Perspective: David Boaz on Partisanship, Intellectual Engagement, and Taking the Long View

This post is a part of a recurring series titled, “Perspectives on Think Tank Ethics and Governance.”  Each Perspective post will feature lightly edited highlights from a personal interview.  In this week’s post, David Boaz, the executive vice president of the Cato Institute, comments on partisanship, intellectual engagement, and the importance of long-term thinking.  I worked as a policy analyst at the Cato Institute between 2002 and 2006, and I remained an unpaid “adjunct scholar” there until 2012.  The interview took place on October 26, 2012.

Mr. Boaz, the Cato Institute has a reputation that is probably unique in Washington for its degree of commitment to the principle of nonpartisanship. Can you tell me a little bit about the institution’s history with respect to this idea of nonpartisanship?

BOAZ: Well I think our nonpartisanship stems mostly from the fact that we don’t like either one of the major parties. I have to be careful saying “we.” There are a lot of people here [at the Cato Institute], and I am sure some of them have partisan views. But I think the founders, those of us who’ve been here for a long time, the Board of Directors, we tend to be pretty skeptical of both major parties and therefore it’s easy to avoid partisanship.

I think that from any think tank the work should be judged as the work, and it doesn’t matter if you know somebody worked in the Clinton administration or the Bush administration, you should still be able to judge their work. Is it properly sourced? Do the numbers add up? Is it addressing the real problems or dodging the tough issues? All those things can be judged, I think, without knowing [analyst's identities]. We could publish studies blind, like SAT applications or orchestra auditions, and then we wouldn’t be distracted by who is the author or what’s his real point.

But, we do know that when you come into a discussion, if you’re hired to represent a business, a union, a political party or any other specific interest group, then it is difficult to remain independent. So being independent of both parties—feeling yourself independent of both parties, feeling internally that that’s not an issue for you, that you don’t have to worry about whether your work it’s going to be helpful to or approved by leaders of any political party—I think that’s important.

And obviously, where you get your money is significant, if the money is coming from partisan sources. That doesn’t mean just that somebody is a Democrat or somebody is Republican.  Most Americans are either Democrats or Republicans, and according to a lot of polls, even if they say they are independents, they are really pretty much Democrats or Republicans. But there is a difference between people who vote one way or another and those who possibly set up organizations with the intention of advancing a particular party’s interest.

A lot of folks who promote the idea of being in a partisan coalition argue that it is the only way you can really influence what happens in Washington, DC. How do you push back against arguments like that?

Well, if you’re trying to change people’s ideas, and surely over the long term that’s what intellectuals want to do—they want to persuade more people that their own ideas are right, whether that idea is something narrow on education policy or something broad, like Marxism or libertarianism—you can’t be just in one coalition and talk only to the people in that group. And I know it’s easy for people to do that. I do think that our current media environment, particularly social media, make it really easy to play to the crowd. You’ll get a lot more “likes” and “retweets” if you say something that a body of people who are following you will already agree with.

On the other hand, I think you’re more likely to change people’s minds if you make arguments without fear or favor, and if you make them in a way that is accessible to people of all political views. This is one argument for always showing your work, showing your data. One of the arguments against making religiously-based claims in public policy is, well, it’s kind of like a black box: if I don’t start out believing the same thing you do about religion, there’s no reason for me to agree with your conclusion.

On the other hand, if you take a concept that you came to on the basis of your faith, but you demonstrate with data, reason, or other kinds of generally accessible arguments, that the policy conclusion you’re getting to seems to have good results to people who don’t necessarily share your faith, then you’ve made stronger argument. So, I think if you want to change people’s minds, then you don’t want to only talk to people who already agree with you.

It sounds to me like you are making a comparison here between a short time horizon and a long time horizon. Do you think that think tanks need to be focused more on the longer term?

That is certainly part of it, you’re right. If your time horizon is the next election, then you are going to think about policies that work there. It’s also true, I suppose, that if your time horizon is short, you think about policies that are politically feasible within the current Congress or the current administration. If you think about the long term, then yes, I think you’re less likely to be swayed by partisan concerns, and being less swayed by partisan concerns allows you to think long term.

If you are interested in changing the intellectual dialogue over the long term, then you don’t want to be caught up in immediate partisan or electoral concerns. I would argue that changing the intellectual dialogue over the long term will, in the end, change the political dialogue.  And it will presumably change policy, if in fact you succeed in changing people’s ideas. But it is a long-term process.

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