Onward! A Talk with Ed Feulner on the Future of Conservative Think Tanks

WHEN HE BECAME PRESIDENT of The Heritage Foundation in 1977, Edwin J. Feulner Jr. decided that the think tank’s research would accomplish more than just chopping down trees and employing librarians. Under Feulner, Heritage pioneered the publishing of research that was relevant to the work of legislators and policymakers, written so concisely and clearly that it could be absorbed in one sitting by non-specialists, and delivered in time to make a difference in the policy process. This “briefcase test” wasn’t Feulner’s only innovation: He made it a priority to market the Foundation’s research aggressively, to run the think tank like a business, and to build a donor base broad enough to ensure it had independence on policy positions. These ideas helped The Heritage Foundation grow from a 26-person research shop in 1977 to the permanent voice for conservative policies that it is today.

Feulner first learned about the work of think tanks in 1964 when, as a graduate fellow at the London School of Economics, he did part-time work for the granddaddy of all free market think tanks, the Institute of Economic Affairs. He has also worked for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Hoover Institution, the Department of Defense, and the United States Congress. In short, Feulner has been at the nexus of ideas and policy for over four decades. As he switches roles—moving from Heritage Foundation President to Chairman of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center—we thought it would be a good time to get his thoughts on the role that think tanks will play in the conservative movement in the 21st century.

The Insider: When Sir Antony Fisher created the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1955, he was following Friedrich Hayek’s advice that the way to change the direction of government policy was to reach the intellectuals, the second-hand dealers in ideas who shape the climate of opinion that in turn constrains the choices of politicians. Does that model of policy change—reach the intellectuals—still make for good guidance for think tanks today?

Ed Feulner: Hayek’s advice about reaching the second-hand dealers of ideas—the intellectuals—to change the range of policy options available to the politicians is still central to the role of think tanks. The role of a think tank, at least in the American context, is not to promote a “party line position,” but rather to promote an understanding of the ideas that undergird alternative options in the policy arena. Yes, ideas do have consequences, particularly when they are put forth in a straightforward, concise, coherent, and relevant way, so that policymakers understand immediately why these ideas are central to their day-to-day activities.

TI: In the past five years or so, the number of channels by which think tanks can engage audiences—YouTube, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, to name a few—has exploded. Does seizing that opportunity risk changing the core focus of the think tank—from thinking big and long term to thinking about how to be relevant to the instantaneous news cycle?

EF: New ways of reaching interested audiences should always be viewed favorably by think tank analysts. If our ideas can stand up to scrutiny, it is more important than ever to get them out in both a timely and a timeless way—timely because they have to relate to real life challenges; timeless because they should be grounded by the principles that the author and his organization share.

It is never enough for think tank analysts or leaders to be content with thinking good thoughts and sitting on the sidelines while policymakers “do their own thing.”

TI: Have think tanks become, as some contend, too politicized in recent years? What is the role of the think tank in the 21st century?

EF: It is never enough for think tank analysts or leaders to be content with thinking good thoughts and sitting on the sidelines while policymakers “do their own thing.” Policymakers can’t do their own thing without outside influences, and the right outside influences from think tanks are good ideas. No, think tanks have not become too politicized. I have long maintained that the role of the think tank is to be involved in policy politics (not in electoral politics!) and that policy politics is what should absorb the attention of elected officials throughout their tenure in office.

TI: In your own “three (I)s” description of the public policy process you talk about the importance of institutions in helping individuals amplify ideas. As technology continues to lower the cost barrier to getting involved in public policy, does the role of think tanks change? To put the question another way: What is the value that a think tank brand will provide to the Robert Rectors and the Hans von Spakovskys of tomorrow?

EF: Those of us who are involved in the policy business and the business of politics should beware lest the phrase “think tank” is used too freely by pressure groups and lobbyists. There is a difference. Yes, I have maintained for a long time that we need ideas, individuals, and institutions. Institutions are more than a paycheck for brilliant analysts or a marketing mechanism for a good policy option. The institution provides continuity and validity to long-term research projects. I have had colleagues at Heritage who have started their professional careers looking at a specific subject—e.g., missile defense or welfare reform—only to be ready for retirement while their issue has still not been resolved. The institution is critical because successor generations can build on the work of their predecessors and can continue to fight the perennial battles to expand liberty.

TI: A few decades ago, Milton Friedman wrote: “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” But the nation had an enormous economic crisis a few years ago, and policy-wise conservatives lost. Government got bigger. Did conservatives fail to have convincing alternatives? Or was Milton Friedman too optimistic about the prospects that sound policies can come out of a crisis?

