Alex Biles / Uncategorized

Thoughts on a Thinktank War (Alex Biles)

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It was sometime in March 2010 when I rose from my chair as my COMM 458 “New Media” class was being dismissed. Stepping to front of the classroom, I had a big favor to ask one of most cherished instructors, Professor W. Russell Neuman. My inquiry: a letter of recommendation for a summer internship at the Cato Institute, a thinktank based in Washington, D.C.

Looking at me incredulously, Dr. Neuman would reply, “But they’re conservative.”

“No, they’re libertarian,” I retorted, futilely attempting to explain the difference between what I can only assume Neuman figured to be fascist apples and fascist oranges in the same fascist fruit bowl. While I will always remain grateful for lessons learned from Professor Neuman and his recommendation letter to Cato, his view on this topic underscores a broader trend.

Academia doesn’t care much for thinktanks. Whether the left-wing bent that pervades much of academia is good or bad seems like a placeholder for a future piece, but this much is clear: Many thinktanks are funded by wealthy conservatives and libertarians as a response to an intelligentsia that has become increasingly hostile to their ideas. These idea shops have been largely influential, crafting policy from the Bush tax cuts to “Obamacare.” Conservatives and libertarians alike have found thinktanks to be an effective method of disseminating their intellectual ammunition into the public sphere.

Surely academics would agree with these general points, but don’t call them Shirley. Among college professors, thinktanks have ultimately failed to garner much respect. The prevalence of right-wing views doesn’t help their cause, but the fact that thinktanks receive their funding from private sources (e.g., wealthy donors, corporations) as opposed to the scabies-free hand of government makes them a ripe target for derisive titles, such as, but not limited to “corporate mouthpieces, ” “fiction factories” and “brothels with books inside.”

Cue the current Koch/Cato war. You don’t have to be a libertarian to care about what may result in the takeover of the movement’s most prominent institution (Diehard liberals like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias have been tweeting extensively about the ordeal). This is an unprecedented move by everybody’s favorite supervillians, the Koch brothers, and amounts to some pretty good drama once you get to know the characters involved.

Before you continue, I highly recommend you briefly check out background information on the whole ruckus, be it the story at The Washington Post that broke it all, Dave Weigel’s excellent recap at Slate or the piece featured on the front page of The New York Times on Mar. 6. But for you lazy bunch out there, a snippet from The Boston Globe:

Cato was co-founded, and has been lavishly funded, by the multi-billionaire Koch brothers, who are known for both charitable interests (such as MIT’s Koch Institute) and bitterly partisan politics (such as their financial backing of the Tea Party movement)… Now, they are suing Cato President Ed Crane and the widow of the institute’s former chairman, William Niskanen, to gain greater control. Currently, the four equal shares of the non-profit institute belong to Charles Koch, David Koch, Crane, and the estate of Niskanen, who died in October. The Koch brothers believe the terms of the ownership give them the first right of refusal to buy Niskanen’s share, effectively gaining a controlling interest. The suit, declared Crane, is an effort to “transform Cato into a political entity that might better support [Charles Koch’s] partisan agenda . . . We consider it a hostile takeover.’’

The fact is, progressives have an opportunity to partake in a valuable teaching moment about their intellectual rivals at a thinktank, and instead many have passed it up for cheap name-calling. Several bloggers suspect that there is rich irony in libertarians placing the alleged positive liberties that a Koch-free Cato provides over embracing the Koch’s claims over private property, assuming they have a legal case. (Although I’ve realized this is a whole other post in and of itself… stay tuned. I do know some Catoites, however, that do not subscribe to a purely Nozickean view of positive vs. negative liberty). Apparently contract law and public pressure are not libertarian enough?

After all, the outpouring of activism from many of Cato’s employees has been nothing short of stunning. At the risk of losing employment if Koch assumes control of the Cato board — as well as tainting their reputation among idea shops in the libertarian network (almost all of which are funded by Koch) — adjuncts, interns and long-time scholars have taken to Facebook, Twitter and their personal blogs with not-so-kind words about the brothers.

Cato research fellow Julian Sanchez would tweet, “You think I’d WANT to stick around a partisan propaganda farm?” on Friday, along with drafting a pre-resignation letter in the case that the Koch brothers assume control. On Sunday, Cato vice president Gene Healy leveled Charles Koch’s recent statement to the press about Cato as “not true.” And researcher Jonathan Blanks, the winner to this point, had this to say about the attempted takeover: “Just because we support legalized prostitution doesn’t mean we want to live it.”

Besides resentment against the Kochs, a strain in the writings of Cato scholars has been maintaining the independence of the thinktank from corporate and political interests. That is, unless the widespread notion that thinktank employees spend hours on research and take their jobs seriously is a conspiracy. Sanchez may justsum it up best:

More importantly, I can’t imagine being able to what I do unless I’m confident my work is being judged on the quality of the arguments it makes, not its political utility—or even, ultimately, ideological purity. Obviously Cato has an institutional viewpoint, and I wouldn’t have been hired in the first place if my views on the topics I write about weren’t pretty reliably libertarian. But when it comes down to specific issues and controversies, nobody tells me what to write. If my honest appraisal of the evidence on a particular question leads me to a conclusion that’s not “helpful” in the current media cycle’s partisan squabble, or that differs from either the “official” libertarian line, or from the views of my colleagues, I can write it without worrying that I’ll be summoned to the top floor to explain why I’m “off message.” That’s the essential difference between an analyst and an activist: I can promise readers that what appears under my name—whether I get it right or wrong—represents my sincere best effort to figure out what would be good policy, not an attempt to supply a political actor with a talking point.  If I couldn’t make that promise, I’d have no right to expect people to take my work seriously.

Two of the current headlines from the Cato website read, “It’s Not Obama’s Fault that Crude Oil Prices Have Increased” and “Once Loud Opposition to Gay Marriage Has Quieted.” Cato’s refusal to adhere to political party lines is one of the key reasons for its success since its establishment in 1977. This is an institution that sides with the left virtually as often as the right, and that is perhaps the most important reason why it will be a tragedy to see it succumb to corporate and political interests.

Seeing progressives like Slate‘s Matt Yglesias take seemingly honest concern with the outcome of the Koch/Cato war is inspiring. Interestingly enough, Yglesias thinks some good may come out of it, tweeting, “Koch takeover of Cato seems to maximize odds of launching libertarian/progressive fusionist project.”

For the cadre of progressive academics (and non-academics) who are apathetic — or even worse — prefer to use this opportunity to take cheap shots at libertarians, take a look at the wholly unnecessary measures that Cato employees are going through to stick out their necks and risk their jobs to preserve the integrity of their work. Failing to take in this teaching moment about thinktanks — as much as you may disagree with the views of libertarians — is your own loss. Again, Julian Sanchez seems appropriate within this context:

I realize progressives think libertarianism is just code for uncritical worship of rich people, but as that’s not actually the case, the only irony here is that people think they’re scoring some kind of gotcha point when they’re actually exposing the silliness of their own caricature.

Thinktanks may operate differently than universities, but at the end of the day they are populated by hard-working individuals who are serious about their work — even if they’re not left-wing sympathizing professors. Academics, are you not also concerned about your work being taking seriously? Does the fact that much of your work is sponsored by the state or non-profits automatically taint your work with their vested interests? The fact that numerous donors to Cato have nothing to lose, and yet have also expressed concern about the integrity of the thinktank’s work if it becomes seized by the brothers Koch should make this fact evident.

Alex Biles is a recent University of Michigan graduate and a co-founder of The New Student Union. Follow him@newstudentunion and @alex_biles


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