Dear Readers: Today I present to you a guest post by Jason Stahl (@stahljason).
A few weeks back, Andrew professed his happiness at the “return of the culture wars” given the fact that he is writing a book on the subject. I find myself in very much the same mood now that think tanks have been popping up in news stories over the past month. I wrote my dissertation on the subject of conservative think tanks in the postwar period and am currently working on a book which seeks to historicize the think tank from 1916 to the present. In all of my work, I show how intellectuals used the institution of the think tank to alter consensus narratives of politics, public policy, and political economy in a mostly rightward direction. In particular, and of most importance to this blog post, I show how and why conservative think tanks and their intellectuals were instrumental in undermining an understanding of policy making as a “data driven” endeavor and replacing it with a narrative much more amenable to conservative political activism. Such a narrative relied instead on understanding politics and policy making through discourses of “the market” and “ideological diversity.” For these reasons, recent discussions of the think tank have directly intersected with my own work.
For those who have missed the current conversations, they have revolved around two basic questions. First, have think tanks become overly politicized/overly partisan in a way that they were not in the past and is this “over-politicization” something to be lamented? Secondly, is this supposed new over-politicization connected to the funding sources of the think tank? That is, to what extent have the bankrollers of think tanks contributed to their partisanship and over-politicization?
The starting point for these recent discussions and questions was this article by Tevi Troy—former Deputy Assistant for Domestic Policy to President George W. Bush and now a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. The article led to this symposium at the same think tank. While Troy and the panelists reject the obviously false notion that think tanks were once apolitical, they nevertheless all seem to be in agreement that today’s think tanks of the left and right are politically partisan in a way they once were not and that this “political combat” (borrowing Troy’s formulation) has supplanted more intellectually-rigorous “policy development” as the think tank’s core mission.
Recent events seem to confirm the analysis of Troy and others. Just last week, there was a dust-up at the libertarian Cato Institute after one of its founders, billionaire conservative Charles Koch, sued the Institute in order to exercise more power over its activities. This immediately led to worries that Koch was attempting to make Cato into a more reliable mouthpiece of conservatism as represented by the Republican Party as opposed to a think tank more interested in promoting libertarian conservatism and policy. Cato research fellow Julian Sanchez even went to far as to say that he would resign if Koch took control of the Institute.
As Paul Krugman correctly notes here, the idea that Cato has not been a reliable supporter of the Republican Party is somewhat overblown, but it is true that Cato also opposed the War in Iraq, has reliably fought against the bipartisan “Drug War,” and spoken out forcefully against the encroachment on civil liberties associated with the “War on Terror.” And as Corey Robin rightly notes here, there is some irony involved in the way Sanchez constructs his “presignation letter” given his professed libertarianism.
However, while both of these critiques are worthwhile, I find the laments of Sanchez and others, while understandable, to be somewhat hollow for another reason—namely their lack of attention to the history of the conservative think tank and how those think tanks gained power over the past four decades. In particular, I want to focus on the intersection of ideas and money that led the conservative think tank to be what it is today. It just so happens that I just finished an essay on this very subject for the upcoming book The Right Side of the Sixties.  So, I want to talk about my conclusions in this essay here as I believe it they are directly relevant to the Cato/Koch debate we are witnessing. While my case study in this chapter was primarily another conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), I think the analysis directly applies to the Cato/Koch debate, so I’ll try to link the two at various points and then return to the Koch/Cato debate at the end of this post.
One of the primary problems conservative think tanks had to overcome in the mid-twentieth century (to the extent that they existed then) was the idea that they were mouthpieces for capital—that they contained “rentellectuals” who would say anything as long as they were paid enough. When AEI emerged in 1943 as the “American Enterprise Association” there existed a deep suspicion of any organization that spoke on behalf of big business. With the memory of the Great Depression not far from Americans’ minds, a “business association,” as the think tank was then known, had to tread lightly when advocating for corporate interests to policy makers and the public at large. AEA’s head, Lewis H. Brown, who was also the president of the Johns Manville Corporation, understood this well. He knew that his organization, a partnership of top executives of leading business and financial firms, would have this bias immediately taken into account when they put forth public policy recommendations.
