The Information Warriors

The American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Brookings Institution, the Urban Institute, and the National Center for Policy Analysis. Who are they? Some of America's "think tanks." What are they? In the battle of public policy ideas, they are the information warriors, and they are changing the way America thinks.

In times past legislators often relied on academics and industry-supported researchers to supply them with information and answers about some of the leading public policy questions. But increasingly both liberal and conservative legislators are turning to private, non-profit research institutes, commonly known as think tanks, for the information they need to carry on the public policy debates.

Most of the public policy debates in Congress and in the state legislatures begin as ideas about what the "good society" should be like. For example, should the government ensure that everyone has a right to health care, free education, and a good job? Or should we be a society of limited government? Should the government, through its economic policies, try to create an egalitarian society? Or should it be indifferent as to who the winners and losers are, and just ensure that everyone plays by the rules?

The founders of most think tanks had some vision of that good society when they formed their organizations, and that vision usually pervades the institutes' policy recommendations. So the analyses they produce have been well thought through.

As a result, the ideas behind public policy proposals and the debate over the social or economic impact of those proposals are increasingly being fought between these new centers of influence.

For example, the Clinton health care plan. The legislative defeat of the Clinton health care plan came in September and October of 1994, but the ideological battle was fought for the two preceding years between liberal think tanks that supported the plan and free-market think tanks that opposed socializing the American health care system.

On this issue, the free-market think tanks won a clear and decisive victory. But for the longest time, they were the only troops in the field. The media were absolutely convinced that some version of the Clinton plan would pass, and even some conservative Republicans thought they saw the handwriting on the wall. National organizations such as the American Medical Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which should have vehemently opposed the plan, cozied up to the administration in order to get a "seat at the table."

By contrast, the National Center for Policy Analysis (with which I am associated), the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and several other research institutes immediately raised questions about the plan and began to provide in-depth analysis of the economic problems that would arise if the Clinton plan were implemented. Those educational efforts laid the groundwork for the American people's utter rejection of the Clinton plan.

Currently, Medical Savings Accounts are the most controversial health care issue before Congress. MSAs are tax-free personal savings accounts used to pay for small and routine medical care, while a catastrophic health care policy pays for major expenses.

While the battle rages today, the idea is not new. As far back as 1984, the National Center for Policy Analysis was promoting a variation of this idea, which was eventually endorsed by a number of think tanks across the country and passed into law by nearly 20 states.

In addition, the educational efforts about MSAs has resulted in perhaps 2,000 businesses adopting some version of an MSA plan. As a result, a whole new market for health insurance has arisen, spurring the industry, especially the small-and medium-size insurance companies, to consider innovative ways to meet the demand.

But these battles were small compared to what is coming. Both liberal- and conservative-oriented think tanks are gearing up for two of the biggest public policy battles yet – privatizing Social Security before it becomes insolvent and reforming the income tax system to make it fairer, less complex, and more conducive to economic growth.

Both battles will make the past debates look mild by comparison. It may be years before we are able to reform either system, but the debate is beginning now as the think tanks prepare their arguments.

In the '60s and '70s, the liberal think tanks were winning the public policy battles. In the '80s and '90s, the conservative institutes have had the upper hand.

Now, more than ever, think tanks matter. They are influencing our economy and our society as they develop the ideas behind the policies that drive the politics of America.