of government and generating self-serving scholarship that serves the advocacy goals of their industry sponsors; in the words of Yellow Times.org columnist John Chuckman, “phony institutes where ideologue~propagandists pose as academics … [into which] money gushes like blood from opened arteries to support meaningless advertising’s suffocation of genuine debate”.
Of course, some think tanks are more legitimate than that. Private funding does not necessarily make a researcher a shill, and some think-tanks produce worthwhile public policy research. In general, however, research from think tanks is ideologically driven in accordance with the interests of its funders.
Those are serious charges, and worth exploration, but in the end I largely disagree. I happen to believe that the propagandist charge is seriously overblown, and that the relationship between research and funding is often misunderstood and in many cases the reverse of the above.
Chris DeMuth, former president of the American Enterprise Institute, argues that starting with a particular set of principles can lead think tanks to superior research to that of academia:
To be sure, think tanks–at least those on the right–do not attempt to disguise their political affinities in the manner of the (invariably left-leaning) universities. We are “schools” in the old sense of the term: groups of scholars who share a set of philosophical premises and take them as far as we can in empirical research, persuasive writing, and arguments among ourselves and with those of other schools. This has proven highly productive. It is a great advantage, when working on practical problems, not to be constantly doubling back to first principles. We know our foundations and concentrate on the specifics of the problem at hand. Working in schools encourages collegiality, and boldness and clarity in our work. These are healthy correctives to the vices of “academic politics” (personal and overwrought) and “academic writing” (timid and overqualified), but their positive virtues are more important. The solitary genius is a wonderful romantic figure, and a rarity. Intellectual progress depends heavily on milieu: significant achievements in the arts and sciences have been highly concentrated in time and place. Think tanks try to apply that lesson in the realms of political and social criticism and policy reform. In contrast to political partisans and ideologues, we welcome competition from other schools of thought. We like to work on hard problems, and there are many fertile disagreements in our halls over bioethics, school reform, the rise of China, constitutional interpretation, and what to do about Iran.
Think tanks aim to produce good research not only for its own sake but to improve the world. We are organized in ways that depart sharply from university organization. Think tank scholars do not have tenure, make faculty appointments, allocate budgets or offices, or sit on administrative committees. These matters are consigned to management, leaving the scholars free to focus on what they do best. Our research faculties are organized around issues rather than academic disciplines, and include not only scholars in established fields but also intellectuals (who make up their own fields) and people with practical experience in government, politics, and the professions who have the knack for generalization and organized argument and the zest for reform.
Ed Crane, president of the Cato Institute, comes at the issue of bias from a slightly different angle. In his view, the principled argument complements the pragmatic argument provided that it is made on ideological rather than partisan grounds:
The essence of classical liberalism is a respect for the dignity of the individual. It is axiomatic that such dignity is enhanced to the extent individuals have more control over their own lives, whether we’re talking about spending our own money, choosing the school our children go to, or picking a personal lifestyle. Our policy proposals should be consistent with that goal. Our loyalties must be to the principles of liberty, not to any politician or political party. Just as African-Americans have greatly diluted their political influence by seemingly reflexively voting Democratic, so, too, will think tanks find their influence reduced when politicians know they will always tow the party line. We must make it a point of honor to remain nonpartisan.
The closer one gets to politics, the easier it is to lose sight of the principles of liberty. Nobel laureate James Buchanan wrote in the Wall Street Journal on New Year’s Day, 2002, “My larger thesis is that classical liberalism cannot secure sufficient public accountability when its vocal advocates are limited to ‘does it work?’ pragmatists.” And pragmatism is the name of the game when it comes to worrying about legislative mark-ups. How many of us have heard solid pragmatic arguments against the minimum wage (there are many) that nevertheless end up sounding greedy more than principled? Why not a principled argument, as well? You and I have a natural right to agree to a job and a salary. Rights are not cumulative. A majority does not have the right, through legislation, to tell us we cannot agree on a job and a salary. In this day and age, the latter will not carry the day; the pragmatic arguments need to be made, as well. But we should always try to insert the principled argument into the debate. Over time, such arguments will have more force. More importantly, such arguments keep us headed in the right direction.
So there’s a brief overview of what think tanks are, and a few arguments for or against this particular breed of organization — and now when people ask me for an explanation, I have somewhere to refer them.