Centrism and objectivity

Starting with questions and looking for answers is different from starting with answers and framing the questions to fit.

In answer to my plea for a distinction between real and fake “think tanks” , Max Sawicky points out that there are competent people doing good work for advocacy groups, and accuses me of confusing centrism with objectivity.

Of course Max is right that not all product coming out of advocacy groups is tainted: Doug Besharov does terrific work at AEI, even though John Lott is also allowed to hang his hat there. But AEI didn’t hire Besharov as the best welfare thinker around — though he may be precisely that — but as the best conservative welfare thinker around. If Besharov became an advocate of massive income redistribution, he’d have to find another place to work, because advocating massive income redistribution is not what AEI does.

That’s the distinction I was trying to make. A real think tank such as RAND or the Urban Institute, just like a university, would be delighted to have a scholar of Besharov’s quality around, no matter what conclusions he reached. A phony think tank will tolerate a real scholar, but only if his conclusions fit the organization’s preconceptions.

Centrism has nothing to do with it. The Progressive Policy Institute, the DLC’s “research” arm, is about as “centrist” as it could be, and puts out some stuff I agree with, but no one should confuse it with a genuine research enterprise. (They’ve even been kind enough to publish some of my work, but I wouldn’t expect them to publish something I wrote that didn’t fit the PPI “line.”) George Mason University is a center of conservative thought, but no professor there is going to get fired for expressing inappropriately liberal ideas.

Max is right that “everyone has an ideology.” But not everyone gives preference to ideology over analysis when the two clash. No one succeeds in being perfectly objective. But there’s a difference between trying and not trying.

There’s nothing wrong with having advocacy organizations, and if some of them decide to sponsor real research, so much the better. I merely want newspapers to distinguish between groups that start with questions and groups that start with answers.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com