"Ideas Move Nations"
How conservative think tanks have helped to transform the terms of
by Gregg Easterbrook
As recently as 1950 Lionel Trilling could proclaim, as if it were
incontestable, that American Conservatives had no ideas, only "irritable
mental gestures." Today, though many conservatives remain irritable, ideas
they possess in abundance. Conservative thinking has not only claimed the
presidency; it has spread throughout our political and intellectual life
and stands poised to become the dominant strain in American public policy.
While the political ascent of conservatism has taken place in full public
view, the intellectual transformation has for the most part occurred
behind the scenes, in a network of think tanks whose efforts have been
influential to an extent that only now, five years after President
Reagan's election, begins to be clear.
Conservative think tanks and similar organizations have flourished since
the mid-1970s. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) had twelve resident
thinkers when Jimmy Carter was elected; today it has forty-five, and a
total staff of nearly 150. The Heritage Foundation has sprung from nothing
to command an annual budget of $11 million. The budget of the Center for
Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has grown from $975,000 ten
years ago to $8.6 million today. Over a somewhat longer period the
endowment of the Hoover Institution has increased from $2 million to $70
At least twenty-five other noteworthy public-policy groups have been
formed or dramatically expanded through the decade; nearly all are
anti-liberal. They include the Cato, Manhattan, Lehrman, Hudson, Shavano,
Pacific, Sequoia, and Competitive Enterprise institutes; the committees on
the Present Danger, for the Survival of a Free Congress, and for the Free
World; the institutes for Foreign Policy Analysis for Contemporary
Studies, and for humane Studies: the centers for Study of Public Choice,
or the Study of American Business, and for Judicial Studies; the Political
Economy Research Center; the Reason Foundation; the Washington, American,
Capital, and Mountain States legal foundations; the Ethics and Public
policy Center; the National Center for Policy Analysis; the National
Institute for Public Policy; and the Washington Institute for Values in
Today conservative commentators have their liberal counterparts outgunned
by a wide margin. Conservative thinking has liberal thinking outgunned as
well. In vigor, freshness, and appeal, market-oriented theories have
oriented theories at nearly every turn. This feat has been accomplished in
the main by circumventing the expected source of intellectual
developments--the universities. Conservative thinkers have taken their
case directly to Congress, the media, and the public--to the marketplace
THE NEW NEW CLASS
Think tanks are an American phenomenon. No other country accords such
significance to private institutions designed to influence public
decisions. Brookings, the progenitor of think tanks, began in the 1920s
with money from the industrialist Robert S. Brookings, a Renaissance man
who aspired to bring the new discipline of economics to backwater
Washington. During the New Deal the Brookings Institution was
market-oriented--for example, it opposed Roosevelt's central planning
agency, the National Resources Planning Board. Only much later did the
institution acquire a reputation as the fountainhead of liberalism.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, as Americans enjoyed steady increases in
their standard of living and U.S. industry reigned over world commerce,
institutional Washington came to consider the economy a dead issue. Social
justice and Vietnam dominated the agenda: Brookings concentrated on those
fields, emerging as a chief source of arguments in favor of the Great
Society and opposed to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In the Washington
swirl where few people have the time actually to read the reports they
debate, respectability is often proportional to tonnage. The more studies
someone tosses on the table, the more likely he is to win his point. For
years Brookings held a monopoly on tonnage. Its papers supporting liberal
positions went unchallenged by serious conservative rebuttals.
Though the force of liberal ideas grew during the Great Society, few
liberal think tanks were founded. During this period young men and women
on the make in Washington formed consulting companies. Federal consulting
was a growth industry, because by hiring consultants agencies could evade
Civil Service ceilings and expand even as their official size remained the
same. The first big consulting boom was in poverty-fighting. When the
environment became the hot issue, many poverty consultants switched to
that field. Energy was the next bankable issue, with a related boomlet in
But consultants with liberal backgrounds were ill equipped for a
transition to the hot issue of the late 1970s, the economy. And as the
conceptual emphasis changed, so did the money flow. Poverty, the
environment, and energy were fields in which consultants generally argued
for increased government authority: the bureaucracy was happy to fund such
thinking. Most economic research, however, called for reduced government
involvement. Funding for that would have to come from somewhere else.
Together with Washington commentators and regulators, liberal consultants
were condemned during the 1970s by conservative intellectuals as
representing a "new class" of overeducated spongers who performed no
productive labor but merely issued edicts regarding the labor of others,
while living comfortably off the surplus. With each passing year, warnings
about the new class went, the proportion of talkers to doers would
increase, and the prestige of talking rather than doing would grow, until
U.S. society became so top heavy that paralysis set in.
As the 1970s progressed, a core of politically active conservative
intellectuals, most prominently Irving Kristol, began to argue in
publications like The Public Interest and The Wall Street Journal that if
business wanted market logic to regain the initiative, it would have to
create a new class of its own--scholars whose career prospects depended on
private enterprise, not government or the universities. You get what you
pay for, Kristol in effect argued, and if businessmen wanted intellectual
horsepower, they would have to open their pocketbooks.
Traditionally, corporate philanthropy had been directed either toward
charity or toward independent organizations like the Ford, Rockefeller,
and Carnegie foundations. Pressured by the media and by academics to make
gestures of broadmindedness, businessmen seemed to feel that they could
gain social approval only by sharing their proceeds with credentialed
intermediaries who would use the money to fund attacks on capitalism.
Paying to have oneself attacked was a kind of corporate ablution.
The rise of Nader's Raiders and similar public-interest groups--which
achieved remarkable results, considering how badly outgunned they
were--brought a change in business thinking about money and public
affairs. So did the frustration felt by oil companies, which were being
fattened by rising prices but dreamed of being fatter still if federal
regulations were abolished. They were willing to invest a sliver of their
riches in changing Washington's mood.
In 1977 Henry Ford II angrily resigned from the board of the Ford
Foundation, saying that he was fed up with its anti-capitalist output.
Many companies started political-action committees and created "corporate
foundations" whose giving habits were tightly controlled by management.
And a handful of wealthy right-wing foundations representing Richard
Mellon Scaife, Joseph Coors, and the Olin Chemical and Smith Richardson
pharmaceutical fortunes began to dedicate themselves to influencing
politics. Just as liberal analysts had once discovered that they could do
well billing the government to advocate government expansion, so
conservative thinkers now saw an attractive opportunity to take business
funds to advocate government contraction.
In 1973 two young congressional aides, Edwin Feulner and Paul Weyrich,
quit their jobs to start the Heritage Foundation. Three years later a
longtime Brookings fellow, Ernest Lefever, started the Ethics and Public
Policy Center. In 1977 a group of libertarians started the Cato Institute.
The Committee on the Present Danger was founded nine days after Carter's
election. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, which had
existed quietly since its creation in 1962 by David Abshire, a retired
Army officer (now ambassador to NATO), sensed its moment. Liberal
consultancies had found their causes in poverty, energy, and the
environment; the new think tanks would find bankable issues in the
windfall-profits tax, the SALT II treaty, the nuclear freeze, Star Wars,
industrial policy, and comparable worth.
When plum positions started going to them, conservatives discovered that
the new class wasn't so bad after all. Norman Ture, one of the original
supply-siders, supported himself through the late 1970s by taking
donations for his Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation.
