Think Tanks versus Advocacy Tanks

Don’t get me wrong.  There are real think tanks like RAND or RFF that produce significant reports on environmental policy issues.  I always take the conclusions of these experts seriously, because they’re very competent and don’t have an axe to grind (unless you count being overly attached to economic analysis as a bias.)

Then there are places like the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and Cato.  Their basic function is to produce advocacy pieces for conservative causes.  It would really be more accurate to call them advocacy shops.  There’s nothing inherently linked to conservatism about advocacy shops — it’s just that it’s easier to get funding for this kind of thing on the Right.

I’m in the business of training people to become advocates, so far be it from me to denigrate advocacy.  Advocacy can expose arguments and evidence and sharpen issues. The difference is that no one thinks a lawyer’s brief is supposed to be objective, and the judge always gets briefs from both sides and is expected to consider all the arguments.

Paul Krugman has a nice description of the ersatz analysis of the Heritage Foundation that applies to some other conservative “think tanks” as well:

By the way, Heritage is always like this. Whenever there’s something the G.O.P. doesn’t like — say, environmental protection — Heritage can be counted on to produce a report, based on no economic model anyone else recognizes, claiming that this policy would cause huge job losses. Correspondingly, whenever there’s something Republicans want, like tax cuts for the wealthy or for corporations, Heritage can be counted on to claim that this policy would yield immense economic benefits.

Like litigators, the people working for these outfits may be smart and they may produce good advocacy, which may add to the  debate — at least when the arguments meet professional standards (as Heritage’s do not, according to Krugman).  Like a lawyer’s brief, their arguments should be considered for what they are worth.  Their conclusions, however, should not receive the same deference as independent expert analysis.

In and of itself, the fact that am advocacy tank has produced a report in favor of a conservative position means just as little as the fact that a corporate lawyer has written a brief on behalf of a client’s position — or for that matter, that the Sierra Club or the NRDC has written a report on the environmental side.  The only surprise would be if that didn’t happen in some particular case. “American Enterprise Institute endorses government regulation” has the same newsworthiness as “man bites dog” or “Sierra Club opposes environmental measure” — or, more relevantly, as “Chamber of Commerce supports environmental protection.”

The mistake is viewing the Heritage Foundation as in some sense the counterpart of RAND, let alone the Harvard Economics Department — rather than being the pro-business counterpart of Sierra Club on environmental issues or of the AFL-CIO on labor issues.  We need good advocacy in the public arena, but let’s not confuse it with independent analysis.

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Reader Comments

8 Replies to “Think Tanks versus Advocacy Tanks”

  1. Why the exclusive focus on the right, and no mention of the Center for American Progress, the Economic Policy Institute, the Institute for Policy Studies, or the Center for Budget & Policy Priorities, etc. And what about the Environmental Law Institute? While there are certainly many think tanks with ideological predispositions, I would think we can evaluate the strength of their analysis and their conclusions apart from their ideological dispositions.


  2. As I said in the blog, there are advocacy “think tanks” on both sides, but the ones on the right are far better funded and more influential. For instance, I’ve never heard of several of the liberal ones that you mention in your comment. So the conservative examples are much more important. Whether conservative or liberal, I think it’s unfortunate that these advocacy groups give the appearance of having the same stature as RAND or RFF (or even, within the government, CBO), while they’re really just the policy offices of the Chamber of Commerce or the AFL-CIO.

  3. Better funded? Look at the rate at which the Center for American Progress ramped up. No conservative or libertarian group ever raised that much money that quickly. And in the environmental sphere, any major environmental group has a larger budget than the environmental-related programs of the ten largest conservative outfits.

    I also don’t think it’s fair to characterize the conservative and libertarian organizations as the “policy offices of the Chamber of Commerce” when organizations like Heritage, Cato, and AEI routinely attack policies that business groups support (such as certain business subsidies) and often disagree with each other. Further, it is common for AEI to publish a range of views on a single subject. The book I edited for them on ESA Reform has a wider range of views than almost any book published by RFF or ELI (save for the two volumes each has published with something of mine).

    I think you are carelessly casting aspersions on ideologically-oriented research organizations — and they are ideologically oriented, to be sure — without really knowing much about them.


    1. I don’t think it’s casting aspersions on them to say that they’re in the advocacy business rather than the scholarship business. That’s true of the Cravath firm too, and Cravath is a very distinguished institution. Of course, Cravath may sometimes sponsor a scholarly work, just as AEI may sometimes do the same for projects like your book. But that doesn’t change the basic nature of the institution.

      Or, to change the analogy, AEI and company are like expert witnesses — they may be doing high quality work and have pure motives, but no one would confuse an expert witness report with a work of scholarship. I’m thinking of writing a post suggesting that we should evaluate work by advocacy groups of all stripes by using the Daubert test — what do you think?

  4. And a quick addendum, because I can’t resist. What, other than ideology, is a difference between say, Cato, and the Center for Progressive Reform?


    1. I did think of that while I was working on the original post, which caused me to tone down my remarks. I don’t think CPR does scholarship either. That’s one reason I was careful about what I wrote — I think CPR does valuable work, but it’s not different in kind from what Cato does. (And of course, there are some issues where I agree with Cato’s positions, although not nearly as many as with CPR.) If I write something for CPR, it’s more like writing an amicus brief than an article — there are still professional standards that apply to the work, but they’re not academic standards.

  5. Dan —

    I agree with your responses. The only qualification I would make that even organizations like Cato and AEI engage in some degree of quality control and research integrity, at least in certain parts of their operations. Books published by AEI Press are subject to outside peer review — and not always ideologically sympathetic peer review — and I know of instances in which Cato has rejected works because of poor methodology, despite reaching the right outcomes. As a consequence, I’m reluctant to make broad generalizations about such organizations.

    On the flip side, we both know that much of what passes for independent scholarly work in the academy is really just advocacy in a tweed jacket. There are not nearly as many independent, objective truth seekers in the academy, or the better think tanks, as we pretend.


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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more