EF: Thanks for reminding us of this great Friedman quote which I have cited in the past. Both good and bad policy ideas can come out of a crisis. One of my first research projects concerned the nationalization of the British railroads after a real crisis—World War II. It turned out that the Labour Party would have nationalized the British railroads no matter how persuasive the ideas of the opposition (the Conservative Party) were. On the other hand, there have been occasions where crises have led to new and sound policies being implemented both here and overseas. The specific circumstances that surround a crisis—who has the political majority, what is the timing of the public perception of the moment of crisis, etcetera.—always affect this process.

The fact remains if our ideas are not lying around, no politician of any stripe will be able to seriously consider them. If they’re not even being considered, clearly they won’t be implemented.

We need institutions that deal with problems at a level as close to the individual as possible.

TI: Some conservatives—though not the ones at The Heritage Foundation!—seem content to keep growth in government below growth in the private sector. Wouldn’t a strong push to cut government—cut it in real terms—during normal times make it easier for conservatives to make the free-market/less-government case in a crisis?

EF: Yes, I agree that cutting the real size of government is something conservatives should work toward. However, it seems to be more critical in our constitutional system to return to a principle of subsidiarity or federalism. That is, we need institutions that deal with problems at a level as close to the individual as possible. Meanwhile, any law that is passed should have an automatic sunset provision in it. Every opposition party should automatically have oversight responsibilities and vigorously pursue them over specific programs. All of this is easy to say and hard to do, but it’s what we should be advocating all the time.

TI: Part of the problem with our current politics is that many people have confused crony capitalism with capitalism. How do we correct that confusion?

EF: Alas, crony capitalism is always with us and always dangerous. (Think Teapot Dome scandal of almost 100 years ago, not just Solyndra of recent days.) The operation of the market and the rule of law can prevent crony capitalism from being the norm. As principled conservatives, we have to insist on all parties (including unelected bureaucrats) being bound by the rule of law.

TI: Many state-based think tanks in the United States are in a peculiarly challenging situation. They appear to be on the front lines of many of the major policy fights. But on a number of these issues—Medicaid in particular—state lawmakers are simply responding to the inducements of federal policy. Do you have any thoughts on what free market think tanks at the state level can do to change the incentives driving growth in government?

EF: If we are going to return to a real and active federal system, clearly our sister organizations at the state and local level will be more important than ever. At the same time, they should appreciate that any source of “new federal funds” brings with it the corresponding new federal controls. If, for example, Richmond is going to get $90 million in additional federal money for an existing government program for an investment of only $10 million, then members of the state legislature and the governor must be aware that the marginal 10 percent is still coming out of the pockets of state taxpayers, so it isn’t really free money. Ultimately, none of the money is free anyway, since all state taxpayers are federal taxpayers, too. Secondly, the control that goes with those additional expenditures will weigh on the state level bureaucracy long after the inducement of additional dollars is gone.

Right now, with ObamaCare, the new Dodd-Frank regulations on the financial sector, and higher marginal tax rates, the trend line is not up.

TI: Is the nation freer, about the same, or less free today than it was 40 years ago when you first came to Washington, D.C.?

EF: I believe we are more free today than we were 40 years ago. Forty years ago with a Republican in the White House, we had wage and price controls, higher tax rates, and a less vibrant economy than now. We are probably less free today than we were 30 years ago when Reagan’s tax cuts were taking effect and the economy was advancing at a great rate. So, making time comparisons is difficult. The question is: Which way is the trend line going? Right now, with ObamaCare, the new Dodd-Frank regulations on the financial sector, and higher marginal tax rates, the trend line is not up. That’s the primary reason why we conservatives need to sharpen our arguments and expand our activities.

TI: You have often advised conservatives in the idea business to not let the urgent crowd out the important. So, could you share with us what you think are the four most important policy goals that conservatives should set for themselves in the next decade?

EF: The four most important policy goals for conservatives over the next decade should be: 1. Reduce the size of government. Conservatives are right: We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem. 2. Rethink our defense capability. The primary function of the federal government is the defense of the nation. The new era will require adequate resources and new thinking for the challenges we face. 3. Reduce tax rates so that the individual controls more of the fruits of his own labor. 4. Restore traditional values so that the nation’s adherence to what is best in our system is more readily achieved by the typical citizen, and is again the norm for everyone.

In short, all three legs of the conservative policy stool—economic freedom, national security, and traditional values—will continue to demand the attention of our citizens.

The challenges will remain great.