There has been some debate about think tanks among conservative bloggers recently, with several suggesting that they are no longer contributing meaningfully to policy debate. They have become too superficial, too dependent on the short op-ed article at the expense of original research, it has been charged. Such criticism, however, simply misunderstands what think tanks are all about.
Think tanks are not a new phenomenon. Organizations like the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute have been around for many decades. Virtually every major university has several affiliated think tanks. Perhaps the best known is the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
What is relatively new, however, is the particular type of think tank exemplified by the Heritage Foundation, which adopted a much more overtly political approach to research, with a heavier emphasis on outreach for its work, both in government and the media.
Historically, think tanks were like universities without the teaching. Scholars who preferred research to lecturing or whose interests were narrowly focused gravitated to think tanks. But they were still expected to maintain the same academic standards that applied to those in academia.
Brookings is still the best example of this. Its scholars are often world-renowned experts whose work appears in top academic journals. Books by Brookings scholars are often definitive. For many years, the late Joseph Pechman's book on federal tax policy was the best in the field, and Brookings largely set the agenda on that subject for a generation.
Brookings has always had a moderately liberal tilt. The American Enterprise Institute was established as a moderately conservative alternative. Democratic administrations often drew upon the former for policy staff, while Republicans did so from the latter.
What Heritage did that was so different was to engage in policy in a much more aggressive way. While a Brookings book might be the authoritative statement on a subject, it required an enormous amount of time and money to produce. It might take many years to write. In the end, it would only be read by a few committee staffers in Congress or at the Congressional Research Service. Meanwhile, the legislative process would travel its own path, often oblivious to the scholarly research on the subject.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
Be the first to read Bruce Bartlett's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.