Think tanks – Influence isn’t always about offering practical solutions

Many people say the best way to influence government is to give policymakers practical solutions to problems they care about. According to this perspective, academics and think tanks scholars can get it wrong by spending too much time analysing problems and their causes. Policymakers don’t care about theory, they just want policies and programs that work.

Applied to think tanks, this pragmatic approach means identifying the most important problems policymakers are dealing with and producing products that explain how best to solve them within the constraints of electoral politics, institutional structure and government budgets. In Australia, the Grattan Institute seems to embody this approach. It promotes itself as a source of "Independent, rigorous and practical solutions to Australia’s most pressing problems."

The trouble with this view is that think tank scholars have sometimes succeeded by doing exactly the opposite. For example, Charles Murray is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential think tank scholars in the United States. His accent to influence began in the early 1980s with Losing Ground, a book that rejected the conventional understanding that poverty was the problem and welfare was the solution. According to Murray, welfare dependency was the problem, entrenched poverty was one of its symptoms and the solution was to abolish government welfare programs.

Continue reading

The forgotten issue of drunken pensioners

old man drinking beer

Researchers warn that substance abuse among the elderly will double by 2020, but few journalists or policymakers worry about age pensioners squandering welfare money on alcohol and drugs. Things were different in 1905–6 when a royal commission looked at establishing a Commonwealth funded old age pension scheme in Australia. The commissioners recommended: "That a penalty should be imposed for supplying an old-age pensioner with intoxicating drink."

By 1901 both Victoria and New South Wales had established old-age pension schemes. And it wasn’t long before newspapers were running stories about pensioners spending all their money on drink. According to a 1901 report in Sydney’s Evening News:

Continue reading

What’s the point of Work for the Dole?

Work for the Dole doesn’t work, says economist Jeff Borland. Citing a study he and Yi-Ping Tseng carried out using data from the late 1990s, he argues that it does nothing to create long-term employment opportunities and too little to build skills. But maybe Borland is missing the point. Maybe Work for the Dole isn’t meant to help participants find work.

Continue reading

Did Hayek support a basic income guarantee?

A recent Swiss proposal for a basic income guarantee has sparked interest from commentators on both the left and right. In a discussion of libertarian arguments for the proposal, Bleeding Heart Libertarians blogger Matt Zwolinski suggests that the classical liberal economist Friedrich Hayek supported a basic income guarantee. He relies on a quote from Volume 3 of Hayek’s Law, Legislation and Liberty:

The assurance of a certain minimum income for everyone, or a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself, appears not only to be a wholly legitimate protection against a risk common to all, but a necessary part of the Great Society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the particular small group into which he was born (p 395).

A number of writers, including Zwolinski, his fellow blogger at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Kevin Vallier and Julie Novak of the Institute of Public Affairs seem to interpret this as a proposal for the government to pay every citizen a basic income, regardless of their income, assets or willingness to work. I think this is a misinterpretation of Hayek’s position. What Hayek actually proposed was a means tested scheme restricted to those who are unable to earn a living in the market.

Continue reading

Show don’t tell — What swing voters mean by ‘vision’

When political parties want to convey vision they typically reach for slogans packed with values words like ‘fairness’ and ‘strength’. But according to Ben Shimshon of BritainThinks: "Those grand vision words are almost always taken as a signal that what’s being said is just more ‘politician speak’, and voters’ keenly honed filters screen it out alongside all the other white noise."

Shimson says that parties should try to show rather than tell. What they need is not focus group tested slogans, but a handful of symbolic policies that show voters what the party values and what it thinks needs to change:

Continue reading

Kludge and how think tanks and policy wonks make it worse

Think tank scholars and policy wonks strive to be both practical and clever. Being practical means proposing policies that have a good chance of getting taken up by government in the short term. And being clever means policies that generate big benefits at little or no cost. But according to American political scientist Steven Teles, the short term benefits of practicality and cleverness have long term costs.

Continue reading

Who are the Liberal Democrats?

The Liberal Democrats look set to take a Senate seat in NSW after the party scored the best spot on the ballot paper. A libertarian party, the LDP’s website describes it as a "a serious, progressive, small-government alternative."

The party was formed in 2001 partly as a reaction to the policies of the Howard government. The LDP’s founders "had been exasperated by the Howard approach of big government, high taxes and restrictions on personal freedoms", the party’s Peter Whelan wrote on the Menzies House blog. Writing in the Australian, Cassandra Wilkinson describes the party as the "only group which is comprehensively and philosophically liberal".

Asked about Tony Abbott’s policies, the party’s likely senator in NSW, David Leyonhjelm, said: "We wouldn’t stop him from getting rid of the carbon tax … But when it comes to his big spending plans he may be in trouble, such as direct action on climate change and his paid parental leave – he won’t be getting any support from us."

Continue reading

Egoism and equality

For some people, other human beings are only ever a means to an end. The source of their self-esteem is their ability to realise their own personal vision. They see themselves as powerful creators and believe ideas like empathy, altruism and justice are just tricks the weak use to enslave the strong. As they see it, only those who lack power or self-respect would allow themselves to become servants to the ambitions of another.

The trick modern market societies use to tame egoists is to get them to see money as a natural way of measuring success. The idea that money is both a measure of personal worth and a source of power, convinces egoists to use their talents to serve others rather than dominate them. Because today’s more impersonal market societies are able to harness it for public benefit, they have a higher tolerance of egoism than the communitarian societies of the past.

Continue reading

A neoconservative welfare state?

Nearly "every problem with the Republican Party today could be cured by a neocon revival", says David Brooks. Brooks isn’t talking about the hawkish approach to foriegn policy that urged US military involvement in the middle east, he’s talking about the domestic policy ideas of people like Irving Kristol.

According to Kristol, neoconservatism’s mission is: "to convert the Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy."

In a 1976 essay titled ‘The Republican Future’, Kristol argued that Republican conservatives lacked any coherent set of ideals or a strategy for achieving them. So instead of setting out an alternative vision for the country, Republicans spent most of their time criticising Democrats. In office, they were obsessed with budget balancing. "Republican leaders tend to think like businessmen rather than like statesmen," he said , "and therefore bumble their way through their terms in office."

Because they tended to think like accountants instead of political leaders, Republicans saw their job as rescuing the nation from bankruptcy. As a result they ended up administering a policy and program framework constructed by Democrats. As Kristol explained:

Continue reading