Bryan Caplan  

Three Themes of the Niskanen Center

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The Niskanen Center has been an engine of idea creation since its foundation in 2014.  I know many of its scholars well.  But I'm still trying to figure out Niskanen's fundamental goal.  Perhaps I'm obtuse, but I detect three distinct - and pretty incompatible - themes.

Theme #1: Open-mindedness.  Instead of rigidly appealing to the libertarian "party line," Niskanen scholars strive to be flexible and pluralist.  Scholars and policy analysts across the political spectrum have useful ideas; let's give everyone a hearing and pick the best.

Theme #2: Pragmatism. Instead of making the best the enemy of the good, Niskanen scholars remember that politics is "the art of the possible."  Achieving minor reforms by assembling diverse political coalitions is a lot better than writing irrefutable essays for the elect.

Theme #3: Liberaltarianism. Instead of sticking to the time-honored "fusionist" alliance between libertarians and conservatives, Niskanen scholars go full "liberaltarian."  They're not merely looking for common ground with liberals.  Instead, they're ready, willing, and eager to admit that on many issues - global warming, poverty, race - the left is largely correct. 

How do these themes conflict?  In every possible logical combination!

1. Open-mindedness vs. pragmatism.  Being flexible and pluralist can help achieve real-world results.  But so can polarization, demagoguery, and loyalty to your long-term political allies.

2. Open-mindedness vs. liberaltarianism.  If you really give everyone a fair hearing, you're not just going to acquire some liberal views.  You're also going to acquire some conservative views.  For example, you might discover that for all its evils, the U.S. criminal justice system isn't racist.  And if you acquire too many conservative views, the budding liberal-libertarian alliance falls apart.

3. Pragmatism vs. liberaltarianism.  Liberals and libertarians see eye-to-eye on many issues, starting with immigration and terrorism.  Sadly, these are also issues where both liberals and libertarians are out of step with mainstream America.   So what should they do?  Quixotically push their shared views - or focus on issues where the audience is more receptive?

Defenders of Niskanen could always appeal to consilience: While its three themes occasionally conflict, such conflict is rare.  If so, I say: Convince me.  Or better yet, bet me.

COMMENTS (12 to date)
Peter H writes:


I think there's a bit of a forest for the trees issue going on here. The fundamental goal of a think tank is to promote a broad policy agenda and convince policymakers to adopt that agenda.

In particular, I see the Niskanen Center as a think tank whose target audience is largely left-of-center (i.e. Democratic party) policymakers. Libertarians already have highly effective think tanks which get broad buy in from right-of-center policymakers. Getting a Republican member of Congress to read a Cato report isn't too hard. But getting a Democrat to read it is quite hard, because they do not trust or respect the Cato institute, due to its longstanding closer relationship with the Republican party, and their negative framing of the rigidly free market libertarianism which it espouses.

If the overarching goal of the Niskanen Center is to present libertarian ideas in an appealing manner to left-of-center policymakers, the three themes above make perfect sense.

Liberaltarianism: You need to grant a bunch of premises that left-liberals consider core to their philosophy if you're going to get your toe in the door. If you begin from the premise that the government has no business relieving poverty, you're not going to get heard on anything else.

Open-mindedness: Looking at the thinkers the people you're trying to influence respect, and seeing which of their ideas you can integrate into your arguments is highly effective. If you want to convince left-liberals of something, it makes sense to validate your ideas through the frameworks they agree with.

Pragmatism: This just makes sense in terms of trying to push policy. A think tank is effective when it can move policy more in the direction it likes, even if it knows there's only half a loaf to get.

I think you've taken the tactical points on which the Niskanen Center has based their strategy and inferred that the tactics are the strategy. It seems clear to me that the strategy is to get Democrats to be more libertarian or at least more willing to listen to libertarians. The tactics are all in service of that strategic goal.

pyroseed13 writes:

Exactly. Their scholars spend a lot of time telling libertarians that they are out of touch with the public on issues of social welfare policy. But similarly, most of the public is not interested in open borders or increasing low skill immigration. Pragmatism would caution against either of those things.

pyroseed13 writes:

"But getting a Democrat to read it is quite hard, because they do not trust or respect the Cato institute, due to its longstanding closer relationship with the Republican party, and their negative framing of the rigidly free market libertarianism which it espouses."

