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.


I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means….

Rand Paul has assumed the mantle of libertarianism from his father Ron, and in all fairness, espouses some positions that are consistent with libertarian philosophy. But he’s anything but a genuine libertarian.

Peacock Panache recently reported on a Paul presentation at a private prayer breakfast sponsored by Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network:

Paul told those in attendance at the breakfast he supports an intertwining of religion in government. “The First Amendment says keep government out of religion,” he said. “It doesn’t say keep religion out of government.”

Tell that to any Constitutional scholar who has done even a little research into the workings of the Establishment Clause and see how it goes over.

Continuing his pseudo-sermon Paul continued, “In fact, the moral crisis we have in our country, there is a role for us trying to figure out things like marriage, there’s also a moral crisis that allows people to think that there would be some sort of other marriage.” He continued, “We’re the most disconnected city on the planet from the people. So don’t have a lot of faith in what’s going on up here.”

Paul has the solution though. “We need a revival in the country,” Paul told an attentive audience that agreed with his every word. “We need another Great Awakening with tent revivals of thousands of people saying reform or see what’s going to happen if we don’t reform.”

There are two ways to interpret this nod to religious hegemony. It may be that Paul really has no idea what authentic libertarianism is, or it may be that he is intellectually dishonest and willing to pander to the prejudices of his audience. (The two interpretations, of course, aren’t mutually exclusive.) Either way, he’s disqualified from holding a government position. (Not that disqualification matters much these days–if we held lawmakers to an intellectual honesty standard, most of Congress would be gone.)

Paul also opposes reproductive rights and  same-sex marriage, for example–positions at odds with libertarian philosophy but virtual litmus tests for the GOP’s Evangelical base.

Just for the record, Rand, the libertarian principle that emerged from the Enlightenment (and upon which this country was largely founded) celebrated individual autonomy: the right of each individual to establish and pursue his own life goals, free of interference by government or popular majorities, unless and until that individual harms the person or property of a non-consenting other–and so long as he is willing to respect the equal right of others to do the same.

Now, I realize we can all debate what constitutes harm, but when you aren’t even willing to respect the right of other people to live in accordance with beliefs contrary to yours, you’re an authoritarian, not a libertarian.

Google it.


The Rabbi Had a Point

One of my favorite stories is the one about the Rabbi of a small shtetl, or village, who was asked to mediate a quarrel between two residents. He listened to one side intently, then said, “yes, you are right.” Then he listened to the other man’s position, and said “yes, you are right.” A bystander protested. “Rabbi, they can’t both be right!” To which the Rabbi replied, “You also are correct.”

What I love about that story is that it underscores a point often missed in our toxic political culture: no one has a monopoly on being right. Or wrong. As I frequently remind my students, reality can be complicated. The right answer will often depend on context, on factual distinctions and how the question is framed.

Over the weekend, I read David Brooks’ new book, The Social Animal and it reminded me of the Rabbi’s lesson. The book is excellent; it deserves the plaudits it has received. I don’t necessarily agree with every conclusion he draws from the considerable research he has consulted about the nature of the human animal, but his is a plausible, reasonable reading of available evidence.

At the end of the day–for me at least–the book made a case for a more social, more communitarian approach to government. I have long been leery of communitarianism, the argument that we are all socially embedded creatures who require an agreement about the ultimate ends of life. (The practical problem with communitarians is that many of them tend to be statists who would hand over to government the power to choose our life goals.   Marxists tried that and it wasn’t pretty.)

On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that we have traveled a very long way toward radical individualism, and those results aren’t pretty either.

If the Rabbi were mediating this debate, he might say to the libertarians among us  “You are right that the state should not prescribe your beliefs and social behaviors.” He might also say to the communitarians “You are right that humans need a community to be a part of, a community that you help support and that helps support you”

Onlookers might protest that both things can’t be right, but in this case, I think they would be wrong.