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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.

Ideology, Partisanship, and Scholarship

Think tanks are often ideological and sometimes partisan, but critics who deploy these charges interchangeably miss a distinction that makes a difference.  “Once seen as non-ideological ‘universities without students,’ the American think tank has, in many cases, become a partisan stalking horse,” Pacific Standard’s Emily Badger complained.  On the relationship between partisanship and ideology, she averred:  ”Those two terms…have become increasingly synonymous in modern politics.”  But while partisanship and ideology can each create conflicts of interest for think tank scholars, the two pressures are distinct, and they often conflict with each other.  Only by separating one from the other can we think carefully about how to insulate think tank research from influences that will diminish its quality.

When we refer to a person’s “ideology,” we are usually talking about a stable set of somewhat general (but not maximally general) moral and political principles. So understood, ideological principles serve as normative guideposts for, well, nearly everyone who ventures opinions about public policy. Indeed, even some fully-fledged political philosophers see value in these commitments. John Rawls called them “considered convictions,” and he believed that they play a legitimate role in philosophical deliberation. Elected representatives, opinion journalists, policy wonks at explicitly ideological institutions, grass roots advocates, and family members who discuss current events over the dinner table invoke their ideological commitments as a sort of magnetic north when they explore public policy ideas.

Studies suggest that adults have fairly stable ideologies, but they can evolve over time.  Some people experience a dramatic ideological conversion once or twice in their lives, either spurred by philosophical or religious study or as a result of coming to grips with facts about the world that cast doubt on the validity of their formerly-held principles.

Academics, traditional reporters, nonpartisan government analysts, and other political participants with highly technocratic orientations sometimes purport to eschew “ideology.” But as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf recently pointed out, technocrats need ideologies, too! Ideology is what analysts consult in order to decide which research questions are socially important and which are unworthy of exploration. As former Cato Institute research fellow Will Wilkinson explained:

There’s no avoiding the fact that, if you’re doing anything with policy at all, you’re trying to achieve some goal. If you think that the goal is one that’s worth having, you have to have some rational justification for why that’s the end that we ought to be aiming at.

Even those whose research agendas are set by others—lowly research assistants, OMB economists, and Iranian nuclear scientists come to mind—must at least assure themselves that their analytical skills are not furthering some evil purpose. To answer the question, “Is my job morally acceptable, or must I quit?” a researcher must consult her ideology. When academics undertake projects for the purpose of “advancing the science” of their discipline by refining its methods, they must ask and answer the same question.

“Partisanship” is a different thing. Political partisanship has to do with being a team player in a coalition that seeks electoral victory. To be “partisan,” therefore, is to speak and act for the purpose of advancing the electoral prospects of one’s party. Ideological convictions frequently determine the political party with which a person chooses to make common cause. This is a always choice of lesser evil, though, because ideologies can be as unique as snowflakes, while political parties are coalitions. A religious conservative does not share an ideology with a libertarian, nor does a labor democrat share an ideology with a deep ecologist.

Inevitably, the demands of partisanship will conflict with the demands of ideology. In 2003, for example, small government conservatives at the Heritage Foundation had to decide whether or not they would support President George W. Bush’s creation of Medicare Part D—a huge and unfunded new federal entitlement program. In that case, the think tank’s ideological commitments rather impressively prevailed over the pressures of partisanship. On the other hand, Heritage’s Obama-era about-face on the ideological acceptability of individual health insurance mandates raised questions about whether partisanship does not sometimes masquerade as ideological purity.

Both ideology and partisanship can create conflicts of interest when a public policy scholar hopes, for partisan or ideological reasons, that her analysis will have a particular outcome. Suppose that an analyst at Think Tank A is ideologically committed to a principle of noninterference with the internal conflicts of foreign nations. She may examine the effect of interventionist policies on the federal budget in the hope that her findings will persuade people concerned about the deficit to support a less interventionist foreign policy. If she discovers that foreign policy has little or no effect on the deficit, she will be disappointed.  Similarly, a partisan may hope to vindicate the education reforms of a particular president during re-election season. If he discovers that the reforms actually did not benefit students, he will be disappointed by his findings as well.

