Thankful for Think Tanks; Private Policy Mavens Offer Crucial Balance for a Myopic Government

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 29, 2013 | Go to article overview

Thankful for Think Tanks; Private Policy Mavens Offer Crucial Balance for a Myopic Government


Byline: Richard W. Rahn, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Did you know that there are more than 6,000 think tanks globally, and about 2,000 in the United States? In the past two weeks, two major rankings of think tanks have been released.

A think tank is an organization where scholars and specialists seek to find solutions to problems and then promote their findings. Some think tanks deal with many public policy issues, and others concentrate on one or a few, such as medical care, defense, foreign policy or economic policy. The largest and best-known think tanks often have more than 100 employees with budgets of tens of millions of dollars, while most are small and specialized, with only a handful of employees.

Both the number and size of think tanks has grown exponentially in the past several decades. One reason is the growth of governments, which has created a need for organizations to feed government policymakers with ideas and information - and, more importantly, to fulfill the need for independent research to critique the many bad ideas emanating from policymakers, politicians and the media. For instance, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Peter Wallison, a former general counsel of the U.S. Treasury, has just written a book explaining, with all the supporting evidence, how a politically inspired, false narrative about the financial crisis led to the destructive Dodd-Frank Act and what corrective action is needed.

Another reason for the rise of think tanks has been the failure of most universities to fulfill one of their traditional roles of providing unbiased and sound research to aid government policymakers. Too many schools are now engaged in politically correct group-think rather than free and innovative thought.

There is no totally objective way to rank think tanks, and, not surprisingly, those who presented the most recent rankings took different approaches.

On Jan. 13, the Center for Global Development released its index of U.S. think tanks (note the accompanying chart), which was based on measurable criteria, such as media mentions, Web traffic, social media fans, and scholarly citations per dollar spent. By this measure, the Cato Institute was No. 1.

On Jan. 24, the University of Pennsylvania Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program released its rankings, based on the more subjective opinions of hundreds of journalists, policymakers and think tank employees. By this measure, the Brookings Institution was ranked No. 1 and Cato No. 10. I prefer the Center for Global Development's approach because I am a numbers guy and am biased toward Cato, where I am one of several dozen nonstaff fellows. …

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