While Ronald Reagan was composing his first cabinet. Ture wrote a paper
for the Heritage Foundation advocating--in the best new-class style--the
creation of a new government post, that of Treasury Department
undersecretary for tax policy, and, after some assiduous circulating of
the paper with resume attached, landed the job for himself. Following the
change of administrations in 1980 some conservatives found think tanks
useful vehicles for advancing their ideas and their careers. Colin Gray, a
nuclear hard-liner known for a Foreign Policy article titled "Victory Is
Possible," failed to land a top position at Defense or the National
Security Council, so he started the National Institute for Public Policy,
which produces studies on beam weapons and other Star Wars components.
Meanwhile, the major conservative think tanks hardly had to chase money:
it was brought to them eagerly.
WARMING THE IDEAS
"Historically, conservatives in the United States have come across as
racists and know-nothings," Michael Horowitz, who did work for AEI and
Heritage in the late 1970s and held a high position in the Office of
Management and Budget before being nominated to a federal judgeship, told
me. "It was essential to create a moral and intellectual basis for
conservative beliefs which had its own vision and wasn't just a reaction
To a point this image problem was inevitable. The slogans of capitalism
(Every man for himself, and Don't expect any favors) sound horrible, while
the usual effects (prosperity and freedom) are terrific. The slogans of
socialism (Everybody is equal, and We'll look after you) sound stirring,
while the usual effects (stagnation and statism) leave something to be
desired. For conservatism to capture the intellectual market it would have
to sound like more than the nay-saying of wealthy old white men. It would
have to speak, as liberalism did, of a better future.
A turning point for the movement's world view was George Gilder's Wealth
and Poverty, funded through the new think-tank network and published just
as Reagan won in 1980. In the book Gilder argued for tax cuts, a
long-standing conservative cause. But rather than employ the traditional
negative line (which boils down to "Get your hands out of my pockets"),
Gilder stood the argument on its head. Adam Smith, he said, had it wrong.
Capitalism isn't a voodoo through which many selfish acts inexplicably
advance the whole. It's a magnanimous organism in which everybody wants
the best for everybody else--since, after all, one person cannot prosper
selling his product unless many others are prosperous enough to buy. Big
tax cuts, Gilder said, will trigger an outburst of altruism.
Gilder may or may not have been right, but he had found a whole new
vocabulary for market thinking, one that was progressive and kind-hearted
rather than dour. In the late 1970s Jeane Kirkpatrick had written,
"Sometimes Republican speakers communicate a warmer concern for fiscal
abstractions than for any other subject and sometimes Republican audiences
respond like a group of accountants who can conceive no greater good than
a balanced budget." How quickly and how completely the priorities would be
reversed! Conservative theorists would lose all interest in mere fiscal
abstraction, such as the federal debt (Heritage's Mandate for Leadership,
Volume II, wouldn't use the word deficit until page 219), while learning
to frame their ideas in terms of the "greater good." By 1985 the Ethics
and Public Policy Center would hold a conference on the underclass at
which the speeches would be focused entirely on market mechanisms to help
the poor. Not once were welfare queens or ghetto Cadillacs, the sort of
small-minded crotchets that would have dominated a similar conservative
conference a decade ago, even mentioned. Conservatism, by acquiring a
positive vision, had become warmer.
HOUSING THE CONVERTS
All movements treasure converts, and the growing conservative think tanks
became instruments for the care, feeding, and display of theirs. AEI was
home to Kirkpatrick, Michael Novak, Ben Wattenberg, and others who wasted
no opportunity to point out that they had switched sides. Ernest Lefever,
of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Max Kampelman, the general
counsel to the Committee on the Present Danger (now a special arms
negotiator), had been conscientious objectors during the Second World War.
Charles Murray, whose Losing Ground, a critique of social spending, was
written for the Manhattan Institute, is a former Peace Corps volunteer and
the child of a factory worker. Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, and Walter
Williams, all rising conservative theorists, are black, which qualifies
them as converts regardless of when they began thinking in market terms.
The more spectacular the conversion the better. Michael Horowitz began an
article about his: "I am Jewish, was student body president at City
College of New York, taught civil rights law in Mississippi during the
sixties, now grieve at the loss of Al Lowenstein, the remarkable friend
who most taught me to care about the political process. The best man at my
wedding was a Democratic Congressman with a 100 percent ADA rating." Just
as a former drunkard who beat his wife and stole from the collection plate
will be the star of any revival meeting, so reformed liberals became the
headliners at many conservative get-togethers. Conservatives wanted to win
not just elections but hearts and minds.
For public-policy impact, intellectuals and journalists make prime
converts, because there is nothing (at least nothing obvious) in it for
them. All manner of lobbyists, some even lapsed Democrats, were running
around Washington preaching capital formation and market magic, but who
believed them? They were fabulously paid to read their lines.
Public-interest advocates and liberal academics often had more standing on
Capitol Hill than corporate vice-presidents, precisely because they made
relatively little money and did not gain personally from the outcome of
political decisions. By establishing think tanks, conservatism could
acquire the same sheen of detachment. The beauty of it all was that
thinkers come cheaper than lobbyists.
AEI, Heritage, and CSIS became exceptionally press conscious. Any time the
elite media mentioned a Heritage or Cato study, the movement would score
points in heaven. Think-tank managers who swore oaths in private about the
liberal biases of the big media nevertheless found themselves longing for
their stamp of approval.
Understanding that many reporters hunger to feel important, the new think
tanks courted and flattered reporters in a way Brookings never had,
inviting them to conferences not as observers but as participants.
Catering to the journalists' convenience, they sent reams of information
free (Brookings, the old profiteer, actually charged for its work) and
provided messenger service for reporters on deadline. Having an impressive
AEI study hand-delivered to a reporter while its Brookings counterpart was
lost in the mail was often half the battle for a mention in a news column.
Also, it helped that most conservative think tanks prefer writing that
makes for pleasant reading and vivid quotation to dense academic prose.
Someone snowbound in a mountain cabin would far rather find back copies of
AEI's Regulation (with headlines like "Curse of the Mummy's Tomb") or
Heritage's Policy Review than the soporiferous Brookings Review.
As the new think tanks have grown and the quality of their work has
improved, members of the Washington press corps have become more dependent
on them, more likely to quote AEI than puzzle out a topic on their
own--which, of course, fits the plan quite well. Once journalists began
paying attention, they served as an important cross-check of developing
theory. To play in Newsweek or on CBS, an idea had to be phrased in the
new good-for-society terms. In turn, a favorable mention in the media was
taken as proof that a conservative proposal had so much power that even
liberals were forced to acknowledge it.
Jeane Kirkpatrick became the greatest think-tank discovery. Only Reagan
himself was received with more enthusiasm at the 1984 Republican
Convention. A former professor at Georgetown University, a board member of
the Committee on the Present Danger, and (to the everlasting embarrassment
of CSIS, which is affiliated with Georgetown) a fellow at AEI, she wrote a
much discussed article for Commentary magazine, "Dictatorships and Double
Standards," in 1979. Kirkpatrick ridiculed Carter's decision not to
reinforce the Shah and Somoza in their waning hours. We shouldn't be so
choosy about our allies, she declared. This one article propelled
Kirkpatrick to national prominence--the academic's most deeply cherished
fantasy. Since then there has been a scramble among the new think tanks to
link their names to Kirkpatrick's. She has been featured at forums
sponsored by Heritage, CSIS, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Hoover,
and others, all of which display her photograph prominently in promotional
literature. When Kirkpatrick returned to AEI last year, the institute's
Foreign Polity and Defense Review devoted its back cover to a full-page
There have been many discoveries besides Kirkpatrick. Christopher DeMuth,
Reagan's first-term "deregulation czar," won his post on the strength of a
series of articles in Regulation on cost-benefit analysis for federal
safety rules. Lawrence Korb, formerly an assistant secretary of defense,
was an AEI fellow who wrote a paper that Frank Shakespeare--an
influential, behind-the-scenes conservative who would later become the
chairman of Heritage--showed to former National Security Advisor Richard
Allen, who in turn gave it to Reagan. In 1980 Regulation's editors were
Murray Weidenbaum and Antonin Scalia. Weidenbaum became the first Reagan
chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Scalia was named a
federal appeals judge.
