My Favorite Think-Tank

Time Magazine recently ran a story about my favorite think-tank, the libertarian Niskanen Center.

In an era where the categories “conservative” “libertarian” and “liberal” are slapped  onto politicians and pundits whose opinions predictably hew to stereotypical expectations, Niskanen’s scholars look at policy proposals through a thoughtful lens that shatters preconceptions about what to expect from people wearing those labels. For example, Niskanen scholar Samuel Hammond co-authored “The Conservative Case for a Child Allowance,” arguing that giving cash to parents would strengthen families, bolster the institution of marriage, and reduce abortions, while at the same time boosting the economy and lessening dependence on the state.

As the Time article notes,

It’s tempting to think there’s no place for serious policy discussion in today’s Washington. Politics is all about culture-war theatrics, Congress seems hopelessly stalemated, and the President can’t even give a State of the Union address without it devolving into a yelling match.

The innovative output of the Niskanen Center is a counter to the belief that no one is interested in serious policy development.

The Time article tells us that Niskanen’s founder came from CATO,  where he had harbored increasing concerns about that organization’s approach to libertarian ideology.

He made common cause with an emerging cohort of thinkers who questioned libertarianism’s traditional home on the right side of the political spectrum. Libertarian values could just as easily lead to an embrace of left-wing causes like same-sex marriage and drug decriminalization, but organizations like Cato tended to ignore those issues in favor of a relentless focus on shrinking government.

I first came across Niskanen when I was researching arguments for and against a universal basic income, and came across a paper written In 2016 by Samuel Hammond.

In his analysis, Hammond had enumerated what, from his and the Center’s perspective, he saw as the “ideal” features of a UBI: its unconditional structure avoids creating poverty traps; it sets a minimum income floor, which raises worker bargaining power without wage or price controls; it decouples benefits from a particular workplace or jurisdiction; since it’s cash, it respects a diversity of needs and values; and it simplifies and streamlines bureaucracy, eliminating rent seeking and other sources of inefficiency.

What I found so refreshing about that perspective–and since then, several other analyses produced by Niskanen–is the absence of what we might call ideological rigidity. Investigations of policy by the Center’s scholars reflect a set of values–values that are libertarian in the original sense of the word.

Today, when we hear “libertarian” we think of the Koch brothers and the rigid, anti-government “let them eat cake” approach of politicians who claim that label. But Niskanen scholars inhabit the real world.As a result, the Center has been able to escape the dreary predictability of the multiple rightwing think tanks that were created to advance pre-ordained political goals, and continue to crank out “scholarship” that is indistinguishable from partisan talking points

.At a time of polarization, Niskanen has become a home for heterodox thinkers from left and right alike. In its D.C. office suite, a former Bernie Sanders campaign staffer is working on proposals to increase access to health-care and disability benefits by simplifying regulations; at the same time, a former staffer at the libertarian Cato Institute is mapping out new ideas for copyright reform. Niskanen’s head of immigration policy is a Republican former national-security lawyer; its head of climate previously worked for an environmental group that was accused of racism for supporting a revenue-neutral Washington state climate initiative. The influential center-left writer Matt Yglesias is a Niskanen fellow; the Times columnist Ezra Klein’s embrace of “supply-side progressivism” echoes many Niskanen ideas. “Niskanen is one of the most provocative, original players in the think-tank world and the ideas space overall,” says Zach Graves, executive director of the Lincoln Network, another heterodox new institute that focuses on technology and innovation.

What I found so encouraging about Niskanen is that, at a time when ideologues of both the Left and Right seem mired in ideological platitudes and automatic, knee-jerk defenses of preordained policy positions, its output and influence demonstrate that new  ideas–rooted in libertarian values moderated by thoughtful evaluation of real-world evidence– can bridge governmental gridlock.

“Liberal democracy is in the balance, right?” says Niskanen’s president, Ted Gayer, an economist who served in the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. “If our government institutions fail, people lose confidence in them. You’re left with populism or you’re left with authoritarianism, but you’re not left with a governing philosophy that is going to help promote public welfare and help government operate more effectively.”

I count myself a fan. Visit the Center’s website and see what you think.