Why don’t social democrats read work by their think-tanks?

Over the last few years, the left has boosted its think-tank operations through Per Capita and the Centre for Policy Development, joining the more established Australia Institute.

But if the results of the Australian political identity survey are a guide, the left-wing think-tanks are yet to make a big impact among those identifying with the left labels in the survey, social democrat and green.

As the chart below shows, none of the three left-leaning think-tanks attract more than a quarter of social democrat or green identifiers as regular readers. Indeed, in the case of social democrats more read work from the classical liberal Centre for Independent Studies than by any of the left-leaning think-tanks. By contrast, around half of classical liberals, conservatives and libertarians regularly read work by the CIS, and about 40% read work by the Institute of Public Affairs.

regularly-read-think-tanks

Why might this be the case? As I have long argued in the case of social democratic think-tanks, the dominant position of social democracy in the political culture makes think-tanks less necessary. While supporters of other ideologies struggle to get their voices heard and their arguments accepted, the tasks faced by social democrats are of a more technocratic kind, finding new ways of managing and fine-tuning big government.

Much of this work is already being done at taxpayer expense in the public service and in academia, so it is a very unlevel playing field for the social democratic think-tanks. But it also renders largely redundant the particular structural advantage of think-tanks, which is the freedom to say radical things created by separation from interest groups and formal power centres. Social democratic think-tanks generally don’t have radical things to say, and therefore don’t need this freedom.

It’s not surprising that the Australia Institute is the most read – by both left-wingers and right-wingers – of the left-leaning think-tanks, because it genuinely does publish research that is well outside mainstream opinion.

Also consistent with this theory is the relative uniformity of opinion among social democrats compared to classical liberals or libertarians. Social democrats are less likely to be arguing amongst themselves on what position they should take on major policy issues, and presumably social democrats are less likely to be experiencing ideological self-doubt. There isn’t the same need to read publications that might help sort through these issues. Indeed, if the CIS social democratic readership is a guide knowing their enemy is favoured above reading more about social democracy.

20 Responses to “Why don’t social democrats read work by their think-tanks?

  • 1
    Russell
    April 19th, 2009 20:48

    Just as I thought – we greens and social democrats expose ourselves to ideas, however ridiculous, from a wide range of sources, whereas the conservatives just reconfirm their prejudices by reading stuff by the like minded.

    Your survey couldn’t list all the sources of information we’re all looking at, so maybe we greens and SDs are looking at various radical sources – who could miss a day without checking the Counterpunch website?

    I’m not sure about your claim re the dominant position of social democracy – social democracy and ‘neo-liberalism’ have been fighting it out these last three decades and both have had victories. Most of the commercial media that I see go both ways.

    And I don’t think there is so much uniformity in social democrat thinking – it’s still possible to discern some ideological differences between the ALP factions for example.

  • 2
    SL
    April 19th, 2009 21:18

    Counterpunch is indeed a daily must. As is Marxmail.

  • 3
    Jc
    April 19th, 2009 21:56

    Honestly Andrew, why would anyone say pick up anything written by the Australia Institute other than wanting to spend a little while reading the latest silliness Hamilton has come up with.

    In reality they’re simply not very good. It’s really quite boring and great deal of it is ill informed.

    Russell:

    They’re are numerous factions on the right. You need to read a little more.

  • 4
    TerjeP (say tay-a)
    April 19th, 2009 22:17

    Indeed, in the case of social democrats more read work from the classical liberal Centre for Independent Studies than by any of the left-leaning think-tanks.

    I would guess that being a person that reads work by Andrew Norton also means being both more likely to do this particular survey (it was published on your blog) and being more likely to be a reader of CIS material (you are the editor of their flagship magazine). So the high correlation may simply mean that the survey gathered social democrats that read CIS material rather than social democrats in general. In which case perhaps the result merely shows a selection bias.

  • 5
    Andrew Norton
    April 19th, 2009 22:44

    TerjeP – There was probably some selection bias, though I would expect that most of the social democratic responses were generated by other blogs. There was a very noticeable surge in social democrats after the Crikey blogs linked to the survey. Possibly the bias explains the small CIS lead over the Australia Institute. But I am not sure it can explain the large CIS lead over CPD or Per Capita.

  • 6
    conrad
    April 20th, 2009 10:22

    “Much of this work is already being done at taxpayer expense in the public service and in academia”
    .
    I know people have looked at this, but in my books the biggest bias in academia is a liberal social bias, which should make various factions of the right happy too (i.e., those that are not conservative), so it isn’t just a left-wing social democratic bias. Alternatively, if I flick through the list of top economists in Australia, I don’t think it is nearly as biased as many claim (not that I really have the expertise to evaluate them — it would be good to know what some of the economists think).

  • 7
    Fitzroyalty
    April 20th, 2009 13:25

    I’d say it’s as much to do with the web publishing and marketing strategies of the organisations. Each has a ghastly website that is deficient in unique ways… maybe some have better SEO and syndication. Some don’t even have RSS… people won’t read their work if it’s inconvenient to access.

  • 8
    Pete
    April 20th, 2009 17:56

    Could be that people on the Left associate ‘think-tanks’ with ideological hacks producing extreme policy wish-lists that are dull and blatantly out of touch with the lives of ordinary people.

    University education and academic research have always been the tonic against the reactionary Right, precisely why Howard & Co. were so desperate to cast the educated as “elites” in those “culture wars”.

    That said, the reality is that the average person doesn’t read from either of those sources: they’re more likely to consume some other more accessible media. On the Right, you have the Murdoch Press and commercial television representing the big commercial interests. On the Left, a few remaining pockets of the ABC and new media (much more accessible to the general public).