Martin Anderson, Reagan's domestic-policy adviser until 1982, came from
Hoover. James C. Miller III, Reagan's first Federal Trade Commission
chairman and now the administrator of the Office of Management and Budget,
came from AEI. James Watt, the former secretary of the interior; William
Bennett, the secretary of education; John Svahn and Marshall Breger,
presidential assistants; William Niskanen, a former member of the Council
of Economic Advisers (now the chairman of the Cato Institute); Chester
Crocker, an assistant secretary of state; Kenneth Adelman, the director of
the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency--this is a far from complete list
of think-tank alumni who took prominent roles in the Administration.
What follows is a discussion of four of the leading conservative think
tanks: the American Enterprise Institute, the most nearly centrist of the
new tanks; the Heritage Foundation, the one with the most influence in the
Reagan Administration; the Center for Strategic and International Studies,
the toniest; and the Cato Institute, which takes market thinking further
than any of the others--to that point on the continuum of opinion where
right becomes left.
Without AEI, Reagan never would have been elected," an informed white
House official says. "AEI made conservatism intellectually respectable."
This is perhaps true--and is also a sore point with the New Right, the
name usually given to the extremist side of Reagan's political support.
Because the American Enterprise Institute pre-dates the New Right and has
become, through its success, part of permanent Washington, New Right
conservatives hold it in suspicion. When The Washington Times, the
movement's Pravda, ran a wall-poster-style chart of major conservative
organizations, AEI was not included.
AEI was founded in 1943 by Lewis Brown, an industrialist who hoped to
match the influence of Robert S. Brookings. In its early years the
institute was transparently a mouthpiece for big business. Serious work at
AEI did not begin until a man named William Baroody took charge, in 1954.
Baroody restructured AEI to resemble Brookings, with fellows given wide
latitude and expected in return to produce the sort of work usually
described as "major." AEI as a result is more scholastic in tone than the
newer think tanks, more concerned with propriety and dignified behavior.
"We aim to be in the mainstream," says William Baroody, Jr. who has run
the institute since his father died, in 1977. In addition to Kirkpatrick,
Novak, and Wattenberg, AEI lays claim to Gerald Ford, Arthur F. Burns,
Philip Habib, the Congress specialist Norman J. Ornstein, the legal expert
Bruce Fein, the Harvard scholar James Q. Wilson, and the economist Herbert
Most of AEI was rooting for George Bush in 1980, and though alliances
gracefully shifted as the primaries progressed, AEI doesn't subscribe to
"the movement," as, say, Heritage does. AEI has been critical of the MX
missile, and attacks on the Reagan deficit that Rudolph Penner made as a
fellow seem to have helped him win his current post as the head of the
Congressional Budget Office, traditionally a Democratic enclave.
AEI was the first think tank to discover the power of taking ideas
directly to the public, bypassing the formal big-university filtering
system. In 1975, when AEI was still small, it began to distribute op-ed
articles written by its adjunct scholars. Then it started to send free
taped commentaries to radio stations--now a practice of many think
tanks--and later packaged a television show.
Around the time of the Carter-Ford election, when conservative money was
beginning to flow, AEI sharply increased its roster of resident
scholars--thinkers physically located in the Washington office, as opposed
to adjunct scholars, whose main jobs are elsewhere--and gave them
impressive, academic-sounding titles, such as the George Frederick Jewett
Scholar in Public Policy Research (this is Michael Novak's position). "My
father always said we would need to achieve a critical mass of people in
the city"--people available to meet with congressmen and reporters, and
press home conservative views--Baroody, Jr., told me. Such a mass would
also make a pool of ready candidates for appointment to Administration
A primary objective of all think tanks, regardless of ideology, is to be
employment agencies for Presidents, in order both to influence policy and
to crown the organization with prestige. Getting a high-level job "is what
you live for in a think tank," says Lawrence Korb, formerly of the Defense
Department and now an executive of Raytheon Corporation. "Talk centers on
it obsessively." Korb notes that think-tank personnel make good appointees
partly because they are eagerly available. "All you have to do to move
from AEI to the Administration is walk across the street," he says. "You
don't have to move your family to D.C., because you're already there. You
don't have to give up a good job you might not get back, because the think
tank will always take you back. You don't have to put your assets into
some kind of complicated trust, because if your background is academics,
you don't have any assets. And a businessman or lawyer coming into
government usually has to make a financial sacrifice. To someone from
academia, on the other hand, $60,000 [the typical pay for high-level
appointees] is a raise."
Essential to all think tanks are events at which donors rub shoulders with
Washington personages. The less such events seem like fund-raisers, and
the more like Meet the Press, the better. Each summer AEI stages a World
Forum, hosted by Gerald Ford, in Vail, Colorado, for chief executives of
corporations that make contributions. In December it holds a Public Policy
Week, during which the institute's offices are converted into a sort of
intellectual theme park. In 1984 the week was topped off by a "gala Public
Policy Dinner" at which Reagan addressed 1,200 guests in evening clothes.
Lesser luncheons and breakfasts are held almost continually: conservatives
seem to think best while eating. Even the Ethics and Public Policy Center,
with a staff of just sixteen, in 1984 held one "major" conference and two
medium ones, a black-tie dinner, a reception in the Capitol building,
eight "dinner seminars," many luncheons, and a breakfast at which
Representative Jack Kemp and National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane
Like most think tanks, AEI raises money each year; only Brookings and
Hoover have substantial endowments. AEI drew 51 percent of its $12 million
budget for 1985 (up from $4 million a decade ago) from corporate
donations, the highest corporate
support percentage of the major think tanks. The institute has
twenty-seven trustees, most of them executives of corporations that are
donors. Fourteen of the twenty-seven are from defense contractors, drug
companies, or banks--businesses with a special interest in government
decisions. An advocate of relaxed antitrust laws, AEI notes in its current
annual report that "the wave of corporate mergers led to a reduction of
more than $100,000" in its support last year, because several friendly
companies were gobbled out of existence.
AEI has a new headquarters building (about half of which it plans to
lease) under construction on Pennsylvania Avenue, halfway between the
White House and the Hill. "The historic Pennsylvania Avenue location,
Washington's corridor of power, will enable our scholars and fellows to
interact more readily with key policy makers," an AEI publication reads.
Aside from suggesting a picture of scholars poised on the roof, arms
outstretched like antennae to receive emanations from Congress and the
executive, this invocation of a large new building, and the commitment to
the future that it represents, shows that AEI does not expect government
to wither away. "Very little of our output involves calls for the
abolition of government agencies," says Walter Olson, an AEI fellow.
"We're not here to be some kind of Ph.D. committee giving equal time,"
says Burton Pines, a vice-president of Heritage. "Our role is to provide
conservative public-policy makers with arguments to bolster our side.