Sorry for the double post here. But as Caplan notes, some of what Niskanen advocates goes far beyond "Hey! Here's a proposal we think would interest people of different political persuasions" and more towards "Actually, liberals are right here and conservatives and libertarians are wrong." I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. It's just that I don't think Democrats are actually their target audience.

Peter H writes:


That sort of post is exactly the type of thing you need to write to get your foot in the door with Democratic politicians and affiliated persons. If you were targeting Democrats for future influence, telling them that they're right and that people they dislike are wrong is extremely effective!

RobertB writes:

Are you really complaining that the themes you claimed Niskansen is following don't add up? Rather than appealing to consilience, couldn't one of their "defenders" just say they're not actually pursuing all of those themes as goals (or that some of the themes are of secondary or merely instrumental importance to others)?

Phil Magness writes:

pryoseed et al -

I think there's a bit of intellectual schizophrenia when it comes to defining their target audience.

Most of their global warming material is explicitly messaged to the right ala "This is why, as conservatives and Republicans, we should come together and support carbon taxes"

Yet you also get the overtly left-leaning "liberaltarian" branding that Bryan mentions above. This is especially true when it comes to their work on the welfare state.

It's not entirely clear what they're trying to be, and there's a pronounced tension with some of their efforts to simultaneously claim the mantle of reasonableness and "pragmatism" while also advancing some fairly dogmatic and inflexible positions on their core issues, like UBI and climate change.

SG writes:


The Scott Alexander piece isn't nearly as sanguine about the color-blindness of the criminal justice system as you suggest:

Overall I disagree with the City Journal claim that there is no evidence of racial bias in the justice system.

But I also disagree with the people who say things like “Every part of America’s criminal justice is systemically racist by design” or “White people can get away with murder but black people are constantly persecuted for any minor infraction,” or “Every black person has to live in fear of the police all the time in a way no white person can possibly understand”. The actual level of bias is limited and detectable only through statistical aggregation of hundreds or thousands of cases, is only unambiguously present in sentencing, and there only at a level of 10-20%, and that only if you believe the most damning studies."

Ben H. writes:

These are very silly objections. Are we to understand that you advocate (a) closed-mindedness, (b) ignoring pragmatism in favor of unrealistic idealism, and (c) pretending that the alliance between libertarians and conservatives is in no way problematic? Come on. The Niskanen Center sounds to me like a much-needed breath of fresh air, and if your post has achieved one positive thing, it is that I now intend to start reading what they have to say.

Oh, and you *really* need to stop citing that Scott Alexander piece in that intellectually dishonest way. You are violating your own claimed principles every time you do that.

RL Styne writes:

No doubt, Bryan. It seems ironic that they choose to name themselves after a leading light in Public Choice, yet their analysis often displays a certain naivete about how the state operates.

Truly confusing.

Luke Simpson writes:

I'm not sure I understand the incompatibility between open-mindedness and pragmatism. Sure, there are pragmatic approaches that don't qualify as open-minded. But there are pragmatic approaches that do qualify as open-minded. You even said so yourself: "Being flexible and pluralist can help achieve real-world results." If your stated goals include both open-mindedness and pragmatism, then this ought merely to restrict your pragmatism to open-minded versions of it, no? Or put another way, to pragmatic versions of open-mindedness. Whichever way you want to look at it, they don't seem strictly incompatible.

James writes:

I wish everyone would just stop calling themselves pragmatic because it's either unnecessary (Everyone wants to have some effect on the world) or dishonest (If you are willing to compromise the things you call your principles for the sake of some other ends, you should explicitly claim those ends as your principles).

RPLong writes:

A key feature of "liberaltarianism" is vociferously signalling open-mindedness and pragmatism. To the extent that liberaltarians actually pursue those themes, then fine; but most often it is just a special use of language aimed at appealing to their particular ideology.

That's why liberaltarians are all developing the same kind of weird terminology, where they over-use phrases like "taking _____ seriously," and "any X properly Y must be Z." It's Nussbaum language - certainly very pretty, but not very meaningful beyond its function as a vocal queue that lets people know you're a liberaltarian.

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