Do think tanks follow God or mammon?

The latest issue of the Australian Journal of Political Science contains an article called ‘Conservative Think Tanks and Public Politics’, by Marcus Smith and Peter Marden. They are against the former and claim to be in favour of the latter.

Smith and Marden don’t seem to able to decide whether think tanks are driven by God or mammon (the possibility that people who work in think-tanks might be sincerely interested in good public policy is not even considered).

The first part of the article is a conventional (left-wing) narrative of how business interests created think-tanks to serve their financial interests. But then it switches to God, arguing that the Christian Right is increasingly influential in the ‘networks of interests associated with conservative think thanks’. According to Smith and Marden, the Christian Right argues that ‘Australia has fallen victim to a culture of permissiveness, rampant materialism, and instant gratification.’ Why commercial interests would want to support opponents of these excellent business opportunities is never made clear.

Smith and Marden’s main – indeed, their only – evidence for the financial interests argument is this IPA project on housing, and in particular the involvement of Housing Industry president Bob Day. Personally, I agree that it is a mistake to let people with a vested interest too close to a research project. But vested interests are only a warning sign; arguments stand or fall on their merits, not on the motivations or backgrounds of the people who make them (from a left perspective, are union arguments against WorkChoices invalidated by their massive vested interest in its repeal?).

And perhaps because Smith and Marden show few signs of having read very much by think tanks (who needs research about people you know you are evil?), they don’t discuss the large amount of material (eg the CIS social policy work) put out by think-tanks that has no link to corporate interests. And of course the CIS has an unblemished 32-year record of opposing corporate welfare.

Smith and Marden’s only substantive complaint about a think-tank argument is that in its housing project the IPA focused exclusively on planning regulations rather than interest rates in explaining escalating house prices. But so what? Think-tanks should raise arguments which they believe are under-represented in the public debate; their job is not to write textbooks setting out all aspects of an issue. House prices only go up because there is too much money chasing too few dwellings, and clearly trying to work out why there are too few dwellings is a critical part of the debate.

The argument on religion is even weaker, amounting – after a discussion of loopier religious movements that the authors admit are ‘fringe elements’ – to no more than the fact that some people who contribute to the CIS or IPA are also involved in some religious organisations. Both think tanks remain entirely secular, and so far as I am aware of my colleagues’ religious affiliations, largely staffed by non-believers. The purpose of the CIS Religion and the Free Society program wasn’t to convince people that they should be religious, it was to convince religious people that they should support liberty.

The arguments on business interests and religion, while based on weak evidence, are at least extrapolations from some kind of evidence. The most bizarre argument is that the activities of think-tanks and the Christian Right is that they are designed to silence other opinions:

the agenda is anti-political inasmuch as it represents a concerted effort to close political spaces available to alternative voices.

and

The impact of religious influences in Australian politics is different from the experiences of the USA; nonetheless, the challenge to conceptions of vibrant civil society and democratic pluralism are very similar.

The logic behind this – such as it is – appears to be that they think the right is a bit rude (in academese: ‘alternative voices are attacked specifically to undermine their credibility and challenge the legitimacy of their participation in public debate’) about the left, which helps crowd out ‘existing political spaces’.

But in Smith and Marden’s critique, it is not clear what would constitute acceptable conduct in debate. Elsewhere in the article think-tanks are criticised for ‘appearing to remain aloof and objective in the service of the public interest and deflect any accusation of playing politics’. So both being openly harsh about their opponents and carefully neutral in tone is bad.

Ironically, Smith and Marden’s article is an exercise in what they claim to be criticising – challenging the very legitimacy of ‘alternative voices’. And of course from the perspective of think-tanks, they are alternative voices to the rent-seekers and supporters of big government who dominate debate on most issues. Think tanks are a sign of an open and pluralistic society, not a threat to it.

28 Responses to “Do think tanks follow God or mammon?

  • 1
    entropy
    December 2nd, 2008 20:45

    “Australia has fallen victim to a culture of permissiveness, rampant materialism, and instant gratification.”

    Who knew Clive Hamilton and the Australia Institute are actually conservative?

  • 2
    John S
    December 2nd, 2008 21:13

    My favourite moment was when the think-tank community was described as an “echo-chamber”, with the fact that the two most successful think-tanks in Australia are pro-market given as the only suporting evidence.

    When you consider the stranglehold anti-market views have on Australian arts faculties, especially RMIT where these two individuals originate, perhaps Smith and Marden ought to consider how much of an “echo-chamber” academia has become. Surely the effect this has on democratic pluralism is far more noteworthy.

    Their assertions that the IPA and CIS are controlled by business and religious interests (despite their staffs being predominated by atheists and agnostics) remind me of Karl Popper’s concept of conspiracism.