We're not troubled over this. There are plenty of think tanks on the other
Although Heritage officially calls itself "nonpartisan" (tax laws require
this charade), in practice it is actively aligned with the Administration.
Just after the 1980 elections Heritage published a thousand-page book
called Mandate for Leadership which contained an elaborate series of
policy recommendations for nearly every federal agency. When Reagan was
re-elected, Heritage issued a successor volume; the pair are popularly
known as Mandate I and Mandate II.
Probably no other documents have been as widely circulated in Washington
during the past five years as Mandate I and Mandate II, and by any
standard they are impressive. Each reflects a detailed understanding of
how the federal government actually works (as opposed to how it officially
works) and addresses the sort of questions that are short on media appeal
but critical in Washington: how to motivate the bureaucracy, how to get
bills through committee and so on. Recommendations range from the
hard-to-dispute (greater competition in health care) to the intriguing
(private management of wilderness areas, and "transportation enterprise
zones") to the suspiciously pro-regulatory (a requirement that U.S.
attorneys file "victims impact statements") to calls for that Washington
perennial the presidential commission. There are discussions of government
offshoots as obscure as the Federal Financing Bank Advisory Board and the
Interagency Coordinating Council.
Heritage also produces a blizzard of lesser materials: more than 200
books, monographs, and legislative analyses in 1984, and numerous
"executive memos," many labeled "RUSH!" Just how much of Heritage's advice
is actually taken by the Administration is hard to judge. Heritage likes
to assert that 60 percent of the policy recommendations in Mandate I were
adopted, but it's impossible to say how many of the developments for which
it claims credit would have happened anyway. For instance, Heritage
associates itself with the idea for Star Wars, because the book High
Frontier, by the retired general Daniel Graham, was released under its
auspices in 1982; but pressure for a space defense program had been
building quietly in many Washington quarters for several years. In other
cases Reagan's action went beyond what Heritage advised. Mandate I said
that the mission of the Community Services Administration should be
"redefined." In his first budget David Stockman abolished the CSA
altogether (one of the few government-program terminations that Reagan has
actually carried out).
At one time Heritage had an image as a warren of loonies. But by 1985 even
The Washington Post was treating it with respect. One reason for this
grudging acceptance is that the warming trend in conservative theory has
reached Heritage, too. Since Reagan's election Heritage publications have
rarely employed New Right rhetoric and have been surprisingly quiet on
"social agenda" questions. Mandate II contained only a single paragraph on
school prayer--making the nebulous recommendation that Reagan publicize
the efforts of the states to restore public praying--but offered eighteen
pages on the Department of Commerce. Paul Weyrich, a founder of Heritage,
resigned from it in 1975 in order to start the Committee for the Survival
of a Free Congress, which is now closer than Heritage to Jesse Helms and
Jerry Falwell. Many Heritage analysts are uncomfortable with these cable-TV
style conservatives, in part because some items on their wish list are
unconstitutional and in part because the anti-intellectual hostility that
animates the far right is as likely to find its target at Heritage as
In fact, when reading studies like the Mandate volumes, one gets the
feeling that Heritage is trying to calm down its own constituency as much
as to flay the liberals. Sections patiently explain why even the President
can't just shut down whole agencies or cancel programs overnight. Having
preached for some time that "if only we had the White House there'd be a
few changes around here," organizations like Heritage now need to produce
convincing reasons why many of the promised changes haven't been made.
There is a more immediately practical consideration here too. If
government actually did wither away, Heritage fellows would be out of
jobs. Donors must be gently given to understand that the touch is going to
be put on them far into the future.
The foundation's office is on capitol Hill, and this choice of location is
significant. Being on the Hill allows Heritage to woo the young staff
aides in Congress, the ones who will someday occupy heavy-hitting
positions downtown. Almost every day Heritage holds an event at which food
is served--cold cuts and beer being reliable bait for young staff. It also
hosts biweekly networking sessions called the Third Generation Lectures,
which consistently draw a hundred or more Hill staffers.
Heritage fellows are expected to get out of the office and work the
congressional committees. By doing this kind of grunt work--the kind that
more self-important think tanks shun--Heritage keeps a step ahead of the
news and avoids depending heavily on the kind of official statements that
are impressive from afar but bear little relation to what's really going
on. Most of its leading thinkers--Dinesh D'Souza, Stuart Butler, Milton
Copulos, Anna Kondratas, Adam Meyerson, Phil Truluck--are young and not
yet names. "I worry about losing the courage to send a
twenty-seven-year-old in to brief a senator or testify about a Heritage
position," Burton Pines says. "If we started hiring older people with
safe, established reputations, we would lose our cutting edge." Heritage's
young Turks make more mistakes than the cautious, experienced analysts at
AEI, but they are also willing to take chances on ideas that have not been
sanctioned by the capital's mentioning apparatus. Their pay is good but
not grand--the development of conservatives willing to pursue something
other than money being, perhaps, the most significant sign of changed
times in institutional Washington.
Heritage has a media strategy similar to its personnel policy: it goes
after the little fish in the press as well as the big. "During the time
the elite media was ignoring us, we discovered that there are l,600
dailies and weeklies around the country," Pines says. "Statistically, most
people don't get their news from the big media; they get it from little
papers." So Heritage began to send copies of its studies topped by press
releases in what Pines calls "easy-to-read form specially designed for
reporters and editors," to the small papers. Each study mailed, Heritage
found, produces 200 to 500 stories. Often the press release is published
verbatim. When the story comes in, Heritage sends a copy of the clipping
to the congressman in whose district it appeared.
Preaching government contraction has helped Heritage expand rapidly. Its
largest source of money--providing at least $5 million over the past
decade--has been Richard Mellon Scaife, a great-grandson of the banker
Thomas Mellon. From a personal fortune estimated at $150 million Scaife
gives about $10 million annually to conservative causes through the
Carthage, Allegheny, and Sarah Scaife foundations. The next largest
conservative donor, the Olin Foundation, gives about $5 million annual to
various causes, while the Coors and Smith Richardson foundations each give
about $3 million a year.
Scaife cultivates a secretive demeanor and refuses to speak to reporters.
When Karen Rothmyer, a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism
Review and the author of what is now the standard work on Scaife,
approached him for an interview, Scaife assailed her with a volley of
obscenities. Scaife's name rarely appears in Heritage promotional
literature, though there are frequent references to Joseph Coors, an
affable person associated with a high-quality yuppie product.
Unlike AEI, which received about $500,000 in federal grants last year, and
CSIS, whose budget is roughly 15 percent federal, Heritage takes no
government grants. It draws by far the highest proportion of general
public support, getting about a third of its budget from small donors.
Heritage receives major donations from its trustees Shelby Cullom Davis, a
wealthy New fork financier, and the one time New York gubernatorial
candidate Lewis Lehrman (who, despite having his own, competing think
tank, was the head of a recent Heritage fund drive), the Reader's Digest
Association, and many corporations, primarily oil and defense firms.
Recently it has amassed its first endowment, for an Asian Studies Center.
