Remembering Murray Weidenbaum Honoring the economist who taught us those we disagree with are not monolithic

The late Murray Weidenbaum was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, honorary society, in 2007 but not on the first attempt. It should have been easy for such an accomplished and noted economist to be voted in by the Academy’s Fellows. Doubtless, the cause for a good deal of the resistance to Weidenbaum was because he was a conservative who had worked in the Nixon and Reagan administrations.


Professor Weidenbaum

A large swath of the American intelligentsia, such as those who are fellows in the Academy, identifies itself as liberal. And there is the problem: replication as a form of self-affirmation; or the “I vote only for candidates who reflect my beliefs and values” syndrome of small-mindedness. As baseball executive Branch Rickey once said, “Men who do only what they want to do can become very narrow.” To paraphrase: People who think only people who reflect their political views can be virtuous and worthy of honor are not only narrow, but irresponsible.

How can anyone trust the judgment of those who think their opponents are somehow lesser people than themselves? Only in the delusion of politics can people believe in, indeed become hypnotized by, the moral power of their own petty hatreds upon which the future of the world—contrary to their view—does not depend.

In any case, the Academy finally, to use a phrase, “did the right thing” and elected Weidenbaum. It was fitting for a man, who, when I would see him, sometimes unexpectedly or surprisingly, at various events on campus, displayed an ennobling curiosity and willingness to engage matters that seemed far afield from economics. I doubt if it was some sudden realization of this on the part of fellows, or how much respect Weidenbaum had for some liberal assumptions and ideas, that finally got him in. It was probably, as most things in life are, a matter of timing and positioning: He was in the right category in the right year, at last. (I am surely being too cynical; sometimes in life, just when you expect people to break your heart, they actually restore your faith in the possibility that we are more decent than we know. It was a sign of how much Weidenbaum was esteemed by his Washington U colleagues that those who were in the Academy did all they could to assist his candidacy.) It is “mighty fine,” as a relative of my wife used to say, when something nice happens to a worthy person who doesn’t even seek it. No one knows that she or he is being considered for election to the Academy, so you can’t lobby on your own behalf to get in.

How can anyone trust the judgment of those who think their opponents are somehow lesser people than themselves? Only in the delusion of politics can people believe in, indeed become hypnotized by, the moral power of their own petty hatreds upon which the future of the world—contrary to their view—does not depend.

A few years ago, while I was director of the Center for the Humanities and writing a regular book column for our monthly newsletter, The Figure in the Carpet, I reviewed David Horowitz’s The New Leviathan: How the Left-Wing Money Machine Shapes American Politics and threatens America’s Future. At that time, I thought of pairing it with Weidenbaum’s The Competition of Ideas, on the grounds that here were two conservatives, although conservatives of very different temperaments and backgrounds, different conservatives altogether, some might argue, writing books that dealt, in part, with structural mechanisms that enabled some segments of the American intelligentsia to extend the reach of their ideas. I changed my mind, thank goodness. The books were simply too different to yoke together in any way that would have useful to readers. My main idea in putting them together was that both were about the necessity and the cost of giving activist platforms to intellectuals. But that was not enough to make a plausible case for putting the books together, even as studies in contrast: Weidenbaum was an academic who dealt in public policy, which necessitates a certain amount of activism in order to promote the “competition of ideas” that will result in policy change. Horowitz is a polemicist, who distrusts the scholar-activist as someone who corrupts his or her scholarship in the cause of the activism and over-esteems his or her activism as a romanticized gesture to resistance as a form of relevancy. This crucial difference, this contrast, made the books’ POVs and aims so distinct as to render a joint consideration of them to be too labored to be worth the effort. Also, the books’ subjects were different: Horowitz mostly focused on grant-making foundations like Ford, Rockefeller, MacArthur, and the like; Weidenbaum examined think tanks, specifically five think tanks in Washington, D.C., Heritage, American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  So, I reviewed Horowitz’s book alone because it had more “juice” of the sort that can get a casual reader perked up as if shot through with caffeine, “riled, righteous, or reconciled,” as my sister used to say.

I re-read Weidenbaum’s book upon learning about his death, finding in it the same lean, attractive qualities of the first reading: a judicious overview of the subject that seemed trustworthy and unaffectedly informative, rather than dramatic and partisan (the latter qualities have their uses, but polemicists make every subject feel as if it is being rinsed in the floodwaters of the apocalypse), and an occasional glimpse of humor.  Weidenbaum’s book is not an exposé of think tanks—as someone with a long involvement with them, I suppose he could have written such a thing—he cares about them as institutions too much to cheaply sensationalize them. Rather, the book is a plain explanation of what they are and their effectiveness.

