On the Indispensability of Think Tanks

Monday, January 30, 2006

Before the 1970s, the think tank was an obscure and exotic entity, conjuring up images in the popular mind of disembodied brains cogitating away. Although the embryonic beginnings of the Hoover and Brookings Institutions span back to the Woodrow Wilson era, it was not until the immediate post–World War II era that the term think tank came into existence. For years after the war, most think tanks were largely dedicated to advising the federal government on some aspect of military or foreign policy, further lending them an exotic air of secrecy and elitism.

In the twenty-first century, think tanks, once rare, have become a sector. They have also gone “prime time,” involved in every aspect of public policy and the national debate. The major think tanks may still not be household words, but they are known to millions of people; and they feed data and arguments directly to those who are interested in, and charged with, public policy formation. In short, the think tank sector of today provides the grist for the national debate on every issue of societal consequence.

A few years ago, some foundations, donors, and journalists wondered aloud if there were too many think tanks—allegedly more than 2,000 exist today. We’ve since begun asking deeper questions: What is the role of the think tank today? Does it create value? Does it have an impact, or is it an insular debating society?

 

Mission and Organization

Although some think tanks are shrill political “hit squads” that exist for the sole purpose of advancing the special pleadings of a narrow interest group, for the most part, think tanks—regardless of their ideological orientation—must produce quality research on issues of broad interest, or they will cease to flourish. A think tank, after all, can only pay scholars/analysts and publish materials if it can persuade foundations, donors, and subscribers to support it financially. No one wants to pay for research that is derivative, sloppy, or poorly organized. And no think tank has prospered by doing so.

The winners in this market are organized in ways that reflect the intended reach of their ambitions. The proliferation of state-based think tanks in the United States bespeaks an ambition to contribute to the well-being of citizens therein and make states true laboratories for observing diverse approaches to public policy formation and dialogue. Other think tanks have ambitions of shaping national policy. Some focus on selected industries; others seek to reform policies in developing countries. Still others are oriented toward specific topical areas, from economic to political to social concerns, covering domestic and foreign landscapes.

There are other, less obvious, organizing principles. Some think tanks are organized broadly around prominent individual scholars, and some are much more focused on specific policy initiatives using a diverse group of analysts. Consider Hoover Institution research fellow Robert Conquest, a recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (see article on page 155), and a scholar who rescued one of the most consequential and moving stories of the twentieth century from obscurity, that of Stalin’s Great Terror. What is the Hoover Institution’s directive to Robert Conquest? It is to continue to be Robert Conquest. By selecting a range of scholars with a diversity of interests, we naturally manage to produce incisive research on our institutional initiatives: economic and education policy, the rule of law, government performance, American culture and values, democratic capitalism as a societal ideology, and global security and cooperation. We assemble teams of scholars from within and outside Stanford University to address collective concerns and interests. Yet each scholar has an individual agenda, choosing where to participate and what kind of inquiry to pursue.

Other think tanks, using an equally valid approach, carve out more-precise issue areas and assemble teams to produce research and opinion on those topics. Although the final products do acknowledge individuals, the identity of the efforts is focused more on the think tank and its shared approach to an issue.

A relative few think tanks, such as the Hoover Institution, have prospered by making the most of an institutional connection with a great university. There is great synergy and complementarity to be exploited from such proximity. Hoover is part of Stanford University, and many of our scholars (currently numbering more than 100) hold joint appointments with other departments of the university. Many others have courtesy relationships—that is, Hoover fellows teaching occasionally in academic settings, and Stanford professors participating in Hoover’s policy research enterprise. Hoover’s own vast library and archives—covering materials on political, economic, and social change in modern times—when combined with the wealth of information available in Stanford’s eminent library collections, provide Hoover scholars a world-class information resource. Hoover’s public policy orientation and Stanford’s academic standing have proven to be a powerful blend.

