Thursday, October 11, 2007

Thoughts on AEI Sayonara From DeMuth

For a very short time I hung out in the office of a friend of Bill Baroody at AEI in a dark marble edifice on 15th St. NW called the "Coal Building" if I remember correctly. Here's a bit of Christopher DeMuth's sign-off message:
By the measures of participation in political debate and generation of influential policy ideas and proposals, the right-of-center think tanks have been stupendous successes. They appear in the national media, liberal as well as conservative, well out of proportion to their numbers and output. AEI essays appear more frequently than those from other think thanks of all persuasions, not only in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal but also those of the New York Times and Washington Post.

What accounts for this growth and prominence? I have tried to explain it to people who have been setting up liberal and leftist think-tanks in recent years, advising them that the secret of success is to go away and spend 30 years in the political wilderness. They have thought I was joking. Let me try again here.

Every one of the right-of-center think tanks was founded in a spirit of opposition to the established order of things. Opposition is the natural proclivity of the intellectual (it's what leads some smart people to become intellectuals rather than computer programmers), and is of course prerequisite to criticism and devotion to reform. And for conservatives, opposition lasted a very long time--in domestic policy, from the New Deal through 1980.

These circumstances meant that the think tanks in their formative years attracted many contrarian characters who were strongly disaffected by some aspect of politics or policy. One of AEI's founders was Raymond Moley, the FDR braintruster who coined the term "New Deal" and then became disillusioned with the project (a liberal mugged by reality long before the 1960s, he was a proto-neoconservative). Milton Friedman was an active AEIer when he was still considered a crackpot in polite academic circles. Robert Bork and Jeane Kirkpatrick worked at AEI long before they became public personalities.

Ideas thrive most under persecution and among intellectual outcasts. DeMuth notes that besides a totally biased and corrupt media environment, another Cerberus head is barking:
My own think-tank slogan is: "No one knows when the Berlin Wall will come down." It is imperative to maintain intellectual sanctuaries in a world where Harvard University forbids the discussion of certain important issues and Columbia University welcomes the contributions of a master terrorist. Our sanctuaries have been instrumental to the expansion of human freedom in recent decades. We are laying the groundwork for further advances--as opportunities arise, as they surely will.

The huge endowments and unwieldy departmental politics of the old universities, with their humanities departments completely suborned by nihilists and post-modernists [is there a difference?], make them shelters for conformists and publish-or-perish types.
To be sure, think tanks--at least those on the right--do not attempt to disguise their political affinities in the manner of the (invariably left-leaning) universities. We are "schools" in the old sense of the term: groups of scholars who share a set of philosophical premises and take them as far as we can in empirical research, persuasive writing, and arguments among ourselves and with those of other schools.

As Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris or Aristotle at the groves of Academe, the think-tanks profess otherness, and shrink from enforcing group-think.
Think tanks aim to produce good research not only for its own sake but to improve the world. We are organized in ways that depart sharply from university organization. Think-tank scholars do not have tenure, make faculty appointments, allocate budgets or offices or sit on administrative committees. These matters are consigned to management, leaving the scholars free to focus on what they do best. Management promotes the scholars' output with an alacrity that would make many university administrators uncomfortable.

When I taught at FIU a few years ago, the common joke was "Academic politics is so vicious because the fights are over so little." And perks, writing up grant proposals, and travel took up the majority of many "academics'" time. Same as when I was an "academic associate" at the University of Chicago. CSIS was a short stint devoted to writing, but the gist is that Think-Tanks are perhaps purer and more pristine sailing vehicles than the heavily-barnacled barges of higher education.

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