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2- The Role of the Think Tank

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2. The Role of the Think Tank

Joseph G. Lehman, President, Mackinac Center for Public Policy



If you are exploring careers in public policy, you should consider the policy-shaping role of think tanks. The enactment of a law by a legislative body is but the final step in a long march that typically starts outside the halls of government and the minds of policymakers. Although it is seldom obvious to casual observers, think tank professionals can exert influence on public policy that is both enormous and indirect. To understand why, you must know how think tanks work.


Most think tanks are not formally part of the government, nor do they sustain themselves by selling products or services. They are usually nonprofit organizations, but they differ from more familiar nonprofits whose daily activities are directly and visibly linked to their missions.


For example, churches conduct worship services, the Red Cross provides on-the-scene disaster relief, the symphony hosts concerts, and the soup kitchen feeds needy people. A think tank’s mission may be to advance sound public policy, but its activities involve studying and communicating policy ideas, not enacting policy itself.


Think tanks are rarely powerhouse lobbyists, they don’t fund political campaigns, and they don’t vote in the legislature. So how do think tanks achieve their mission of advancing sound policy if they aren’t directly involved with lawmaking?


The answer lies in understanding that legislation does not spring into being at the whim of lawmakers. Rather, legislative change rests on foundations of political and social change. Far from the legislative arena, social change gives rise to political change, which ultimately gives rise to legislative, or policy, change. Policy change that does not flow ultimately from social change is not likely to be durable policy change.


To illustrate, consider some important social movements and the durable policy changes they produced. Abolition of slavery. Civil rights. Trade unionism. Women’s suffrage. Environmentalism. Temperance was another important social movement, but it did not produce durable policy change. The temperance movement weakened, and Prohibition was repealed.


If social change drives eventual policy change, then how do think tanks create social change? My former colleague, Lawrence “Larry” Reed (now president of the Foundation for Economic Education), used to ask his college economics students what one influence, more than any other, determines what kind of public policy citizens will embrace.


Reponses included the media, the economy, teachers, the unions, big business, one’s parents, and a host of others. But none of those was correct. People and the institutions they create, Larry explained, play important roles, but they do not explain fundamentally why people behave the way they do. The answer to that question is ideas.


The author Victor Hugo famously wrote that ideas are more powerful than all the armies of the world. Ideas create the stage on which all of us perform. Nearly everything that surrounds us, whether it’s an object, an institution, or a way of doing things, is the result of someone’s idea.


Perhaps the most influential economist of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes, wrote this in 1936:


 … the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. … Soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

                                                       - The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money


So are we simply at the mercy of nameless, faceless intellectual forces? Or is there a way to channel ideas to accomplish the mission of better public policy?


Economist F.A. Hayek understood how ideas shaped society. Hayek advised against involvement in politics alone for those who wanted more liberty. He believed it was the intellectuals who determined how the politicians would ultimately act.


In “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” Hayek called these intellectuals “secondhand dealers in ideas.” He didn’t mean it pejoratively. He merely recognized that very, very few people generate ideas that are truly unique. Almost all of the other intellectuals contribute by developing and communicating the ideas and expanding the influence of those ideas along the way.


In society, ideas move from the idea-initiators—very rare people—to “secondhand dealers” like those in the think tanks and elsewhere, to the culture at large, and finally to the political class.


But new ideas are seldom met with open arms at any stage, especially by those whose livelihoods depend on the old ideas. The ideas that are eventually adopted typically meet with responses that generally progress like this:


• Indifference


• Ridicule


• Rejection


• Attack


• Criticism


• Plausible, or partial, consideration


• Tolerance


• Desirability


• Necessity


• Inevitability


• Acceptance


• “I knew it was a good idea all along.”



Commentator Joshua Treviño has boiled down the political progression of ideas to these six steps:


• Unthinkable


• Radical


• Acceptable


• Sensible


• Popular


• Policy



This may be how ideas flow through the public policy process, but what force drives the ideas through their phases?