 

The “I” Word

Of course, there is another way to categorize think tanks, perhaps the most important one of all—ideology. Needless to say, the “I” word can have a negative connotation these days. A famous economist once said that ideology is a substitute for thought. Like many maxims, it is too sweeping a judgment. Although some public policy think tanks advertise themselves as resolutely nonideological, most that grapple with the deepest problems in American society adopt a broad, ideological approach in some form—conservative, liberal, “third way,” whatever. Some adopt ideologies that are rather partisan and narrow; others adopt an orientation that is more philosophic and liberating. Ideology provides a framework for thinking about issues within the defined boundaries stipulated in mission statements.

To illustrate, with reference to a “free-market” think tank, such an ideological orientation is not a substitute for thought. It is a framework for thinking about a problem with the aid of an ideological compass. Alternatively, if one believes in the efficacy of government, the directed thinking amounts to devising a new or modified government program and backing it with appropriate public spending, implicitly dismissing free-market alternatives. It can be challenging to devise and convince society that market solutions for pressing public issues are better than government solutions, and vice versa. Whether the ideology is free market or better government, the notion is that legitimate thinking is required within the adopted framework, not resorting to a mantra of mere dismantling of markets or government. The challenge is to devise and propose alternatives to the status quo within the chosen ideology—alternatives that society and its governing representatives can consider for future implementation.

My Hoover colleague Milton Friedman recently opined that, after World War II, intellectual opinion was socialist—defined as government ownership and operation of the means of production—and practice was free market and limited government. Milton’s view is that intellectual opinion has distinctly moved away from collectivism and toward limited government, though the practice of government has nearly tripled over 60 years, as measured by government spending as a share of national income, thus leading Milton to conclude that practice has become more socialist. Whether opinion can line up with practice is a conundrum, and think tanks will likely have an opportunity to play a prominent role in the future evolution of this struggle.

Hoover’s ideology is broad and philosophical: ideas defining a free society. Our scholars are oriented to promote individual freedom—economic, political, and social. There is skepticism of proposed government solutions to society’s challenges, especially those that involve a government industry to manage such solutions. We are steeped in an intellectual environment that relies on democratic capitalism as an avenue toward achieving peace and prosperity.

Ideological labels are commonplace, some of which are self-imposed, many others of which are bestowed externally. Hoover is known as “conservative,” though I prefer the term classically liberal, a descriptor that emphasizes individual liberty over collective, value-laden pronouncements. Labels can be misleading because they are adjectives that vary in the eye of the beholder. Nonetheless they are reality, and not necessarily detrimental, because they can contribute to the productive dialogue of societal options.

 

Eternal Vigilance

What, then, is the value of the modern think tank? It is to educate the broad public about prevailing public policy issues and to generate and propose novel solutions to policy dilemmas. The policymakers themselves—the men and women in the arena—are busy people, with limits to which they can research relevant details and internally solve problems. Thus there is an opportunity for think tanks to contribute to the process of solving prevailing problems. But can we reach those people? This is an ongoing and significant challenge.

Does the think tank have an impact? There is a risk here that any given think tank community will spend its time confirming the accepted wisdom of its own constituents by preaching to the faithful. Comfortable isolation is the occupational danger of a think tank.

Can we get out of our comfort zone and engage larger, more skeptical audiences? Hoover is reaching out to the broader public with published opinions and editorials, with invitations to media to engage in institutional activities as visiting fellows, with efforts to secure opportunities for scholars to disseminate their ideas on the air waves, with a huge effort to communicate via the Internet to any public seeking our views, by targeting crisply written publications to opinion and policy leaders, and by inviting controversy in our symposia with diverse views from other prominent voices.

The ultimate success or failure of the think tank sector relies on its ability to break through the white noise of current events portrayed in the media—which can unduly influence the political leadership—and openly evaluate ideas of all kinds in an effort to engage in constructive dialogue, particularly in these times, when popular opinion seems to limit alternative thinking.

The late Peter Drucker once pronounced that “a think tank’s job is to change minds.” Further, Thomas Jefferson used the term eternal vigilance when musing about preserving the ideals of America. Arguably, the job of think tanks is, with eternal vigilance, to endeavor to change the minds of society toward its betterment.