Thursday, October 11, 2007

Better Than a University

By Richard Vedder

Today's Wall Street Journal has a characteristically thoughtful and well crafted article by Christopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute, in which he announces he is stepping down after more than two decades of running that great organization. Chris has done an extraordinary job of running what I think is one of America's greatest research organizations, one with which I am honored to be associated.

As Chris points one, some of the very best research in America is done outside the walls of universities. As a researcher, I think the environment of AEI is more conducive to doing cutting edge work than that of the typical university. I have long wondered if we should divide the research and teaching functions within universities --perhaps divesting the research functions to a separate organization. This makes more transparent what really goes on with the ivory towers of academia, and, if done properly, might have advantages in improving the research productivity as well.

The question is: why do the think tanks have more influence on the course of public policy developments than do the universities with vastly more resources? I am of the opinion that the think tanks, often "schools" of reasonably like-minded (but still diverse) scholars, have synergies that permit new ideas to percolate better than in the typical university. I am at a meeting of think tanks now, and cannot develop that idea further at the moment, but new research director Andy Gillen shares my interest in evaluating the research functions of universities, and hopefully CCAP will move in that direction.

I have worked or studied at three universities or liberal arts colleges in the top 20 on the US News lists. I have enjoyed my years there. But I have worked no place where the intellectual stimulation, the search for truth, and the civility is greater than at the American Enterprise Institute. In that regard, Chris DeMuth gets a lot of the credit for AEI's development into arguably America's premier free market think tank in terms of its influence in moving the public policy debate in a positive direction.


sciencedoc said...

The think tanks have more influence? Last time I noticed, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve all came from academic posts.

TC said...

Huh? I don't understand your point. Maye you could elaborate?

sciencedoc said...

I'm not sure how to make it clearer. Those are three of the most influential posts in the government. All are filled by academics -- Rice, professor and provost at Stanford; Gates, president of Texas A+M, and Bernanke, professor at Princeton, respectively. Not filled by think tank people.

Another thing I didn't mention. It seems to me that the conservative intellectual movement has become very stale, and it is showing, even in electoral returns. Could this be related to the exodus of conservatives from academia into the think tanks? I'm not at all sure the rise of the think tanks is an unmixed blessing, even for conservatism.

TC said...

I thought the blog was comparing think tanks to universities in producing ideas. Our government doesn't generate ideas - I don't know if members of our government can even think for themselves. The whitehouse administration defines policy (e.g. - domestic & foreign policy). And I don't disagree that the Sec. State and Sec. Def. implement and follow the policy.

But you made a leap from the scope of the blog to present an opposing argument (which is fine with me). And your list is quite incomplete - especially when you leave out our dysfunctional, divisive, do-nothing, congress that couldn't poor piss from a boot if the instructions were written on the heel. Hmmm... sorry... I got a little worked up there.

However, note that the author is not only an academician, but also a member of at least one think tank. Moreover, I can unequivocally attest to the fact that think tanks very much indeed influence policy makers in our government.

I would have left Bernanke out of the list though.

Bottom line... I now understand your argument and don't disagree, but I do believe it is a much larger issue than what was encompassed in the blog.

Sue said...

Don't leave out the policy organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations. Not exactly a "think tank" and certainly not a university, but almost all Secretaries of State (including Rice) have to spend some time as members or fellows of the CFR before being considered for the State appointment. For a discussion of "why" the CFR and think tanks are so influencial, especially on foreign policy see: