Friday, August 05, 2005

The Imaginary Think Tank Gap

There are countless organizations that retail themselves as think tanks providing fact-based and well-reasoned analysis of problems of various kinds and public policy proposals aimed at addressing them. The greater part of those specializing in economic, foreign policy and defense matters are either conservative or nonpartisan.

Sound public policy must meet three fundamental requirements. It must first and foremost be problem-oriented and define problems in a concrete and specific fashion. It must honestly and objectively collect pertinent facts and examine the various ways in which problems can be solved in order to offer sound solutions. Finally, public policy proposals must be politically viable. Recommending public policies that have absolutely no chance of being implemented is nothing more than wishful thinking. Think tanks that actually think about how to solve problems do not do so in order to advance an ideology. They are realistic and pragmatic.

Conservative and non-partisan think tanks, on the whole, do a respectable job of meeting those requirements. Conservative think tanks work hard to find free-market carrots that can be used by government to promote the general welfare and are motivated to find solutions that don't rely on rigid bureaucratic command and control models. They are predisposed to create economic incentives for people to do the right thing rather than commanding people to do the right thing and punishing them if they don't. This is a good thing as civilized people usually prefer persuasion to coercion.

While conservative think tanks are highly motivated to find free-market solutions to problems they are not adverse to employing coercion when there is no other practical alternative. This pragmatism is exemplified by the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. That extraordinarily successful piece of legislation betrays its conservative think tank origins by carefully avoiding the rigid, command and control systems often favored by the Left. While it established goals and measures of success it did not dictate how those goals should be achieved. Instead, it provided block grants to the states thereby funding 50 different experiments aimed at meeting the goals it had established.

Democrat Party soul-searching after its last major electoral defeat led some Democrats to conclude that they were losing the war of ideas and that this was in large measure due to a relative shortage of liberal think tanks. Using money donated by George Soros and others, Democrat activists attempted to create a competitive think tank that would in time provide for them well-researched and well-reasoned policy proposals consistent with their ideology. It calls itself The Center for American Progress. A brief visit to its Web page is instructive. Don't look for any original research reports. There aren't any. You will have to settle for links to genuine liberal think tanks like the The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Urban Institute and Brookings Institution. The Center for American Progress's Web resembles that of left wing political publications like The Progressive, American Prospect and The Nation. However, links to news reports and op-ed pieces are not the same thing as original research and analysis.

An alliance of 80 wealthy Democrats has pledged at least $1 million each to expand the number of liberal or progressive think tanks. But do liberals really suffer from a think tank disadvantage that is responsible for their lack of useful ideas in the public policy arena?

My review of bone fide liberal think tanks indicates that while they are certainly outnumbered and outspent by their conservative counterparts they do, in fact, engage in original research and formulate concrete public policy proposals. For instance, the Brookings Institution has put forth a competitive proposal for social security reform. Democrats are not as short of constructive public policy ideas as some may think. The real problem is that Democrat politicians are unable to make effective use of the research and analysis produced by liberal think tanks in the course of developing legislative initiatives.

On the whole, single-issue, special interest groups have relatively little influence in the Republican Party and a great deal of influence in the Democrat Party. Republicans can propose Social Security reforms without having them approved by the AARP. They can legislate tort reform without consulting with the Association of Trial Lawyers of America or the National Bar Association. They can attempt to improve K-12 education without seeking the approval of teachers unions. They can propose and pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement without seeking the approval of the AFL-CIO. They passed an energy bill without consulting with the World Wildlife Federation and Environmental Defense Fund.

Single-issue advocacy groups by their very nature care nothing about the general public interest. They are intent on furthering that one special interest that they passionately care about and care nothing about the harm that may befall others who don't share their interest. Environmental pressure groups are the clearest example of this problem. Some of their proposals would cripple the economy, throw millions of people out of work and increase poverty. They don't care. Teachers unions want their members to be paid more and work less while advancing a left-wing agenda. Don't expect innovative ideas for educational improvement from that source.

Republicans are not without special interest influences. The National Rifle Association and Pro-Life groups are important constituencies. But what about Big Business and corporations? They give about 60% of their donations to the party with the lion's share of power in Washington. Democrats got favorable treatment when they were ruling the roost and now Republicans are getting their turn. Businessmen and business associations have more access and influence during Republican administrations because Republicans want to see the economy thrive, exports grow and American competitiveness increase. You can't remove obstacles to success unless you talk to the people hindered by those obstacles and John Sweeney isn't one of them.

The Democrat Party needs to dramatically move to the center in order to develop innovative, pragmatic, public policy initiatives appealing to the majority of voters. Radical, single-issue special interest groups should be politely shown the door. The Web page of the Progressive Policy Institute demonstrates the good that can come from this. It is unashamedly patriotic and has a genuine interest in fostering economic growth in order to finance programs for the needy. It is a fan of biotechnology and the enormous good it can do by reducing starvation in poor countries and preserving the environment. It may get some things wrong but it is getting a lot of things right. It has a direct channel of communications to the Democratic Leadership Council and a handful of centrist Democrats in Congress. In that regard, it is unobstructed by the special interest groups that hold the rest of the Democrat Party in thrall. It shows where the Democrat Party needs to go in order to be a credible opponent in the war of ideas.

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