Think tanks are more about the tanking of democracy than thinking in politics.
Political campaigns are costly. Politicians need money to get elected. They must ask themselves, “How can I incentivize people to give me money?” The answer: by promising to represent their interests, to legislate in ways that consider those interests and thus give the humble masses a voice in democracy. But that isn’t all they can do, as an article in The Guardian informs us.
The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a British, right-wing think tank, “has been offering potential US donors access to government ministers and civil servants as it raises cash for research to support the free-trade deals demanded by hardline Brexiters.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An entry point to the secret place where business can be done with no supervision or interference
This article highlights several key issues. The most obvious is that politicians have no trouble understanding that “access” is a clearly monetizable commodity. The entire lobbying system is based on that principle. In a democracy, everyone has theoretical access to the politicians they elect. You can always “write to your congressman,” MP or other representative and even request a meeting — which will most likely be refused, since time is literally money. Politicians put in place filters to prevent wasting time on solicitations that produce no other effect than transmitting one person’s point of view.
Lobbyists, on the other hand, provide a range of services, from restaurant invitations and “working” holidays in the tropics to the drafting of legislation, leaving the politician free to spend more time on the phone fundraising. These gestures provide so much value to the politician that he or she can only be beholden to those who have so generously offered their services. They must then find appropriate ways of expressing their gratitude, from a smiling, deferential “thank you” to attaching a convenient rider to a bill, drafted in such a way that it just happens to help the business interests of the lobbyist’s employer.
The “access” mentioned in The Guardian article goes beyond the pragmatics of traditional lobbying. In IEA Director Mark Littlewood’s own words, access represents the opportunity for the interested party to say, “Minister, I’m really keen to bend your ear about beef.” He isn’t referring to an invitation to Simpson’s on the Strand (known for its delicious prime rib), but rather to the kind of global trade deal that makes fortunes and that can potentially be spread to all interested parties.
But there’s another issue the article hints at but doesn’t develop, one that has been dominating the news cycle over the past 18 months: foreign interference in another country’s political system. The example cited shows not only the mechanics of American commercial interests attempting to wangle privileges from a British minister, but also a form of ideological “collusion” thanks to which American money conveniently appears to influence the Brexit debate.
Finally, the article reminds us of two facts that should be evident. First, the real work of politics resembles a private club where money and power can conduct a discreet dialogue, beyond the reach of open political debate. Second, think tanks are not about thinking at all, but about pushing an agenda from which critical thinking is excluded.
When John de Boer of the United Nations University asked the president of one think tank, “What are think tanks good for?” the response to his question was, “influence peddling, in the best sense of the term.” And to specify what the “best sense” meant, the ever optimistic de Boer summarized it as “pushing for change through ideas and networks.”
He naively assumes that “change … ideas and networks” are all positive concepts, justifying the work of think tanks and making “influence peddling” a respectable activity. It takes him six paragraphs to notice that, “Unfortunately, there have been instances when ideologically driven Think Tanks supported misguided ideas that shaped how governments understood the world.” De Boer illustrated this with the example of the disastrous and unjustified 2003 invasion of Iraq, which of course represented a “change” (regime change), implemented an “idea” (enforced democracy in the Middle East), and employed a “network” (the coalition of the willing).
Bruce Bartlett, a former US Treasury Department economist who worked for the conservative Heritage Foundation, in 2010 penned an article in Forbes summing up the post-war history of think tanks. He concludes that “the pressure on researchers to conform to partisan political objectives is going to become even more intense” and points out that researchers are increasingly “expected to function as de facto lobbyists.” The title of his article is “The End of Think Tanks,” which in the words of Hamlet would be “a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
When, across the political spectrum, “thinking” translates as “propaganda” and the key to spreading “ideas” is “access,” some may find it difficult to keep believing that the word “democracy” still has some real meaning.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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