In addition to this collective memory of the Depression, there had also by the 1950s and early 1960s emerged a period of liberal technocratic consensus within the federal government whereby social scientists and politicians were deemed capable of defining social problems and then coming up with solutions to those problems through “scientific” techniques. So, within elite policy-making circles, contesting the idea of policy making as an “objective,” “rational,” and “scientific” endeavor would have been extremely hard. This dominant understanding of liberal technocratic expertise meant that groups funded by wealthy donors (such as AEI) would have trouble inserting themselves into policy discussions, given that they were immediately deemed too biased by their corporate funders to come up with “scientific” solutions to the nation’s problems. AEI’s first well-known president, William Baroody, knew this liberal consensus discourse well and fully understood just how hard it would be to challenge this specific ideology in the early 1960s. Thus, when he became president of AEA in 1962, he immediately changed the name to the American Enterprise Institute so as to distance the think tank from any “business association” understandings while simultaneously adopting the more academic “Institute.” Baroody even went so far as to state to one of AEI’s fellows in 1962 that the “Institute does not press any particular policy position or even attempt to form, suggest, or support any particular policy position. The Institute does attempt to provide the research assistance which will bring to bear upon any policy consideration the most pertinent facts available and the most knowledgeable considerations by acknowledged authorities in the field.” 
Here, then, one would imagine, existed the more “pure” think tank model which those who lament its over-politicization in the present would want a return to. Baroody himself was a staunch conservative who worked as an intellectual advisor to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 run for the presidency. However, he didn’t let this “political combat” get in the way of rigorous policy development at AEI.
While there is certainly some truth in this “glory day” interpretation of the conservative think tank, the idea that it can be resurrected in the present is naïve and ignores the fact that the liberal-technocratic ideal of public policy on which it was based was thoroughly discredited by conservative intellectuals and conservative think tanks themselves in the late sixties and 1970s. In fact, it was this discrediting which led to not only their newfound relevance and power but also to the acceptance of their wealth funding sources as uncontroversial and even something to be desired. I’ll return to the history of AEI to elaborate my point…
By the late sixties and early seventies, as liberal technocrats increasingly came to be blamed for a whole host of problems including urban blight, rioting, fiscal and monetary problems, and the war in Vietnam, conservatives in think tanks and elsewhere began to identify the whole liberal technocratic ideal of policy making as the fundamental problem. A July 1968 Baroody letter to a corporate funder of AEI demonstrates this newly emerging critique. While still making an appeal to the “objective, nonpartisan” research of AEI, Baroody nevertheless situated liberal technocrats as the main source of the nation’s problems:
“Much of our thinking at AEI is conditioned by a conviction that the intellectual community plays an increasingly major role in the formulation of public policy—in short the conviction that most governmental programs, for example, enacted in the last thirty years did not originate either in the mind of a politician or from the overwhelming demand of the people or from the planks of a party platform. They were born in and can trace their origins through the thought and writings of an academic or a group of academics whose views concerning the organization of a society may not necessarily coincide with yours or mine.” 
Here we see Baroody positioning the conservative think tank as a counter to academia, liberal think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, and foundations such as the Ford Foundation, arguing that because liberal technocrats in these organizations had planned policy without the conservative counterpoint, the nation now had the problems that it did.
Thus, what I’m arguing here is that in the late sixties and seventies, conservative think tanks were in the process of creating a new discourse of public policy to replace and discredit the liberal technocratic ideal. In essence, the new framework was situated around the idea of intellectual and political combat with liberal ideas—a “marketplace of ideas” where the highest value was to have a “diversity of opinion.” Here is Baroody in another letter to a wealthy funder in 1974 elaborating the point while totally abandoning the need for “objective nonpartisanship”:
“Paul McCracken recently said: ‘A free society can tolerate a monopoly in the production of widgets but it cannot survive a monopoly in public policy idea formation.’ The results of such a near-monopoly in the intellectual community are clearly evident. It is certainly safe to say that the long-term trendline in public policy has been toward more rather than less regulation of business, toward higher rather than lower taxes on business—in short, toward more rather than less government intervention in the private sector. And—growing public hostility to business is a fact. Effective competition of ideas is the American Enterprise Institute’s approach to the problem.” 
