Thinking about Think Tanks
Christopher Demuth, of whom I had never previously heard, has announced he is stepping down from the presidency of the American Enterprise Institute after 21 years. In a WSJ op-ed reflecting on his tenure he offers, along with some gratuitous cheap shots at universities, some valuable insights into the nature of think tanks and their role in the public discourse.
Think tanks are identified in the public mind as agents of a particular political viewpoint. It is sometimes suggested that this compromises the integrity of their work. Yet their real secret is not that they take orders from, or give orders to, the Bush administration or anyone else. Rather, they have discovered new methods for organizing intellectual activity–superior in many respects (by no means all) to those of traditional research universities.
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. 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 Korea and 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. Management promotes the scholars’ output with an alacrity that would make many university administrators uncomfortable.
And we pay careful attention to the craft of good speaking and writing. Many AEI scholars do technical research for academic journals, but all write for a wider audience as well. When new arrivals from academia ask me whom they should write for, I tell them: for your Mom. That is, for an interested, sympathetic reader who may not know beans about the technical aspects of your work but wants to know what you’ve discovered and why it makes a difference.
Public inattention, well-organized interest groups, anti-social ideologies and sheer happenstance powerfully shape the actions of governments. Think tanks serve as storehouses of ideas, patiently developed and nurtured, waiting for the crisis when practical men are desperately seeking a new approach, or for the inspired leader who sees the possibilities of action before the crisis arrives.
My own think-tank slogan is: “No one knows when the Berlin Wall will come down.” It is imperative to maintain intellectual sanctuaries in a world where Harvard University forbids the discussion of certain important issues and Columbia University welcomes the contributions of a master terrorist. Our sanctuaries have been instrumental to the expansion of human freedom in recent decades. We are laying the groundwork for further advances–as opportunities arise, as they surely will.
Yesterday marked my first month working in the think tank world, albeit in a different sort of institution than AEI. The full-time staff at the Atlantic Council is comparatively small, although we have a large and impressive group of experts on our board and as affiliate scholars. This means our program directors, including myself, do in fact attend administrative meetings (although, thankfully, we’re not bogged down with squabbles over office space and the like). We’re also decidedly non-partisan.
Like AEI, Heritage, Center for American Progress, and others, though, we do start with an agreement on first principles, namely the central role of the Atlantic community in international relations. While perhaps more vague as a mission statement than “smaller government,” it helps tremendously to have a starting point for discussion, research, conferences, and the like.
A comment on Jonathan Adler‘s post about the issue links some related discussion by Brian Leiter and Ilya Somin on the value of intellectual diversity. While there’s no disagreement on the fact that a wide range of viewpoints is essential, Somin correctly notes the “conflict between diversity within institutions and diversity across them,” noting the value that schools like Brandeis and Brigham Young add to the debate despite their relative homogeneity. Leiter agrees, pointing to the success George Mason has had by assembling a law school faculty (and I’d add, an Economics department) comprised almost exclusively of conservatives and libertarians.
George Mason has been able to attract a highly productive and accomplished faculty, who no doubt stimulate each other to do more and better work. One of the more unfortunate consequence of Justice Powell’s introduction of the “diversity” mantra into American public discourse is that it obscures the extent to which in scholarly pursuits depth, subtlety, and the comprehensive exploration of the possibilities of an intellectual paradigm require the stimulation of colleagues who share some basic premises, substantive and methodological: it’s some degree of homogeneity, not diversity, that often makes possible the deepest work. The beauty of American law schools is that George Mason is but one of the many options from which law students, and legal scholars, can choose, and that most good law schools are large enough to accommodate clusters of scholars who share “viewpoints,” but who, taken together, produce a remarkable diversity of viewpoints on the real issues that engage lawyers, judges, and academics.
Similarly, while institutions like Heritage and AEI operate within a fairly narrow range of internal discourse, there’s hardly a shortage of competing ideas from other shops.
Demuth is absolutely right, too, about the critical need for writing for a non-expert audience. The Atlantic Council does that through op-eds and various program reports but is working on doing more. Indeed, they’ve brought me on with the task of turning around the website and helping showcase Fred Kempe’s vision of the “think tank for the 21st century.”
More importantly, the role of thinking about things that few others are thinking about is central to the think tank world. Politicians and the interested public, understandably, focus on a few issues at a time based on what’s currently on the radar screen. To be sure, there are people in the government planning for all manner of contingencies, but the resources simply don’t exist to spend too much time “thinking outside the box.” Think tanks, especially those with a narrow mission, fill that gap.