This kind of conflict does not bedevil wonks alone. Traditional academics also hope that their research will reflect favorably on their ideological or partisan commitments. Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens, whose personal views are liberal, recently published a book in which he reports that George W. Bush’s policies reflected the preferences of poor and working class voters far more accurately than did those of Presidents Clinton or Johnson.  Gilens jokingly described his surprise and chagrin:

Certainly for Bush 43—George W. Bush—I would not have expected high levels of responsiveness to anybody except maybe the most affluent.  Like a good political scientist, when I found these results, I said there must be some mistake in the coding.  I did everything I could, you know, to make them go away.  But they were very persistent.

Ideology is not wholly dispensable for public policy scholars, regardless of where they work. Therefore, ideological conflicts of interest cannot always be sidestepped.  Because good research is a lot like good driving, such conflicts may negatively impact research quality despite a scholar’s honest best efforts.  Ideological conflicts should therefore be acknowledged and carefully managed by both scholars and institutions in a way that protects research quality.  At explicitly ideologically committed institutions, I believe that this challenge is among the biggest challenges in think tank ethics.

A scholar’s partisan allegiances, if any, have no necessary role to play in her research process. This is not to say that a passionate partisan is capable of entirely ignoring the partisan implications of her research, but it seems like an unambiguously worthy goal. Indeed, nearly all U.S. think tanks make public claims of nonpartisanship. These commitments are encouraged by the tax code, but when and where they are taken seriously, they promote good research practices by minimizing an unnecessary source of bias. Indeed, it seems to me that nonpartisanship is especially valuable to think tanks with ideological missions. It is challenging, but I believe possible, to maintain good research standards in an ideologically committed institution. Partisanship simultaneously undermines both organizational goals.

Perspective: Edwin Meese III Discusses Institutional Mission Fidelity and the Advantage of Broad-Based Support

This post is a part of a recurring series titled, “Perspectives on Think Tank Ethics and Governance.”  Each Perspective post will feature highlights from a personal interview.  In this week’s post, Edwin Meese III, Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus at the Heritage Foundation and former chairman of Heritage’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, comments on mission fidelity, management practices, and the advantage of a broad base of support.  The interview took place on October 25, 2012.

Mr. Meese, we were talking about having an inner discipline about being committed to the mission. [How do you] not allow the possibility of specific donations to divert you from your principles?

MEESE:  As you say, we don’t do contract work, [and] we don’t take any governmental funds from any government. We try to be very transparent in all that we do. We are clear about what our mission is, clear about what our principles are, clear about what our objectives are, clear about what our overall philosophy is.  [P]eople who desire to become members of Heritage, who desire to contribute to Heritage Foundation, understand that that they are contributing because they want to be part of and support the work we do rather than the other way around.

Everybody has a mission statement, and it’s often highly general. So how do you figure out what [the mission statement] means in the context of specific research programs?

MEESE:  Well, for one thing, we set up our primary principles of individual liberty, limited government, free market economics, strong national defense, support of what we call “traditional American values.” That [last one is] the only one that’s a little bit nebulous there, and by that we mean family and religion, we mean patriotism, we mean things like a commitment to work, individual responsibility.  Then, we have our mission: to promote a society in which freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish. We say clearly, we are nonpartisan, but we are conservative, so we are committed to a philosophy but not to a political party or any candidates.

It’s hard to resist partisan pressures when they arise. How do you do that?

MEESE:  Well, it’s not hard, because we’ve been doing it so long, and everybody who is here understands that.  But we are attentive to the issue, and we have a system within our management structure so that we provide guidance to all of our people, particularly in an election year, as to how they are to act and how they are to respond to things like questions from a political organization of any sort.  [T]he organizers must understand that we would give the same thing to their opponents.

For example, if they call, we provide briefings to candidates across the board. Now, obviously, one party is more likely to ask questions and to seek information from a conservative organization than the other party, but we do [briefings] on a nonpartisan basis. The second the thing we do is, we don’t get involved in support—Heritage itself—in support of legislation or opposition to specific legislation. We do have a 501(c)(4) organization, Heritage Action for America is a sister organization, and they they are able to lobby, but again, not to support specific candidates or anything like that.

A lot of the research that scholars at think tanks do is more applied than what’s going on in academic departments. Where do you see the position of think tanks and what they do, related to academia on one side and activists on the other?