Several conservative think tanks are active in Asian affairs, because
Taiwanese and South Korean industrialists are big givers acutely concerned
with Washington access.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, like Hoover at
Stanford, is a conservative policy center attached to a generally liberal
university (in this case, Georgetown). Unlike Hoover, CSIS is located well
away from the parent campus: its offices on K Street, Washington's legal
row, have the aspect of an investment
Perhaps because of its emphasis on international affairs CSIS is the most
aristocratic of the think tanks, and the most ceremonial. Big names
abound. Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and James Schlesinger are
"senior scholar-statesmen in residence." Other CSIS names are Thomas
Moorer, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Ray Cline, a
former deputy CIA director for intelligence; the authors Walter Laqueur
and Michael Ledeen; the military analyst Edward Luttwak; and the economist
Paul Craig Roberts. The most recent CSIS annual report resembles a social
directory, listing a sixty-five person advisory board, a fourteen-person
executive board, a twenty-seven-person international research council,
staff and a hundred scholars. The 1984 report listed 578 CSIS forum
participants, plus more roundtables, symposia, and colloquia than any one
person could ever attend. It also managed to drop Kissinger's name
Because CSIS is heavy with people who would accept only top positions, it
sent few into the Reagan Administration--Chester Crocker, the author of
the Administration's "constructive engagement" policy toward South Africa,
is its only prominent alumnus. Big names mean big overhead: Kissinger,
Brzezinski, and Schlesinger have separate suites, perhaps to keep their
ego fields from interacting. The big names are expected to "bring money
with them" (to use the think-tank argot), raising a portion of the
overhead from foundation contacts or on the cocktail
party-circuit. A recent CSIS newsletter noted, "James Schlesinger...met
with senior leadership of Texaco Inc. to discuss a number of defense and
energy policy issues and to share a personal perspective on contemporary
Geopolitical perspectives are also shared at the annual shoulder-rubbing
roundtables that CSIS holds in Washington, Dallas, Houston, and Miami
(additional events in Los Angeles and Chicago are planned). Entree to such
occasions generally requires about a $5,000 donation. The chief executive
officers of large corporate donors received a "high-level CSIS briefing"
in Washington for the second Reagan inauguration (whenever CEOs come to
town, they expect important
sounding things to do), and CSIS stages a prestigious annual retreat in
Williamsburg, Virginia, similar to AEI's Colorado gathering.
CSIS's output in the press and on TV is second to none. "We had more than
2,500 media appearances in 1984, and it's going to add up to more in 1985,
because Beirut has been a big story and we have most of Washington's
world-class terrorism experts here," William Taylor, the executive
director of CSIS, told me recently. He handed over a copy of the center's
media guide: "When a big story breaks, this is a media bible." The guide
is cross-referenced and includes the home phone numbers of several CSIS
officers who run an "alert system." If an important international story
develops at night or over a weekend, CSIS fellows call in to the office,
forming a duty rotation of experts available for interviews and television
CSIS thus performs a valued service for the major media, creating instant
access to former officials who are presumed to have inside information.
Some of the media return the favor: The New York Times and NBC News are
among CSIS's financial supporters. Brzezinski, Cline, Laqueur, the retired
CIA director Richard Helms, a retired chief of staff of the Army, General
Edward Meyer, and others make up the center's Steering Committee on
Terrorism, as if CSIS itself had something other than words to steer.
(Committees are a favorite think-tank gambit for lending the appearance of
formal policy-making responsibilities. After Reagan's re-election the
Hudson Institute announced a Committee on the Next Agenda composed of many
prominent names. This committee earned the president of Hudson, Thomas
Bell, lunch at the White House and a photo opportunity with Reagan, but
compared with the thoughtful Mandate II its report was a comic book. The
thirteen single-spaced pages of generalities advocated for example, "a
national commission to report on the quality of family life" and the
creation of yet another government post, for a cabinet-level "broker" who
would "play an important coordination function in government" by
reconciling "overlapping defense, foreign, economic and trade
areas"--which sounds suspiciously like what the President is supposed to
CSIS also performs a valued service for the State Department, staging
forums for visiting diplomats whom the department doesn't quite know what
to do with (whenever foreign leaders come to town, they too expect
important-sounding things to do) and sometimes conducting semi-sanctioned
negotiations that avoid the tortuosities of official government contacts.
A CSIS team preceded Reagan on his visit to China.
Both Taylor, the executive director and Amos Jordan, who has succeeded
David Abshire, the founder, as president, were once Army instructors at
West Point. Nevertheless, CSIS has not refrained from criticism of the
military. Senior Fellow Edward Luttwak's recent The Pentagon and the Art
of War is scorching; CSIS's most successful project in 1984 was a study,
signed by six of the seven living former secretaries of defense, calling
for reform of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The test of this study's success
is that it made Navy Secretary John Lehman--whose service would stand to
lose in most JCS reform plans--furious. Melissa Healy and Michael Duffy
reported in Defense Week a trade newsletter for the defense industry, that
Lehman worked behind the scenes to block the CSIS report.
Scaife--who was also unhappy about the Joint Chiefs of Staff study--is
CSIS's biggest donor, having given at least $7 million in the past decade.
(CSIS and Georgetown raise funds separately; there is some hostility
between the center and the school, mainly because CSIS fellows can make
twice as much as Georgetown professors while being spared the drudgery of
correcting blue books.) Other important donors include the Ford,
Rockefeller, MacArthur, and Noble foundations; the Prince Charitable
Trust; Hallmark Cards, Inc.; eleven defense contractors; and Sheikh Salman
al Hethlain and Prince Turki bin Abdulaziz (CSIS has a "Middle East"
project, appealing to Arab-American interests, and also a "Near East"
project, of more interest to pro-Israel groups).
Last June, on a day when savings accounts in Maryland were frozen because
the state's private deposit-insurance company had collapsed, the Cato
Institute held a Capitol Hill forum to advocate that private
deposit-insurance companies replace the Federal Deposit Insurance
Corporation and the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation. "It is
my belief that consumers would be willing to give up their federal
guarantees in return for deposits backed by triple-A corporate bonds,"
Catherine England, a Cato analyst, declared. Senior staffers from the
Joint Economic Committee, the Treasury Department, the Federal Trade
Commission, the Office of Management and Budget, and other agencies had
come to listen.
In a sense, no one took the session seriously. At a time when banks were
teetering, the political prospects of abolishing federal deposit insurance
were slim to nonexistent. Yet in another sense there was great interest,
as the attendance showed. Cato is in the vanguard of market thinking, and
Washington is as fascinated today by market theories as it was twenty
years ago by big-government theories. During the forum Bert Ely, another
Cato speaker, said that banks could protect their deposits through a
system of self-insurance. An official from the Farm Credit Administration
rose to protest: that was the way that FCA affiliates had been insured,
the system hadn't worked, and Cato was "completely ignoring the real
world." To a libertarian this is not necessarily an insult.
Cato was once close to the Libertarian Party, whose presidential candidate
managed to win one percent of the vote in 1980. The Libertarian Party
believes that government should go away, period. Its candidate in 1984,
David Bergland, vowed to abolish the CIA, the FBI, the IRS, Social
Security, and public schools. If citizens wanted national defense, he
said, they could band together and contract for it voluntarily.
That was too much even for Cato. It continues, however, to say that almost
all government regulation should and; that in an information-rich society
like ours, consumers exert enough pressure on industry through their
buying habits to prevent abuses, and to the extent that they fail to exert
pressure, that's their problem. Cato wants a phased withdrawal of U.S.
troops from Europe and South Korea, and an end to other entangling
alliances. Government, in its view, should exist only to provide police
protection, enforce contracts, and repel invasions. Cato's hero is
Friedrich Hayek, who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974 and is the
godfather of the "Austrian school," dear to the hearts of many on the
right. Hayek recently attached his name to Cato by becoming a senior
fellow, the institute having campaigned long and hard to get him. Hayek
proposes abolishing the uniform national currency and instead using
private-label money issued by business. "What is so dangerous and ought to
be done away with is not government's right to issue money but the
exclusive right to do so and their power to force people to use it and
accept it at a particular price," he has written.
