My friend Steve Hayward reignited the dormant and not-that-serious Troy–Hayward family feud last week when he came to the Hudson Institute panel on my National Affairs article asking whether think tanks have become too political.
After the panelists had their say, Steve lobbed a hand grenade (his words) during the Q & A by suggesting that the premise of my article was incorrect. For the text of his entire hand grenade, see his post on Powerline on the subject. The question was a good and thoughtful one, but the feud aspect came up when he began his remarks by reminding the audience and me — as if I needed reminding — of his attack on my brother Gil in the pages of the Weekly Standard in 2005. (Interestingly, his Powerline post did not include Gil’s respectful response, nor did it include Steve’s harsh yet admittedly effective reply to Gil’s response, which is unfortunately not online.)
I will leave it to my brother to defend himself, although I did begin my answer to Steve by stating that his assault on Gil was duly noted and long remembered in the Troy household. In terms of Steve’s actual question — which he acknowledged came down to “a long-winded way of saying, ‘What’s the problem here?’ — I would respond as follows. First, from a national perspective, think tanks have been involved in developing a number of key policy initiatives over the years, including the Marshall Plan (Brookings), deregulation (AEI), and welfare reform (Hudson). All of these important initiatives were not only successful policies, but they also ended up securing bipartisan support, which contributed to their staying power. Contrast this to the unipartisan Obama health-care law, which continues to face judicial and political challenges nearly two years after its passage.
In the case of the successful policies, the think-tank imprimatur helped give them intellectual respectability. In the case of the health law, conservative think tankers helped provide the intellectual firepower that has called much of the problematic law into question. Unfortunately, as I describe in my National Affairs article, the creation of a wave of new think tanks seemingly focused on partisan politics risks diminishing the credibility of all think tanks.
From a conservative perspective, think tanks have been a key part of conservatism’s comparative advantage in the ideas front for the last three decades. This is one of the reasons that many liberal organizations, from the Progressive Policy Institute in the 1980s to the Center for American Progress more recently, have tried to imitate conservative successes in this area. The crux of the advantage stems from the fact that conservative thinkers have tended not to go to the universities because of the inhospitable climate for conservatives there. Instead, they have headed to think tanks. If think tanks become just another area of partisan warfare, and the result is that opinion leaders and governmental officials view all think-tank research as hopelessly partisan, then this diminishes the potency of one of conservatism’s top sources of ideas and argument.
I suspect Steve knows all this, having dedicated his career to working in think tanks and using the think-tank platform to produce an impressive body of books and articles. And even though his hand grenade was a pre-planned attack (as this pre-conference tweet shows), he also said to me afterwards that he decided to pull the pin to get the debate going, especially after he found one of the early questions to be “unpromising.” While I don’t take the Hayward–Troy feud seriously — Steve’s wife Allison and my brother Dan used to work closely together — I would bet that Steve would agree with me that conservatives should take threats to the credibility of conservatism’s most important intellectual resource very seriously.