    It is typical for leftists to attribute alternative viewpoints to bad faith; this is the cornerstone of Marxism.

  • 3
    Leon
    December 2nd, 2008 21:21

    The IPA report focuses entirely on land rationing, and argues away the massive burden of height/density regulations by suggesting that people “chose to live in individual houses” as part of the Australian Dream, and prefer, according to surveys, detached houses to flats.

    But if people don’t want to live in flats, why are they so profitable to build in inner suburbs? This, as well as the relative cost of land in inner areas, suggests many are willing to trade off lower density living for a nice location closer to the CBD.

    The worst thing about the project is its inconsistency with market liberal principles, but the presence of vested interests makes it seem even more corporatist.

  • 4
    Rafe Champion
    December 2nd, 2008 21:31

    It is profitable to build blocks of units in inner suburbs because the introduction of Strata Titles legislation, starting in NSW circa 1963, enabled people to take out conventional home loans on strata units unlike the older forms of title for flats and apartments. This meant that people could trade off convenience to nightlife and work against having a garden of their own. But still most people would rather have the conventional block if it was only closer to the city lights!

  • 5
    Tom N.
    December 3rd, 2008 00:36

    That was like taking money from a baby, Andrew. Still, its good to be reminded occasionally about just how appalling the standard of argument in Dawkins university humanities departments can be.

  • 6
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 3rd, 2008 06:30

    TomN – it is one thing to criticise ‘Dawkins Universities’ but the journal itself is edited out of the ANU and in the new journal ranking system, approved by the education authorities and many academics alike, is ranked at A-star. So it is a top-tier journal with referees and stuff.

  • 7
    Rafe Champion
    December 3rd, 2008 07:14

    I wonder how long it is going to take for the left to produce some genuinely critical and scholarly young thinkers who will actually find out about classical liberalism at first hand? Come to think of it, when is the politically active non-left going to do that as well?

  • 8
    johno
    December 3rd, 2008 08:19

    Rafe – When is the politically active Right actually going to find out about classic liberalism? The Liberal Party, in its deeds, has little understanding of classic liberalism!

  • 9
    Spiros
    December 3rd, 2008 08:56

    “it is one thing to criticise ‘Dawkins Universities’”

    Especially the Dawkins University where Sinclair is employed.

    Sinclair – you should try to get yourself a job at a G8 university (read: a real university), even if it means demotion to say Senior Lecturer. I’m sure Andrew would put in a good word for you at Melbourne if you asked him nicely.

    That way, you won’t feel conflicted when you’re discussing the standards of scholarship at the Dawkins universities on blogs.

  • 10
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 3rd, 2008 09:11

    I’m not conflicted at all. I’m still trying to work out what a ‘ontological correlative’ is. Although I should say, I have published in that journal too.

    Why would I want to work at a ‘real university’? I’m not a snob passing myself off as an egalitarian. :)

  • 11
    Andrew Norton
    December 3rd, 2008 10:12

    “So it is a top-tier journal with referees and stuff.”

    And shows the limits of the refereeing process, when nobody in academia has any expertise in this field.

  • 12
    davidp
    December 4th, 2008 05:01

    Maybe it is a bit different in politics than economics, but isn’t it a bit odd for an Australian journal to get an A* ranking? In the economics lists there are certainly anomalies in the ordering which I suspect reflect where some contributors of the list (or their departments) publish rather than what is accepted in the field.

  • 13
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 4th, 2008 19:14

    Don’t know – I imagine the politics types ‘cheated’ just the same as everyone else.

  • 14
    conrad
    December 5th, 2008 07:02

    “you should try to get yourself a job at a G8 university”
    *
    Spiros, as far as I can tell, there’s essentially no difference in the working conditions at any university in Australia (same workload, same pay) — I think the main difference is you get better postgraduate students in fields where students still enroll in these courses, but even there I don’t think the difference is huge (and who cares if you don’t need them to do your own research).
    In fact, it makes so little difference, one of the reason I don’t try too hard to move from my rather average uni is because I can ride to work easily, it has the best food of any within 2 minutes walk, and because the department is not full of egotistical cretins as some of the namesake Go8 departments are, so it makes working there comparatively easy. It will a problem for the government if it really wants to “concentrate” people — actually why people work at different places is quite varied, and often not because one place is academically better. In addition, in cities like Melbourne and Sydney, if you were unlucky enough to have to move to a university on the other side of the city that you lived (e.g., Latrobe to Monash), it would probably be just as simple to change cities altogether.

  • 15
    Spiros
    December 6th, 2008 14:38

    “I think the main difference is you get better postgraduate students in fields where students still enroll in these courses,”

    You get much better under grads. I’ll bet the average G8 ENTER is a minimum 20 points higher than the average non G8 ENTER.

