catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Think-tanks and social democrats

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Dennis Glover thinks that social democrats are being outspent in the war of ideas. On his estimates, since 1996 the CIS and allied [ideologically, I presume] think-tanks have spent $45 million influencing the direction of public debate in Australia, while social-democratic think-tanks (‘those broadly aligned with the ALP’) have spent just $1.5 million. He says:

Ultimately, Australian social democracy’s weakness comes down to this: how can social democrats hope to seriously influence the direction of the nation when they’re being out-spent 30-1 in the development and marketing of new political ideas?

The $45 million sounds a bit on the high side, but the crucial issue here is not that the right spends more than the left. As Rafe suggested yesterday if we took into account all the resources available to social democrats compared to all the resources available to classical liberals the former would have vastly more – an overwhelming majority of academic social scientists (except for economists, where there are merely lots of social democrats), the research departments of various lobby groups (remember Peter Saunders’ conflicts with the Vinnies (pdf)?) and unions, plus the small Labor-oriented think-tanks. In most of the policy areas where the CIS is active we are greatly outnumbered.

The key question social democrats need to ask themselves is not how do we match the right’s dollars but how do they do so much on so little?

There are no doubt some lessons for social democrats in organisational structure. Though universities have research resources think-tanks can only dream of, they are not organised to put the resulting research into public debate. To the contrary, they aim for publication in academic journals that no ordinary member of the public could afford even if they could understand the academic prose. The CIS has an entirely different strategy. Most of what we publish is can be downloaded for free, the rest is priced at the lowest possible amount given production costs, and it is written so that the intelligent layperson can understand it (or even the not-so-intelligent layperson, in the case of some mass media publications). Also, unlike most of the non-academic social democratic research outfits the CIS is organisationally separate from groups that have a vested interest in particular research outcomes: unions, lobby groups, and the ALP itself. This I think helps the CIS do more interesting research, and I think gives it some additional credibility in mainstream opinion.

Organisational structure can be replicated by social democrats. The bigger question for them is what a social democratic think-tank would actually do. In my analysis, successful think-tanks are entrepreneurial – they spot gaps in the ideas market and try to fill them. Social democrats did that in Australia for at least three-quarters of the 20th century (though they weren’t always called that), from helping shape the Australian Settlement in the first decade of the federal parliament to the Whitlam government of 1972-75. Since then they have been preoccupied with the problems of their past success. Actually making institutions work is much harder than thinking up ideas for reform, and by the 1970s and 1980s many institutions of the social democratic state were the targets of intellectual entrepreneurs of the right: state-run business enterprises were inefficient, the labour market wasn’t adaptable enough, public schools were under-performing, and the welfare state was entrenching as well as easing poverty. The more interesting Labor politicians of the last few decades were men like Hawke, Keating, Walsh, and Latham who were trying to find new ways of achieving old social democratic goals of better opportunities and services for working and lower-middle class people.

Since most of the institutions of the social democratic state are still in place, social democratic ideas are perhaps going to seem less exciting than those of their opponents on the right or the left. They are about adaptation and fine-tuning more than throwing it all out and starting again. So perhaps they don’t begin with ideal material for creating newsworthy ideas. But it was interesting that Glover’s article didn’t even raise ideas along these lines that he thought ought to be promoted more effectively than they are. This raises the possibility that social democrats are going about this the wrong way around. The right doesn’t have ideas because it has think-tanks, it has think-tanks because it has ideas that need promoting. Ideas come first, and then you build appropriate organisations around them. And if the ideas aren’t there, no matter how much money social democrats raise for a think-tank or advocacy centre they won’t be as politically effective as the right.


Written by Admin

May 14, 2006 at 8:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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