As Weidenbaum writes, “ … it is useful to understand that the basic strength of think tanks does not lie in their political or economic power. Rather, it is in the weight given by public policy decision makers to their expertise, the cogency of their arguments.” Weidenbaum then goes on briefly to describe the four stages of the public policy process: the development stage (where think tanks can play an important role), the politicization stage (generating attention for the idea, another important role for think tank scholars), the legislative stage (think tank scholars often testify before Congressional committees), and the implementation stage (think tanks can play a role in drafting actual rules and regulations for making a piece of legislation functional). Despite the fact that think tanks can, and often do, play a role in every stage, they are more likely to have a presence in the first two stages, developing and selling ideas. Also, as Weidenbaum makes clear, no matter how active certain think tanks may be in pressing a particular public policy initiative, they are likely to be minor players overall. Events (the Enron scandal, Three Mile Island, any particular election year), advocacy and special interest groups by the score, business interests, and other factors are likely to be far more significant in shaping public policy. This short passage effectively presents the public policy process as complicated, even messy, rather long and drawn out (from the time an idea is developed to its becoming a law may take a decade or more), and nearly all endeavors are seriously challenged at virtually every step. But as Weidenbaum writes later, “Good public policy is arrived at, not by the uncritical adoption of the positions of a self-proclaimed ‘white hat,’ but by the competitive give-and-take among all of the interest groups in the marketplace of ideas.” For Weidenbaum, there are no heroes or saints of the “public interest” in the public policy game. There are simply self-interested factions and actors—some obviously so and some using “the public good” as a pious shield or a moral weapon, a tactic—and they must argue and press their advantage as they can.

The DC-5, the independent think tanks Weidenbaum chose for his book, are arguably the most influential and inarguably among the best funded, with Brookings leading the pack. These think tanks are “much broader based” than most, writes Weidenbaum, their work “[covering] both domestic and international issues, including military and civilian aspects, as well as economic, social, and political matters.” Think tanks are not scholarly monasteries, removed from the world, where fellows just think and write for themselves. Scholars are routinely hired and fired (“not renewed” is the fashionable term); they face enormous pressure to produce work that will have an impact and to do all they can to publicize the work through op-eds, interviews, and the like; they are expected to critique the work of their fellows, to attend talks sponsored not only by their think tanks but talks at other think tanks, at local universities, and at governmental agencies, and they must make the Washington social rounds in order, once again, to attract attention to their work. This is an intensely competitive world, as evidenced by how much the top five think tanks pay their CEOs. When Republican senator Jim DeMint left the senate to become the president of the Heritage Foundation in 2013, his pay jumped from $174,000 to nearly $650,000. Fundraising is constant, and a steady stream of publicized and effective product is necessary for fundraising to succeed. Obviously, scholars who cannot thrive in such a high-wired world as this do not last long at a top-ranked think tank.  CSIS president John Hamre put it succinctly, “We want to change policy, not just write books.”

Weidenbaum discusses the funding of think tanks at great length. Do think tanks’ financial supporters also control the research agencies of each one? Is there research compromised in this regard to say what their sponsors want to hear? Particularly, there is wide-spread belief that business interests control conservative think tanks like AEI and Heritage. But Weidenbaum has found this not to be the case. “Contrary to a widely held impression, none of the five think tanks relies primarily on business funding.” Funding comes from a diversity of sources—in most instances, not the government—sufficiently various to keep any one donor from feeling as he or she is in control. Moreover, Weidenbaum explains that many businesses give to both liberal (Brookings) and conservative think tanks, in part, because businesses are not monolithic and their public policy interests vary widely. One business may support free trade, while another thinks free trade is a disastrous policy. Sometimes, businesses like different policy aspects of various think tanks and, on the surface, their support may seem conflicted or contradictory.  Also, Weidenbaum reminds us being independent means a great deal for these think tanks, not only from other institutions but from being seen as being in someone’s pocket, which could lose them credibility as a scholarly enterprise. (DeMint’s ascendency at Heritage might be a bit problematic in that it is important for Heritage not to be seen as simply a supplier of position papers for the GOP. Among other things, that could threaten their nonprofit status.) Finally, businesses tend to follow ideas rather than pay to create them; so they give money to think tanks that produce what they like rather than pay for a think tank to produce certain things. This discussion is the strongest part of the book where Weidenbaum’s knowledge of D.C., the world of think tanks, and the world of government service (think tank experts move seamlessly back and forth from government work to think tank fellow) provides real depth and persuasiveness to his contentions.

I like The Competition of Ideas very much, learned much from it, and recommend it highly to anyone searching for an informed study of these institutions. Reading it is a nice way to remember Murray Weidenbaum.