  • 16
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 6th, 2008 17:27

    I’ll bet the average G8 ENTER is a minimum 20 points higher than the average non G8 ENTER.

    Varies from area to area.

  • 17
    Spiros
    December 6th, 2008 22:20

    No doubt, and there must be huge variation among the non G8, but I stand by my assertion about the average.

  • 18
    conrad
    December 7th, 2008 06:51

    “You get much better under grads”

    No doubt (although I don’t think “much” is the best description — I find the difference is not thrilling — perhaps a smaller left tail and a few more exceptional ones), but as far as I can tell, it makes little difference to your working conditions.

  • 19
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 7th, 2008 08:16

    Like Conrad, I’m not convinced on this score. But that may reflect our experiences. I haven’t followed ENTER scores for a while, but from memory in my school they were very similar to those of the local G8 unis.

    But I’ve also never understood the obsession with ENTER scores either. The score itself is simply a supply-demand indicator and only measures those individuals who finished school in the previous year. Those students who have alternate entry (mature age, TAFE articulation, various affirmative action initiatives) don’t contribute to the score and so for many institutions it may well be upwardly biased. There also used to be that wonderful little rort – mid-band selection – that allows all sorts of non-academic criteria to come into play. When it comes to undergraduate student selection I’m very suspicious of descretion based selection criteria.

  • 20
    conrad
    December 7th, 2008 09:51

    Actually, the best rort if you are a student can be found with the secondary campuses of many universities. Most of these are desperate to get students and allow almost anyone in to most courses, but once you are in, most also allow you transfer to the main campus where getting in is generally much harder. This happens sporadically where I work. This gets you around ENTER score problems if you are 18 with a low ENTER score and essentially any rules people try to think of for non-ENTER students, since these generally only get applied to the main campuses where demand is higher.

  • 21
    Spiros
    December 7th, 2008 18:00

    “the best rort if you are a student can be found with the secondary campuses of many universities”

    This is a true story.

    Student just about fails Y12, but gets admitted to the secondary campus of a non G8 University. The main campus is quite good but the secondary campus is a joke.

    Student fails most first year subjects and then gets offered a place at the main campus!

  • 22
    Andrew Norton
    December 8th, 2008 07:37

    At least in Victoria, the reporting of ENTER scores has improved, with the proportion of offers made below the ‘clearly in’ ENTER and the ‘fringe ENTER’ (at or above which 95% of offers are made) now being reported.

    (Other states may now do this too; but I have only followed Victoria.)

  • 23
    Cathy
    December 8th, 2008 16:28

    Reporting of cut-off scores in NSW is really bad – verging on fraudulent, I would say. Up to half of the students in some courses get in with lower marks via a number of alternative entry schemes. Some students are accepted under entry schemes that they are not even aware of having applied for!
    Actually, I’d like to see a return to meaningful HSC pre-requisites (eg, some sort of calculus based maths course for prospective engineering students) and not such an emphasis on the ENTER score.

  • 24
    conrad
    December 8th, 2008 18:24

    “some sort of calculus based maths course for prospective engineering students”
    *
    Unfortunately, only 10% of Year 12 students now take advanced maths, so that isn’t especially practical. If you are willing to accept intermediate maths, you can add another 20%, so that might be practical. I guess the 50% that take vegie maths (as it used to be called — I presume it isn’t any more) can be ruled out.

  • 25
    Cathy
    December 8th, 2008 18:40

    I don’t think it was every officially called vegie maths. It is still as vegie as it ever was, just they do it with graphics calculators these days. I think that part of the reason that fewer students take the harder maths and science subjects is that these are no longer pre-requisites, though. And the convoluted scaling procedure that is applied to HSC subjects has created this negative feedback loop whereby more students of reasonable academic ability are taking General Maths, which means that the marks for Gen. maths get scaled higher than they were previously, which makes more of the better students take it (because it is much much easier than any of the calculus based maths courses)…and so on…

  • 26
    conrad
    December 9th, 2008 05:41

    The reason less people do advanced maths and science is much more complex — it’s happening all over the Western world, for reasons which I believe are not well understood.

  • 27
    James
    December 10th, 2008 14:54

    Think tanks should be transparent as to who is funding them. Funding is the key transparency issue, as it affects think tanks ability to think independently if strings are attached to specific funds.

  • 28
    Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » Crook analysis of think-tanks
    December 12th, 2008 15:18

    [...] Marcus Smith and Peter Marden are not the only people who believe think-tanks can be analysed without giving any serious attention to what they say or do. Andrew Crook, author of this piece in today’s Crikey on the new Melbourne University-based think-tank the Grattan Institute, seems to share their approach. [...]