Think tanks act as ‘ideological first responders’ in US policy landscape

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When the financial crisis hit in Detroit in 2008, Michigan-based think tanks were already hard at work on anti-union legislation. In California, as the drum beat of public-sector reform was intensifying, a satellite of the New York-based Manhattan Institute, the California Public Policy Center, was stepping up its campaign for privatized pensions.

Dr. Jamie Peck, who studies the everyday strategies of think tanks, refers to these organizations as “ideological first responders.”

“They are in a position to react quickly and they try to frame policy discussions about how to respond to new challenges or unexpected events,” says Dr. Peck, UBC Professor of Geography and 2013 Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Peter Wall Institute.

A number of years ago, Dr. Peck was involved in an accident that left him bedridden for several months. He began monitoring the daily strategies of free-market (or “neoliberal”) think tanks in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

He observed that think tanks responded faster to the disaster than the Bush administration, and they were remarkably successful in framing the eventual policy response to the New Orleans crisis. They do so by improvising and making the most of sophisticated communications strategies, but they always seek to act consistently with particular objectives: small government, liberty and the free-market.

“Their work is about trying to frame appropriate kinds of responses,” explains Dr. Peck. “With respect to the recovery effort after the hurricane, it meant evading long-term entitlement obligations, it meant ensuring that the federal government would not be on the hook for this kind of insurance risk, and that the costs of clean up and recovery would be devolved to local responsibility wherever possible. They respond quickly and with reference to a fairly well-articulated ideological position, which isn’t necessarily explicit in what they do, but if you look at enough of what they do, you see the recurring patterns.”

Many of the leading neoliberal think tanks can be traced back to the free-market project of F.A. Hayek, and to a meeting with Antony Fisher at the London School of Economics in the late 1940s. Many of these groups are now referred to as “Fisher think tanks.”

“They are in the business of making policy-based evidence,” explains Dr. Peck, as opposed to evidence-based policy. “They are effectively producing evidence to fit an ideological position and have been amazingly effective at doing that. They have really reshaped the conversation in many policy areas, like welfare, education, taxation and the environment.”

Dr. Peck is particularly interested in the daily strategies of state and local-level think tanks in the United States, which, in many cases are satellite offices of larger think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation or the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. This kind of work has had very little attention so far, he observes. “Many of the local think tanks have been operating under the radar.”

“It’s extremely important at the present time because we are in a historical moment where federal systems are being rolled back, so increasingly states, cities and local governments are on their own. They are not going to get big transfers from the feds.”

Cuts to programs have trickled from top to bottom, so much of the policy action is happening on the local level, he adds.

He explains that the current policy terrain makes it much easier for right of centre think tanks to operate in than it does for more left-leaning think tanks. Making the case for new social programs in times of austerity or proposing progressive changes to the tax code is inherently more difficult, he contends. “In some ways, these more progressive groups are working against the grain.”

However, Dr. Peck maintains that basic research on these issues is an essential part of policy-making. Increasingly, evidence is only collected for narrow and instrumentalist purposes, or to justify preferred positions.

“Too often, the fundamental questions just don’t get asked.”