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.
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.