All Commentary
Sunday, September 1, 1991

Book Review: The Idea Brokers: Think Tanks and The Rise of the New Policy Elite by James A. Smith

The Free Press, Front & Brown Streets, Riverside, NJ 08375 1991 • 334 pages • $24.95 cloth

William F. Buckley Jr. said he’d rather be governed by the first thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty. Buckley thus echoed the thought of Woodrow Wilson, himself a former professor and president of Princeton University. Said New Jersey Governor Wilson on the campaign trail for the U.S. Presidency in 1912: “What I fear is a government of experts.”

Government of, by, and seemingly for experts is what we apparently have today. In spades. In all shades of opinion, and frequently at cross-purposes. Franklin D. Roosevelt had his “Brain Trust,” John F. Kennedy his “Best and Brightest,” and Ronald Reagan his ideological warriors from the Hoover Institution on the West Coast to the Heritage Foundation on the East Coast.

Indeed, in this reportorial and rather ideology-free write-up of think tanks, James A. Smith comes up with the first history of expert advisers in American politics, tracing the rise of what has become a semi-autonomous class of influential officials and scholar-analysts.

Take the late Arthur Burns as a case in point: Rutgers and Columbia professor of economics, president of the National Bureau of Economic Research (an early think tank still going strong), president of the American Economic Association, chairman of Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisers, Nixon’s Domestic Policy Adviser, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Reagan’s ambassador to West Germany, and amid these various Republican assignments, i.e., during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter Administrations, a distinguished senior scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute—a sort of safe haven for dispossessed Republican thinker-officeholders—just as the Washington-based Brookings Institution has been a safe haven for dispossessed Democratic thinker-officeholders such as Alice Rivlin and Charles Schultze. Today, notes author Smith, former program officer at the Twentieth Century Fund and history professor at Smith College, and now an adjunct faculty member of the New School for Social Research, there are more than 1,200 think tanks in the United States, including around 100 in Washington, D.C., alone. In addition, there are literally thousands of university- and college-based research institutes.

These organizations aim to focus much of this brain-power on national, State, and local issues. For instance, the Conservative New York-based Manhattan Institute tackles, among other things, local New York City and New York State issues. The conservative Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation mainly tackles North Carolina issues. And the liberal Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies proffers government solutions to national problems such as poverty, pollution, and the homeless, adding to the war of ideas.

When all these think-tank warriors are not teaching university courses or serving on expert commissions, they function as witnesses before Congressional and state legislature committees, drafters of legislation, writers of newspaper columns, commentators on national and local television, ghost-writers for political figures, and political gurus and pontificators in general.

Which brings us back to Wilson’s fear of a government of experts. For with all this brain-power, how come America is so mired in a wide range of long-term problems such as pyramiding national debt, rising teenage pregnancy, and skyrocketing crime rates? Think-tank erudition is impressive, but does it add up to wisdom and vision?

For, in the final analysis, aren’t premises pivotal? James A. Smith recalls, for example, the erudition of Richard T. Ely, an economist at Johns Hopkins University and a founder of the American Economic Association. In a draft prospectus for the AEA, Dr. Ely wrote circa 1884: “We report the State as an educational and ethical agency whose positive aid is an indispensable condition of human progress.” Laissez faire is, he continued, “an inadequate explanation of the relation between the State and its citizens.”

Once again, we find, ideas have consequences. []

Dr. Peterson, former speech-writer for Richard Nixon and senior economic adviser to the U.S. Commerce Department, is an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation and the Lundy Professor of Business Philosophy at Campbelt University in Buies Creek, North Carolina.

  • William H. Peterson (1921-2012) was an economist, businessman and author who wrote extensively on Austrian Economics. He completed his PhD at New York University in 1952 under the supervision of Ludwig von Mises.