Think Tanks, Advocacy Tanks, and the Kleiman Rule

Dan is absolutely right to distinguish between real think tanks and what I called “fake think tanks” (and what he calls, more generously, “advocacy tanks.”).  But what we need is some criterion for distinguishing the two: one key move of the modern Conservative Movement has been to dismiss all study as simply being the product of ideology.  No wonder that Josh Marshall, in a wonderful piece, described George W. Bush as “The Postmodern President.” 

So how does one judge?  My UCLA colleague Mark Kleiman offers this test:

When you hear of a think tank producing a study, do you know what the result will be without reading the study?

I think that just about sums it up.  You don’t need to read a Heritage Foundation report to know what it will say; ditto with a Sierra Club report on the environment.  Of course, the Sierra Club freely concedes that it is an advocacy group; Heritage, or the Cato Institute, deny it.  But that sort of mendacity is also very postmodern.

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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “Think Tanks, Advocacy Tanks, and the Kleiman Rule”

  1. How are Heritage or Cato any less candid about their worldview than the Sierra Club? They both explicitly embrace an ideological worldview. The Heritage Foundation defines its mission as “to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.” The Cato Institute describes itself as “dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace.” If anything, I’d say Cato and Heritage are more forthright, as the Sierra Club is not simply an environmental organization, but an organization committed to a progressive political ideology as well — a progressive political ideology that does not invariably advance environmental goals, yet the Sierra Club does not acknowledge as much.

    Jonathan H. Adler

  2. Jon, you’re kidding, right? Heritage and Cato both claim to be doing “research” that produces “studies.” They have “Resident Scholars” and “distinguished scholars” — with (in Heritage’s case), a “Center for Data Analysis,” a “Center for Legal and Judicial Studies” — the linguistic apparatus of an academic institution. Some of these “scholars” have named “chairs”. They issue ponderous “studies” that happen to back the most right-wing line of the day. The Sierra Club has none of these things.

    Oh yes, Cato and Heritage admit to their ideological priors, but the clear implication is that this ideology and world-view is profoundly data-driven. Whatever you may think of the Sierra Club’s policies, it’s most certainly not masquerading as a place doing university-quality research, as Cato and Heritage are.

  3. The one exception I know is Norman Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute. I guess Brookings can also be centrist–especially on military adventures.

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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