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March 4, 2003

The charge of the think-tanks

Originally published in The Economist, February 15, 2003 issue. Reprinted on Heritage.org with the express permission of the magazine and its original authors.

The unusual body of people behind many of George Bush's ideas

 

Many foreigners wish America would calm down a little. Why doesn't it rein in the dogs of war? Why doesn't it put a break on turbo-capitalism rather than revving it up? Why can't it behave more like Jimmy Carter and less like John Wayne? These questions hang over a million European dinner tables.

 

But America can boast an army of intellectuals whose job description is revving the country up still further. War in Iraq? These people have plans for the transformation of the entire Middle East. Capitalism run rampant? These people have a blueprint for bringing free enterprise to outer space. Welcome to the world of America's right-wing think-tanks.

 

These are now as much part of the political landscape as the stately left-leaning Brookings Institution. This year, the Heritage Foundation turns 30, the Manhattan Institute in New York is 25 and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is 60. As befits a libertarian outfit, the Cato Institute is a little out of step, having celebrated its own quarter-of-a-century last year. The Hoover Institution in California is an octogenarian.

 

Their influence is partly a matter of ideas. Two of the brainwaves of the 1990s-welfare reform and zero-tolerance policing-were incubated in conservative think-tanks. The Cato Institute has been arguing for privatising Social Security reform for years; the AEI was protesting about rogue states long before anybody had heard of Osama bin Laden. But it is also a matter of people. Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice are both Hoover veterans. Dick Cheney and his wife have a longstanding relationship with the AEI. Elaine Chao, the labour secretary, is a Heritage alumnus. The Defence Policy Board is headed by Richard Perle, the Uberhawk from the AEI, and a quarter of its board members come from Hoover. Hundreds of lower-level administration employees cut their teeth in think-tanks. If "people are policy", as Edwin Feulner, the head of Heritage, likes to say, then the think tanks are becoming America's shadow government.

 

The think-tanks' influence is partly related to the intellectual barrenness of America's two main parties. The Democrats and Republicans are little more than vehicles for raising and distributing campaign contributions. They have no ability to generate ideas of their own, and little control over individual politicians trying to burnish their reputations with new thinking.

 

This does not explain why right-wing think-tanks are so much more vibrant than left-wing ones. Money is the reason most often cited by liberals. The right certainly has its wealthy supporters, notably Richard Mellon Scaife, a reclusive billionaire based in Pittsburgh; Joseph Coors, a Colorado brewer; and the Koch family, a business dynasty from Wichita, Kansas. But these are dwarfed by liberal organisations such as the Ford Foundation. And the left can call on the resources of America's giant universities, which, as every right-wing think-tanker moans, are stuffed with neo-socialists.

 

The right's real advantage lies in commitment and organisation. Many of the conservative think-tankers grew up in the 1960's and 1970's, when conventional wisdom held that government spending would solve most problems. They recruited a small army of passionate maverick dissenters, notably academics who felt marginalised at those left-leaning universities. Even now, when they are rich and powerful, there is something endearingly rabid and unhygienic about many think-tankers.

 

This counter-establishment is remarkably well-organised. This applies to their fund-raising, which now involves tapping thousands of conservative activists: last year more than half of Heritage's $31m donations came from individuals. But the think-tanks also work together. The AEI, for instance, allows intellectuals to think grand thoughts-most notoriously about race and IQ. Heritage is much more focused on the day-to-day business of Congress. In their predictably warlike jargon, the AEI softens up the liberal establishment with long-range bombings before Heritage sends in the ground troops to capture the territory. The conservatives are much less Washington-focused than their liberal peers, with their influence stretching to places like the Cascade in Oregon and the Discovery Institute in Seattle There are 46 conservative think-tanks outside Washington.

 

At their most organized, the right-wing think-tanks often seem more like businesses than universities. Heritage, for instance, has a carefully defined mission: influencing Capitol Hill. Mr. Feulner ruthlessly sets objectives and measures performance. Heritage is as passionate about selling conservative ideas as Coca-Cola is about selling gaseous drinks. It invented two-page briefs for busy congresspeople. Its various handbooks are so valuable that you see Democrats guiltily consulting them.

 

Still angry after all these years

Will Conservatism, Inc. keep its share of the intellectual market? Critics whisper that the think-tankers have become more interested in peddling ideology than in coming up with new ideas; that they are too sycophantic to Mr. Bush. Yet the surprising thing about the think-tanks is how vital they remain. Heritage has doubled the budget for its Centre for Data Analysis since it was founded in 1998. Hoover has set up a television programme, Uncommon Knowledge. And they are capable of being sharply critical of the administration- for instance, over steel tariffs and runaway government spending. The libertarian Cato Institute is as vehemently critical of Mr. Bush's policy in the Middle East as the AEI and Heritage are supportive.

 

In the end, the guiding force behind the rise of the right-wing think-tanks has been a deep and passionate fury against the status quo. Looking around these bodies, the conservatives have lost none of their zeal for cutting taxes, destroying red tape and spreading the capitalist gospel. However the war with Iraq goes, foreigners will be complaining for years to come.

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