In summary form, this sounds like a crackpot idea. It's not, although
neither is it practical--and that sums up much of libertarian thinking. As
a logical exercise one can imagine competing "brands" of currency driving
monetary exchange values to a perfect level and increasing economic
efficiency. In the real world, where people's hopes and fears add
non-logical considerations, private currency might spawn catastrophe.
Still, speculation about such matters can result in smaller insights that
are applicable under real conditions. An example is the work for Cato done
by Peter Ferrara, an attorney, who proposes that Social Security be
replaced with a form of private super-IRA accounts. The plan has faults,
but it is the kind of not-so-crazy-as
it-sounds idea that may ultimately inspire practical change.
Libertarianism springs from the American West: Cato, the Pacific
Institute, and the Reason Foundation, all libertarian, were all started in
California. On its good side libertarianism reflects the dream of the
American West of the individual above all, with society constantly forming
and reforming itself to reflect individual aspiration. Culturally, the
eastern United States is Europe transplanted, with many Old World habits
and class expectations continuing to operate at a subtle level. The West
is the world made new, and its residents need not honor what they left
behind. Here, though, is libertarianism's bad side--a desire to renounce
all social obligations and live as if the United States had no poverty and
Cato gets the largest portion of its $1.3 million annual budget through
Charles Koch, the son of a Kansas oilman, who has given around $5 million
to libertarian causes and it has also received significant support from
his brother David, the Libertarian Party's vice-presidential candidate in
1980. Other donors include Shelby Cullom Davis, several oil and chemical
firms, and the American Broadcasting Company. Scaife is a major sponsor,
but he insists that his money be spent only on economic studies, not on
international affairs, because Cato favors reduced military spending. Cato
is the only one of the new think tanks to have no major defense
contractors among its supporters.
The chairmanship of Cato was assumed last year by William Niskanen, a
former member of the Council of Economic Advisers. Niskanen entered the
libertarian hall of fame when, in 1980, as director of economics at Ford
Motor Company, he was fired for publicly opposing the company's campaign
for quotas on imported cars, which he said would only hurt consumers.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
Intellectually, it is always easier to be the party out of power, and
conservative think tanks often exhibit a certain nostalgia for the good
old days, when Carter was President and taking the blame. Indeed, their
work sometimes gives the impression that he is still President.
Failures of federal agencies to reduce regulation are decried as though
Reagan did not now control the agencies. Recent issues of Heritage's
Policy Review have declared that a government agency director is "judged
by the standard of whether what he does corresponds to the conventional
(liberal) wisdom" and that "one faces intellectual ostracism for uttering
the words 'Cold War.'" (A mantra popular among conservative intellectuals
is the sentence that begins with a phrase like "No one dares say...") A
Policy Review critic called the book I, Martha Adams, in which Russian
troops invade the united States and slaughter millions, "a conservative's
dream novel." An article by Midge Decter, the head of the Manhattan-based
Committee for the Free World, announced, "As a society we do not even any
longer have the moral courage to cast out in horror--a horror we all
feel--the child pornographer, the pedophile, the committer of incest. We
hem and haw and let the courts decide." Unless Times Square is a microcosm
of middle America, this last is as far out of touch with the nation's
political mood as the left ever strayed. And by the way, aren't courts
supposed to determine the punishment for crimes?
It's good business for conservative think tanks to suggest that even after
five years of a strong conservative President, a Republican Senate, and a
popular conservative mandate, liberalism is still secretly controlling
Washington. Foreign affairs are the focus of many such complaints:
liberals are somehow preventing bomber pilots from spotting terrorists;
many of the new think tanks have demanded full economic sanctions against
Libya, even as lobbyists for U.S. oil companies, which continue to operate
there, have petitioned the Administration for more trade freedom.
Perhaps the climactic moment of conservative nostalgia for the days when
somebody else was to blame occurred last May. The Shavano Institute, a
think tank affiliated with Hillsdale College, in Michigan--which is to the
right approximately what Antioch is to the left--held a Washington
conference. Kirkpatrick was the featured guest. Frank Shakespeare who was
serving as chairman, had helped arrange $45,000 in federal funding--the
type of self-serving use of public money that drives conservatives wild
when liberal groups are the beneficiaries. The purpose of the conference
was to prove that the United States and the Soviet Union are not "morally
equivalent." The idea that they are equivalent carries no weight in the
United States except with fringe groups, but does have some respectable
backing in Europe. All the heavy artillery of conservatism was there, and
the participants were speaking to their own.
The writer Tom Wolfe kicked off the event by saying, "I want to
congratulate you all on the courage that you've shown in coming here," as
though secret-police agents were circulating in the audience, jotting down
names, when in fact attendance was a career plum. Joseph Sobran, an editor
of National Review, suggested that nefarious forces were blocking the
production of anti-Communist movies, adding, "Sometimes I wonder if
there's some sort of ideological Hays Office operating in Hollywood,
protecting the viewing public from the indecorous manifestations of the
Cold War mentality." The conference was held two weeks before the premiere
The secretary of education, William Bennett, said, "Much of what goes on
in the American classroom today is expressly designed to prevent our
future intellectuals from telling the difference between American and
Soviet values." Irving Kristol complained that PEACE has become "a
Stalinist word" and that it has "acquired such momentum that no one dares
come out and speak against the use of the word peace. He then dared,
objecting to the name of the Peace Corps.
Michael Novak predicted that "over the next five years the greatest
historical expansion of Soviet power beyond the postwar boundaries of the
USSR is likely to be attempted." (What, then, did the Reagan defense
buildup accomplish?) Tom Bethell, a former AEI fellow and a writer for The
American Spectator, said that "the ideology which undergirds the American
press is congruent with, in some sense, the ideology of the Soviet Union"
(though "to make any such observation is a complete violation of
etiquette") and that "we do not hear...any explicit discussion of the
socialist ideology and we certainly do not find any criticism of it in the
-which requires one to exclude from "the news" the papers with the largest
and second largest circulations in the country, The Wall Street Journal
and USA Today.
Arnold Beichman, a Hoover fellow said that "we are debating and
negotiating among ourselves while the Soviet Union need debate nothing,
protected as it is by a powerful liberal-left phalanx in the American
media, the academy, the professions, and above all in the Congress of the
United States." R. Emmett Tyrrell, the editor of The American Spectator,
declared that the rock singer Madonna wore funny clothes because she was
"influenced by American liberalism."