Hayek is said to have likened politicians to corks bobbing in the ocean, saying a think tank could be the current. A similar analogy would be that politicians are to think tanks as actors are to script-writers. Both analogies are gross simplifications and even exaggerations, but they help explain the effect of forces that are always there but hidden from view.


A good illustration of how think tanks influence the movement of ideas is called the Overton Window, a term my colleagues and I gave to a theory of change developed by the Mackinac Center’s late vice president, Joseph Overton. Joe observed that any collection of public policies within a policy area, such as education, can be arranged in order from more free to less free (or alternatively, from less government intervention to more). To avoid comparison with the left-right political spectrum, he arranged the policies from bottom (less free) to top (more free).


At any one time, some group of adjacent policies along the freedom spectrum fall into a “window of political possibility.” Policies inside the window are politically acceptable, meaning officeholders believe they can support those policies and survive the next election. Policies outside the window, either higher or lower, are politically unacceptable at the moment. If you shift the position or size of the window, you change what is politically possible.


Many believe that politicians move the window, but that’s actually rare. In our understanding, politicians typically don’t determine what is politically acceptable; more often they react to it and validate it. As noted, policy change follows political change, which itself follows social change. The most durable policy changes are undergirded by strong social movements.


When social and political forces bring about change, the window of political possibility shifts up or down the spectrum and can also expand to include more policy options or shrink to include fewer. The window presents a menu of policy choices to politicians: from their point of view, relatively safe choices are inside the window and politically riskier choices (or bolder ones, if you prefer) are outside.


Lawmakers who support policies outside the window are one of two kinds: true leaders who have the rare ability to shift the window by themselves, and politicians who risk electoral defeat because they are perceived as out of touch.


The Overton Window doesn’t describe everything, but it describes one big thing: Politicians will rarely support whatever policy they choose whenever they choose; rather, they will do what they think they can do without risking electoral defeat, given the current political environment shaped by ideas, social movements, and societal sensibilities.


The work of think tanks typically includes analyzing various approaches to public policy, publishing research and commentary, and speaking and conducting educational forums about the policy ideas. Quite often, the ideas are not yet politically feasible. But the Overton Window shows how those ideas can become public policy.


Moments of political opportunity are often times of crisis and rapid change. Another great 20th century economist, Milton Friedman, well understood the role of think tanks and intellectuals. He wrote in 1962:


Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

                                                                                                                  – Capitalism and Freedom


The role of a think tank in creating public policy will never be as direct as that of an elected official, but it is no less real and no less important. In fact, think tanks may ultimately be more influential than public officials themselves.


Author John J. Miller wrote this about the influence of think tanks for Philanthropy Magazine in 2006:


Think tanks are perhaps best at creating conditions for success, as opposed to being directly responsible for the success itself. The manager of a baseball team … can make his team’s victory or defeat either more or less likely based upon choices he makes before anybody swings a bat. Likewise, it is nearly always impossible to draw a straight line from the product of a think tank to the enactment of a specific policy.


Political actors cannot operate independently of the idea-generators. The better you understand the way think tanks work, the better you will be able to advance worthwhile ideas to fruition through the public policy process.



Joseph G. Lehman is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an independent, nonprofit research and educational institute based in Michigan. The Mackinac Center is the largest of more than 50 affiliated think tanks that focus primarily on state economic policy. Previously, Lehman served as vice president for communications at the Cato Institute in Washington, then as Mackinac’s executive vice president before becoming its president in 2008. Through the Mackinac Center’s biannual Leadership Conference, he has trained more than 600 think tank executives from 47 states and 47 countries in strategic planning, communications, and fundraising. He is a director of the Chicago-based Sam Adams Alliance, the Legislative Education Action Drive Foundation, which studies school choice, and USA Votes, a firm that provides public access to legislative data.

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