Once again, “objective, nonpartisan” of analysis of public policy by think tank intellectuals is no longer the goal. Instead, political combat of those ideas in a “marketplace” is now held to be the highest purpose of the think tank. Moreover, and most importantly for the ongoing Koch/Cato debate, Baroody and other conservatives used this new way of thinking about public policy debates to defuse a critique of corporate donations as such donations were now welcome and necessary to create competition on a supposedly level playing field. Thus, the donations from wealthy individuals and corporations, far from being something to be ashamed of, were cause for celebration as the corporate “little guy” was finally having his voice heard in, for instance, debates over regulation and taxes.
Thus, not only did the corporate and wealthy funding of conservative think tanks now not matter, the bias created by it was actually highly sought after in the name of an ideological competition in a “marketplace of ideas.” This created a massive shift to a new language of public policy argumentation, one which would greatly aid in shifting policy discussions to the right in that it would allow conservatives entrance into public policy debates by virtue of their identity as “conservatives” rather than on the specific content of their beliefs or the rigor contained in their analysis. It was merely enough that they could “create competition” with other institutions and intellectuals that were declared hopelessly liberally biased. This shift created a new dominant discourse of public policy expertise and debate that exists to this day and continues to shift such debates rightward. In the late 1960s and early 1970s this discourse would be the necessary solution for conservatives in think tanks seeking to give their institutions new power and diffuse critique of their wealthy donors.
This history is truly what makes the lamentations of present-day conservatives for a conservative think tank (or think tanks in general) dedicated to rigorous policy development so hard to accept. In the sixties and seventies conservatives in places like AEI, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute did more than anyone else to discredit the idea of policy making as a social-scientific endeavor. Instead, policy debates became primarily concerned with political identities and political combat and provided the foundation for the elite media discourse within which Americans live today, where “balancing” public policy debates between “two sides” in a “marketplace of ideas” effectively takes precedence over policy content and, dare I say, truth.
Likewise, this history makes the lamentations of Julian Sanchez at Cato equally hard to have sympathy for. As the brief history I’ve outlined here suggests, the political subjectivities and biases of the wealthy funders of conservative think tanks were integral to the success of these institutions. Obviously, such monies were used to develop the institutional infrastructure, but even more importantly their biases and subjectivities were used as a way to change and enter public policy debates. So, it is hard to feel sorry for those at Cato who are now lamenting what Koch may or may not do to the institution. When the history of the institution is wrapped up in a project which uses the biases of wealth funders to gain power and change the way people discuss politics and public policy, you can hardly be angry when those funders want to change the political identity that you’re promoting.
And this, ultimately, is what the debate at Cato is about. Since it has been a long time since the technocratic ideal held (if it ever truly did—that is a discussion for another post) this is not a debate between one side that wants an institution dedicated to Republican Party political combat (Koch) and one side that wants rigorous truth-seeking and a development of policies that “work” (people like Sanchez at Cato). No, it is instead the battle that conservatives (in think tanks and elsewhere) have been wanting for the last four decades—a battle of identities in a political marketplace. Who will win: the millionaire who is seeking to “re-brand his product” or the old-school libertarian brand? According to the narrative conservatives have been offering us, only “the market” can decide.
1. Portions reproduced with permission from Palgrave Macmillan Press: Jason Stahl, “From Without to Within the Movement: Consolidating the Conservative Think Tank in the ‘Long Sixties,’” in Laura Jane Gifford and Daniel K. Williams, eds., The Right Side of the Sixties: Reexamining Conservatism’s Decade of Transformation. Palgrave Macmillan Press, forthcoming August 2012.
2. William J. Baroody to Karl Hess, November 30, 1962, folder 7, box 13, William J. Baroody Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC (hereafter, Baroody Papers). Emphasis in original.
3. William J. Baroody to Orville E. Melby, July 8, 1968, folder 4, box 59, Baroody Papers.
4. William J. Baroody to Lewis A. Lapham, May 31, 1974, folder 5, box 56, Baroody Papers.