"The whole transformation of conservative philosophy was really begun by
just a handful of people," Michael Horowitz says, and he names Richard
Larry, the grant director for the Sarah Scaife Foundation; Michael Joyce,
the grant director for the Olin Foundation; and Leslie Lenkowsky, who once
controlled grant awards for the Smith Richardson Foundation and moved to
AEI after his nomination as deputy director of the U.S. Information Agency
fell through because he became embroiled in the conflict over the agency's
blacklisting of liberal speakers. "They understood that just by funding a
few writers and a few chairs they could make a breakthrough." Scaife and
Olin are principal donors to Heritage, CSIS, the Ethics and Public Policy
Center, Cato, the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, The American
Spectator magazine, the Committee on the Present Danger, the Manhattan
Institute, the Capital Legal Foundation, the Reason Foundation, and other
new conservative think tanks and foundations. Walter Williams--whose
recent book The State Against Blacks contains such nuggets as
"Discrimination may be defined as an act of choice based upon utility
maximization"--Irving Kristol, the conservative criminologist Ernest van
den Haag, and Richard McKenzie, a rising young market economist affiliated
with Heritage and Cato, all hold John M. Olin chairs at their
The regularity with which the same thinkers' names appear on think-tank
rosters is as remarkable as the regularity with which Scaife and Olin are
listed as donors. Kristol, the editor of The Public Interest is also the
publisher of the new neo
conservative journal The National Interest, a member of the board of
editors for Regulation, an AEI fellow, a Hudson fellow, and an adviser to
the Lehrman and Manhattan institutes. Midge Decter is a Heritage trustee,
an Ethics and Public Policy Center director, a member of the Committee on
the Present Danger (CPD), a Hudson fellow, and an advisors-board member
for The National Interest. Martin Anderson, of Hoover, is also a Hudson
fellow, a Reason adviser, and a member of the board of the CPD. Michael
Novak has affiliations with AEI, the CPD, the Institute for Foreign Policy
Analysis, and Hudson; Ernest Lefever with the Ethics and Public Policy
Center, the CPD, and Heritage; Thomas Gale Moore, of Hoover and recently
named to the Council of Economic Advisers, with AEI, Cato, and Reason.
James Buchanan, of the Center for Study of Public choice, is also an
adjunct scholar at AEI and Cato, and an adviser to Hoover, Reason, and the
Political Economy Research Center. The leaders of the three major
conservative think tanks--William Baroody, of AEI, Edwin Feulner, of
Heritage, and David Abshire, of CSIS--once served together as aides to
Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird.
The recurrence of the same names makes it fair to ask if what appears to
be a conservative intellectual groundswell is really just multiple
manifestations of one phenomenon. Perhaps twenty years must pass before
this question can be answered fully, but a reasonable guess is no. Since
ideas run in cycles, an uprising against liberal theory was bound to occur
someday (just as there will someday be a liberal revival in which some of
the currently regnant conservative ideas are discredited). Equally
important, during the 1970s millions of Americans came to the conclusion
that liberalism was asleep at the wheel.
But now that conservatism is the fashion, the overlap of names and places
suggests a society of like-minded people reinforcing one another's
preconceived notions and rejecting any thinking that does not fit the
mold--practicing what consultants call the art of "directed
Cato, for example, flatly states that it will not release any study that
calls for a government program. The institute's president, Edward Crane,
says that he receives one or two commissioned reports each year that are
"inconsistent," and he does not publish them. The analyst Jonathan Stein
lost his job at CSIS several months after he published a book highly
critical of Star wars, the study of which is worth millions to think tanks
that toe the line. (CSIS denies there was any connection.) AEI has
criticized Reagan Administration decisions, but When I skimmed through its
publications catalogue, I was hard pressed to find any title that looked
as if it would upset a corporate sponsor--and the 1977 study "Lobbying: A
Constitutionally Protected Right" probably did not damage that year's
In 1983 Navy Secretary Lehman awarded management of the Center for Naval
Analyses, a semi-independent organization similar to the Rand Corporation,
to the Hudson Institute. This added $17 million to Hudson's consolidated
revenues. Hudson, for its part, named Lehman's friend Francis West a
vice-president and put under him a project on a "history of the 600-ship
Navy," the Navy Secretary's most treasured goal. On contract to Hoosiers
for Economic Development, Hudson issued a report on whether acid rain is
really a problem. Hudson's headquarters is in Indianapolis; Indiana is a
producer of the sulfur-bearing coals that cause acid rain. Take a wild
guess as to what the Hoosiers for Economic development study concludes.
The Heritage Foundation was among the first to notice the rising "military
reform" movement (which is by no means anti-defense). In 1979 Heritage
released a study endorsing military reform in general terms. Later it
commissioned George W. S. Kuhn, a former Army captain, to write about the
subject. Kuhn produced a report called "Ending Defense Stagnation," which
was published as a chapter of the book Agenda '83, midway through the
Mandate series. Kuhn's report named names of weapons that didn't work and
military commands that were redundant. He concluded, "Increased spending
is not buying improved strength."
Heritage management was initially enthusiastic about the study. A
publicity blitz was mounted and copies were sent to the White House; there
was considerable press coverage. Then the repercussions began. Casper
Weinberger was infuriated, probably because the report struck too close to
home (several of the weapons and practices Kuhn criticized have been
canceled or modified in the years since). Weinberger ordered each of the
four services to write rebuttals. Lehman--who had been a roommate of Edwin
Feulner's in Georgetown--sent the Navy rebuttal and an angry letter to
Coors, who in turn called Feulner. Publicity efforts for the study
instantly stopped. Kuhn was given the silent treatment, and no further
Heritage work. References to his study have disappeared, Kremlin style,
from Heritage literature.
To replace Kuhn, Heritage hired Theodore Crackel, a recently retired Arms
lieutenant colonel. According to Heritage sources, Crackel was chosen
because it was believed that he would write nothing controversial: he was
expected to produce ruminations about grand strategy, a general subject,
without mentioning anything concerning money for specific contractors. To
Heritage's dismay, Crackel proceeded to advocate reform of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, the other big taboo. Reportedly, Lehman went through the
"There was pressure brought to bear to scuttle certain aspects of that
story," Crackel, who now works for General Electric's military-planning
division, told me recently. At first the report was to be published
separately, but Lehman persuaded Feulner to withhold it, Crackel said.
Eventually it was included as a chapter in Mandate II. "When it finally
came out, Heritage made no effort to publicize it," Crackel said. "I had
to call up newspapers myself to point out to them that it was in there."
While coming down hard on most government subsidies, Heritage has tiptoed
lightly around the subject of the Synthetic Fuels Corporation. This
federal agency is headed by Edward Noble, a trustee of the Samuel Robert
Noble Foundation--which is one of Heritage's major contributors, having
given more than $1.2 million. Mandate II contained a single paragraph
criticizing the SFC; a thick Heritage book called Free Market Energy
barely mentioned synfuels. In the spring of 1985, when abolition of the
SFC began to seem likely (the House voted to terminate all synfuels
spending, and Noble made an abortive attempt to award $744 million in
extra subsidies before his authority expired), Heritage issued a
backgrounder on "salvaging the Synthetic Fuels Corporation." The two
synfuels projects that would have received most of the extra $744 million
that Noble tried to confer are owned by Dow and Union Petrochemical. Both
are listed by Heritage as "major" contributors.
Several conservative analysts to whom I mentioned these incidents answered
by saying, Would Brookings in the 1960s have published a report attacking
federal funds for mass transit or education? Perhaps not. But one side's
mental blind spots hardly justify the other's.
LOOKING OUT FOR NUMBER ONE
A common complaint about Washington institutions is that no matter how
well intentioned they are at birth, by adolescence they have learned to
preservation ahead of purpose. Anti-poverty agencies provide nice livings
for Ph.D.s and "service facilitators" but not much in the way of poverty
reduction. Idealistic young lawyers come to town to file class-action
suits and end up on K Street defending the Teamsters. Think tanks are
established to fight the deficit and end up adding to it.