MEESE:  I would say that that we pride ourselves on [our] information being factual, on being supported by evidence, by looking at counterarguments, and by trying to provide recommendations in terms of what policy will be. Our policy ideas, if you will, can be useful, and hopefully would be adopted by people of whatever political party, based on the overall direction of our philosophy. Our President, Ed Feulner, has said that he often hears from Democrat congressman that they look at Heritage materials—our issue briefs, for example—and they can use everything up to the final page, which has the the conclusion and the recommendations. They said they tear that page off and use the rest of it. We consider that a good thing.

Do you have any internal ethics policies or conflict of interest policies and guidelines in the organization?

MEESE:  Gosh, only on political activity. We have clear-cut rules on political activity. But we do have a management structure, so somebody from the beginning people in the organization, policy analysts who start here of as well as support people, all the way to the president, they have someone that can go to for advice and guidance on any of the, what you might call ethics issues. And likewise, we have we have reviews for factual matters, so we have a series of editorial reviews of anything coming out of here.

So, you have a quality review process, where you vet work before it’s published.

MEESE:  Sometimes we may even have more than one. Say we are doing something on national security law. We will want to make sure that it is been vetted by people who are our experts on national security as well as by our legal experts. If they were talking about something like the Law of the Sea Treaty, they would want to have it vetted by, not only their experts from the navigational standpoint, the economics standpoint, but also from the constitutional legal standpoint.

So, this process of review is to make sure that we have [good] quality in terms of accuracy, as well as of course readability and those other qualities. That is part of our regular process. [E]very Monday morning at our management meetings, where we have our our senior management and our next level of management, we have a review of all the topics that are being researched, and what you might call “major policy documents.”

If you were going to give some advice to a new, small think tank that is just getting off the ground and trying to develop best practices, what advice would you give them?

MEESE:  Well, first of all, hire good scholars. Look carefully at people’s background for, obviously, intellectual capability, as well as the other things you need, writing style and all that. Look at their background in terms of their education, and ascertain to make sure they have intellectual integrity. Those qualities you need. And then, of course, a thorough review of the policies of the organization—the things we’ve been talking about, the mission, the philosophy, and those kinds of things—hopefully before they are hired.

The next thing, of course, would be that they understand the review process, and then particularly having a process of how you handle what you might call complaints, criticisms, that sort of thing.  [L]et’s say somebody publishes paper and the next day you have EJ Dionne or someone like that criticizing the paper.  We would want to first speak to the analyst who wrote the paper and probably that person’s superior officer to see whether the criticism was in any way justified or accurate. If it isn’t, we decide what kind of rebuttal we want to have, whether we’re just going to let it go because it’s inconsequential or nobody believes that person anyway. Or, they’ve got a good point, and we go back and check our informational resources to make sure we are accurate. If we’re right, we defend the position. If somebody’s made a mistake, we correct it. In other words, we maintain absolute integrity in terms of factual matter.

How do you handle instances of empirical disagreement when they crop up within the organization? For example, if one person thinks program X tends to increase literacy, and another person can’t find that effect, how do you hammer those things out?

MEESE:  It goes to the next level of management. If we get to a total impasse, then we would figure out how to handle it. Usually it’s not so much on a factual matter as it is, like you say, an interpretation or an idea of how we are proceed from there. Sometimes, take a tough subject like immigration policy, as we have a couple years ago, where we were essentially at odds with what George W. [Bush] wanted to do, and some of the others, and we had people on both sides within the organization, several sides that case. So, what we will often do is put together a working group, and I’m often asked to head them up, or someone else fairly senior here. We would bring all people together and argue it out and ultimately either reach a consensus, which is often what we are able to do, or just have to flat make a decision.

I took a look at your annual reports, and I noticed that you seem to recognize a lot of your donors.

MEESE:  We want to recognize, particularly the major donors, but we also have 700,000 people who are members, so even what we put in our annual report is just a very small fraction of our total body of contributors.

Would you say that there are any advantages to having a very broad donor base in terms of the mission, or being able to maintain a measure of independence from any one donor?

MEESE:  Absolutely, that’s very important. The broader the base, the better, not being dependent on any one individual, or one organization, or one foundation. We are probably, of all the major research and education foundations, less dependent on corporate support than most. It’s certainly less than 6% [of annual revenues]. I’m not sure exactly, but somewhere very, very low. And that’s for a reason, because we have had situations when corporations disagree with us or want us to move in a particular direction that’s favorable towards their ideas or their products. We just don’t do that, so we deliberately keep our corporate support as a small percentage of our total support.