  • 9
    Andrew Norton
    April 20th, 2009 18:31

    “Could be that people on the Left associate ‘think-tanks’ with ideological hacks producing extreme policy wish-lists that are dull and blatantly out of touch with the lives of ordinary people.”

    Pete – I think it is bit unfair on the left-wing think-tanks to say that they produce ‘extreme policy wish-lists that are dull and blatantly out of touch with the lives of ordinary people’, which on your account would explain why left-wingers are more likely to read right-wing than left-wing think-tanks.

  • 10
    Pete
    April 20th, 2009 19:56

    Andrew Norton @9: “I think it is bit unfair on the left-wing think-tanks to say that they produce ‘extreme policy wish-lists that are dull and blatantly out of touch with the lives of ordinary people’, which on your account would explain why left-wingers are more likely to read right-wing than left-wing think-tanks.”

    No, I’m not being selective there. Think-tanks on both sides are likely to be both as bad as each other. They’re just artificially generated pressure groups, afterall.

    Left-wingers would be reading right-wing think-tanks for much the same reason I occasionally read ‘The Australian’: it’s important to know what idiotic hare-brained scheme the Right’s pushing for next.

  • 11
    Andrew Norton
    April 20th, 2009 20:11

    Pete – Well I would say this, but in my view the think-tanks generally fill gaps in public debate and some of the stuff is pretty good. Though I agree with very little of what The Australia Institute does, for example, some of it is intellectually serious and deserves to be treated as such, not just dismissed as ideological hack work. And obviously I think the same of the CIS work, including my own – much of which is on topics that nobody else is looking at but which have significant implications for higher education policy.

  • 12
    SL
    April 20th, 2009 20:12

    Jeez, Pete, ‘twould be nice if we had a RWDB opposition here even worthy of debating.

  • 13
    TerjeP (say tay-a)
    April 20th, 2009 21:13

    Off topic.

    Andrew is the CIS going to publish another article on tax freedom day with a corresponding data set? Because if they do then I’d really love it if somebody clever could pull together a data series similar to the table at the end of the following webpage except covering Australias full history from 1901 to 2009.

    http://tinyurl.com/costofgovt

  • 14
    Andrew Norton
    April 20th, 2009 22:41

    TerjeP – Yes, due later this week. Not sure how reliable the table you suggest would be. We did not have official GDP figures until the second half of the 1940s. Presumably the tax data would be of better quality.

  • 15
    Fred Argy
    April 21st, 2009 08:27

    Good luck, Andrew. The results (although one-sided) speak for themselves. You have also been doing a good job.

    But I mainly read the Australian – and I only see constant serious references to extracts from the Centre for Independent Studies (see today’s paper). There is little stuff (other than critical stuff) about The Australia Institute.

    I do read other papers and they give relatively equal treatment to both. The Murdoch press is fairly ideological and that must certainly help alot.

  • 16
    TerjeP (say tay-a)
    April 21st, 2009 10:24

    Andrew – to determine absolute cost of government (as opposed to the relative cost) we don’t need GDP figures. Tax freedom day is focused on the relative cost (so it does need GDP figures) but there is also a quite legitament debate to be had about the absoluted cost. For instance the table from the ABS shows that the cost of government increased 36.2% over the last 5 years. Where is the price watchdog on this issue? If groceries or petrol goes up in price the media is all over it but apparently not when the cost of government rises.

  • 17
    Andrew Norton
    April 21st, 2009 10:37

    TerjeP – It’s much easier to determine the aggregate cost of government than to know whether we are seeing ‘inflation’ in government costs – as with the CPI, the trick is trying to distinguish price increases on the same commodity or whether the commodity has changed. It’s very hard with government because the output can be difficult to measure.

  • 18
    TerjeP (say tay-a)
    April 21st, 2009 12:52

    Sure. The service costs more but it may be because the service offers more. And perhaps todays service station and shopping centre experience is better than it was 5 years ago.

    Absolute cost of government is no less relevant than relative cost. If tax freedom day is later, then maybe all that says is that we are getting exceptional quality government services. However I somehow doubt it.

    Colorado caps the absolute per capita cost of government and then only allows an increase in the cap via a referendum. It seems to me that this is a good way to frame the economic decision making process in relation to size of government. Government costs no more than X per capita unless the people consiously opt to pay more.

  • 19
    Andrewmck
    April 22nd, 2009 22:38

    Pete @8 -Could be that people on the Left associate ‘think-tanks’ with ideological hacks producing extreme policy wish-lists that are dull and blatantly out of touch with the lives of ordinary people- and Andrew’s responses.
    I was thinking similar thoughts to Pete but the history of Australian “social democracy” is important here. I ticked “social democrat” on your survey as the best fit, but I’d naturally desdribe myself as “labor”. I bet that’s true of a lot (most?) Australian social democrats. The labor approach was overwhelmingly oriented to pratice, not theory – better wages, safer working conditions, shorter hours, greater job security. When the labor parties were established this approach was extended to the whole range of social policies. “What can be done?” was labor’s question in contrast to the theorist Ulyanov’s “What IS to be done” pronouncement.

    This bias to concrete results without being too fussy about their theoretical underpinnings goes a long way in my mind to explaining both the ideological spread of think tanks read by self identified social democrats and the relatively low proportion of social democrats botheringwith any of them

  • 20
    Jacques Chester
    April 22nd, 2009 22:41

    There are no reliable figures on the total size of all government sectors in Australia. For the federal government it’s easy; but much harder once you add state and local governments.