Since all the new conservative think tanks are nonprofit, donations to
them are tax deductible--which means that each time their budgets grow,
the federal debt grows as well. Inasmuch as most large individual
contributors are in the 50 percent bracket, a $100 donation to a
conservative think tank costs the donor $50 and the U.S. Treasury $50. A
$100 corporate donation costs a company in the top 46 percent bracket $54
and the Treasury $46. The government, in effect, pays half the cost of
condemning government spending. Nonprofit status also permits conservative
think tanks to use federally subsidized postal rates.
Walking through the halls at Heritage and Cato not long ago, I had to
remind myself continually that, as a reporter, I was the one who
represented private enterprise. The new think tanks are tax favored. They
make their money not by selling products but by taking gifts. A high
percentage of their scholars began at tax
supported universities, and the greatest aspiration for many is a
government job. The major publications of conservatism--the think-tank
periodicals, plus Commentary, The Public Interest, and The American
Spectator--are produced by tax
exempt foundations operating off the dole.
Tax preferences are another of those phenomena that people object to "in
principle" when what they really mean is that they object to who gets the
deal. Since the liberal think tanks make use of nonprofit status, it would
be unreasonable to expect the conservative think tanks not to. But their
philosophy might lead one to expect them to call for the abolition of this
indulgence, as part of the general campaign to reduce the federal deficit
and lower taxes. This they most definitely do not do. In fact, one Reagan
initiative that many new think tanks have fought is tax reform--because,
while helping most taxpayers, it would hurt them.
Reagan's tax manifesto of November, 1984, known as Treasury I, proposed
cutting the top individual rate to 35 percent and the top corporate rate
to 33 percent, which would have substantially reduced the basic tax burden
but would have raised the effective cost of $100 think-tank donations to
$65 for an individual and $67 for a corporation. Treasury I would further
have barred non-itemizers from claiming deductions for contributions and
would have allowed itemizers to claim deductions only for gifts in excess
of two percent of adjusted gross income (a level that few reach). These
proposals were part of a plan to make taxes lower, simpler, and more
neutral. The think tanks were not amused.
Heritage called on Reagan to stop "flirting with these 'flat' tax
proposals" and instead seek gradual changes "over the next few years." The
Heritage recommendations were written by Norman Ture, whose own Institute
for Research on the Economics of Taxation receives more favorable tax
treatment under the status quo. When the second Reagan tax plan, Treasury
II, which did away with the two-percent floor and made other concessions
to nonprofit organizations, was released last spring, Heritage fired off a
RUSH! memorandum labeling the new plan "a clear improvement."
Those who don't like government may chortle at the idea of using tax
preferences to support anti-government theorizing, but the practice is
offensive for two reasons. First, if the ultimate goal is to reduce the
portion of GNP consumed by government
-a fine goal--somebody somewhere must agree to surrender his special
favors and pay his own way. No matter how much is done to cut the budget,
as long as net spending is in deficit every dollar deducted from one
person's taxes must be added either to someone else's or to the debt.
Second, by using tax preferences the think tanks are dodging the "true
cost" test that they advocate everyone else undergo. If giving $100 to
thinkers creates $100 worth of value in the form of profound opinions,
press clips, or whatever, why shouldn't it cost $100?
THE TERMS TRANSFORMED
Besides using up every conceivable variation on titles like "In Defense of
a Free Market" and "Strategic Realities for the Eighties," what, on
balance, have the new think tanks accomplished?
They've routed a generation of assumptions about government; today even
Brookings's hottest scholar, Robert Crandall, is a market thinker. By and
large the new conservatives have been graceful in victory--certainly more
graceful than the liberal intellectuals who, during their heyday, in the
1960s, held the losing side in scalding contempt. They've created an
intellectual competitor for the university system, which is good, and
rendered it dependent on not offending corporate patrons, which is bad.
They have produced a substantial body of worthwhile commentary but few
true thunderbolts, considering the sums of money and time invested. "The
really big ideas are not going to be funded," Kenneth Adelman says. He is
both a think-tank alumnus and a paying customer of think tanks in his role
as the director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. "Think tanks
are good at controlled studies of specific questions. But the really big
ideas, the breakthroughs, come from outside the system. They pop up in
journals written by someone you never heard of who had no outside help."
Perhaps the most lasting contribution of the new think tanks is that they
have transformed the terms of public-policy debate. In politics, words are
map coordinates that show on whose territory a battle is being fought.
Whenever liberalism succeeded in defining its goals as the public
interest, in opposition to the private interest, victory was near. To the
extent that conservatism can now define its goals in terms of the greater
good, it can win on merit what it could once win only by quantity of
One example of the transformation of terms is that discussions of
entrepreneurship are now conducted using words like spent and
vision--glorifications, to be sure, but closer to the truth than some
words of the 1960s, such as greed. Another example is the reaction to
Charles Murray's Losing Ground, the Washington intellectual event of 1985.
Murray's basic contention--that too much aid harms the poor--differs
little from what George Gilder said in 1980 and Martin Anderson said in
1981. But Gilder and Anderson were mocked; Murray has been taken
seriously. Now Glenn Loury and others have begun to say much the same
thing without evoking a backlash--for example, that in public schools
where the great Society prescription of admission formulas, lower
standards, and due process has been administered, minority achievement has
It may be that thinkers like Murray and Loury will ultimately be judged
wrong. But the terms of debate will never again be the same.
Government-imposed solutions will no longer automatically be considered to
be in the best interest of the poor, leaving only the question, How much
can we afford? Nor will market-mediated approaches automatically be
considered apologies for the rich, leaving only the question, How much
will we let them get away with?
Equally important--and here's the good part--transforming the terms of
debate has transformed conservatives themselves. The great fear regarding
"warmed" conservative philosophy is that it conceals a hidden agenda: nice
new reasons to ignore the luckless and the left out replace the nasty old
ones. There's an element of this especially in the Republican country-club
set. But just as the new terms of political discourse make it harder to be
a limousine liberal, they make it harder to be a troglodyte. Reagan
himself, in discussing the issues, now uses a vocabulary entirely
different from that of his campaign days. His mean little anecdote about
vodka bought with food stamps has disappeared, and it's hard to imagine it
making a comeback. Precisely because the new think tanks have raised the
standard of conservative thinking, conservative ideas that are poorly
thought through or merely selfish stand much less chance today than they
did in 1981.
"Look what happened to Anne Gorsuch," Michael Horowitz says. "She never
spent any time at a think tank. She wasn't comfortable in the world of
ideas. When it came time to make a decision, she would just check the box
marked C for conservative without understanding why or following any
vision other than her desire to be loyal to the Administration.
"But for her loyalty the White House caught hell over and over again, and
the EPA was reduced to a circus. Other people, like William Baxter [the
former assistant attorney general for antitrust] and Jim Miller [the
Office of Management and Budget administrator], have accomplished far more
in real policy terms than Gorsuch, without causing any shouts in the
night, because they were at home in the world of ideas."
Horowitz, who when I interviewed him was working in the Old Executive
Office Building, ranked among the very few people in Washington who
actually had a window commanding a view of the White House. "Look out that
window," he said. "Do you know how I got here? Ideas. Ideas do count.
Ideas move nations."
Copyright © 1986, Gregg Easterbrook. All rights
"Ideas Move Nations";
The Atlantic Monthly, January, 1986.
Volume 257, Number 1 (pages 66-80).