In The National Origin of Policy Ideas, sociologist John Campbell and political scientist Ove Pedersen write:
We live in a marketplace of ideas and it’s incredibly competitive. Sometimes experts have tremendous influence. And sometimes they have very little. Some are successful, some are not. The real test of influence is not whether you are generating ideas, but whether the people in power are listening to you.
As our newly released Annual Report attests, I can proudly report that not only has the Niskanen Center been generating an avalanche of fresh and compelling ideas, but that people in power are listening to us. And they are responding accordingly.
As we approach our five-year anniversary next month, I thought I’d fill you in on what we’ve accomplished since we opened our doors in January 2015, discuss our plans for the future, and ask for your help in getting there. The American republic that we’ve inherited is in real danger, and we need your support. If you’re in a position to help, please give through our website and donate now.
Despite our dystopian political environment, I’m increasingly optimistic. As discussed recently by my colleagues Steve Teles and Robert Saldin, there’s good reason to suspect that the polarizing hyper-partisanship and ideological dogmatism that has characterized the last few decades of American politics is likely to soon dissipate. The centrifugal political forces that are driving partisan extremism will open space for, and demand for, political moderation. The Niskanen Center is well-placed to take advantage of the political changes likely to come.
Putting Boots on the Ground
The Niskanen Center is in the policy change business, and that means concentrating our efforts on those who actually make policy change happen: legislators, executive branch officials, senior staffers, and the governing networks of policy advocates and institutional stakeholders in Washington, D.C.
While everyone claims to advance “evidence-based” public policy, we really mean it. Unlike most policy institutions in Washington, we follow the academic evidence wherever it takes us, even if it takes us to ideologically or politically uncomfortable places. We do so, however, while eschewing the technocratic hubris that befalls those who fail to appreciate the incredible complexity of society, the limitations of expert knowledge, and the omnipresent risk of unintended consequence from excessively interventionist public policy.
Equally important, we embrace evidence-based theories about how policy change actually happens. Both theory and practice suggest that policy experts can exert tremendous influence by building strong, long-term relationships with lawmakers and their staff, providing gold-standard analysis to better inform their work, offering well thought-out and politically compelling ideas for policy initiatives, and connecting legislative allies with a network of supporters to move their legislation into law.
The last Congress was proof of concept. The Niskanen Center was centrally involved in informing the policy designs and building the political coalitions required to enact Section 181 of the FAA Reauthorization Act (which opened the regulatory doors to the revival of civil supersonic aircraft), Section 11022 of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (which increased and positively modified the federal child tax credit), and Section 709 of Food and Drug Administration Reauthorization Act (which deregulated the sale of over-the-counter hearing aids).
Alas, this Congress has been less congenial to legislative action. Even so, the Niskanen Center has been centrally involved in informing the ideas animating 22 pieces of legislation (and counting) that would enact carbon taxation and a plethora of initiatives to liberalize immigration law, provide financial support for American families, address the needs of struggling economic regions, and undo a web of regressive, anti-competitive regulations.
These aren’t mere messaging bills. They are concrete legislative proposals with well thought-out policy designs meant to pass in this or some future Congress.
It’s extremely rare for major legislation to pass without bipartisan support, so an ability to work on both sides of the aisle is critical. Accordingly, Niskanen’s legislative efforts attract interest from both Republicans and Democrats, with interest from across the political spectrum (progressive Democrats, moderates in both parties, and Trumpish conservatives). Moreover, the Niskanen Center has been approached for policy advice by almost half of the Republican and Democratic campaign organizations aiming for the White House in 2020. We’ve subsequently seen many of our ideas adopted by various candidates in both parties during this presidential campaign.
Policy change takes time. It demands patient, sustained, and concentrated effort, often requiring a decade or more to see through. Windows of political opportunity for policy change present themselves unpredictably and infrequently, and cannot be willed open. But when they do open, advocates must be ready. At the Niskanen Center, we’re doing the work required to ensure that, when windows for our policy ideas open, we’ll be able to quickly take advantage of them before they close.
Holding Power to Account
Policy change isn’t just a matter for the legislature. It can also be a matter for the judiciary, and policy advocates need to be prepared to engage in both arenas. The Niskanen Center accordingly maintains a robust legal operation, filing amicus briefs and serving clients pro bono in the course of defending constitutional rights and the rule of law.
Niskanen’s eminent domain litigation project—which aims to protect landowners’ property rights from abuse by oil and gas pipeline companies that seek to seize land for their projects without providing due process or just compensation—is at the center of a growing national movement. We’re engaged in multiple cases across the country, filing meaningful amicus briefs and representing affected landowners.
We’re likewise involved in a growing movement to hold fossil fuel companies financially responsible for climate related damages. The Niskanen Center is representing Colorado’s Boulder County, San Miguel County, and the city of Boulder in an action to hold ExxonMobil and Suncor liable for the costs their products impose on those local governments. While this action is no substitute for climate legislation, it’s perfectly consistent with the longstanding proposition in common law that those responsible for damages should be held accountable for the same.
We’re also involved in multiple cases to defend the rule of law against assaults from the Trump administration. Among the most important is our partnership with Protect Democracy and various other firms to represent the city of El Paso and the Border Network for Human Rights. That city has filed a lawsuit against the national emergency declaration by the President, and his related attempt to reallocate military construction funds to build a wall on the southern border. We secured a victory in federal court on October 11, and on December 10, that same court issued a nationwide injunction against the use of those funds to build a border wall while the case works its way through the judicial system.
We’ve also filed amicus briefs in three of the Emoluments Clause cases alleging that the President is accepting illegal payments from foreign governments through diplomats patronizing the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. The 4th Circuit dismissed one of those cases on standing grounds, but has since vacated that decision and granted en banc review by full court—and on September 13, the 2nd Circuit reversed a lower-court decision dismissing the other case and sent it back for further proceedings. Finally, the D.C. Circuit is reviewing a district court decision finding that the President could be sued for violating the Emoluments Clause.
Our record in court has been excellent, and I couldn’t be prouder of our legal team in these and many other cases too numerous to mention here in defense of the rule of law.
Making the Case for Radical Moderation
While moderation has a bad name in politics, we can see today what happens when immoderation runs unchecked. The opposite of moderation is extremism, and it’s tearing America apart. On the left, an absolutism has taken hold of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, forwarding sweeping plans for social and economic transformation that have no chance whatsoever of passage. On the right, a dangerous tide of anti-democratic populist nationalism, married to a cult of personality around the President, has taken hold of the Republican Party.
The Niskanen Center is engaged in reviving the intellectual case for moderation because without the lubricant of political moderation, an open, pluralistic society cannot long survive. Given that the Niskanen Center has a stake in the open society, we have no choice but to fight.
The moderation we advance at the Niskanen Center is a fighting creed meant to stand up to these threats and defend the open society. It accepts the need to act on principles, but, unlike ideologues, we take all of the principled considerations in American politics (social justice, economic equality, civil liberties, healthy communities, individual virtue, wealth creation, and individual liberty) with equal seriousness. As Michael Oakeshott once wrote, “Obsession with a single problem, however important, is always dangerous in politics; except in time of war, no society has so simple a life that one element in it can, without loss, be made the centre and circumference of all political activity.”
We part company from centrists, however, because we believe that conserving a free, competitive, and democratic society will require genuinely radical departures from our existing policies. We need a large carbon tax. We need to slash regressive barriers to market entry. We need to develop ambitious new forms of social insurance and work subsidies. We need to increase the free movement of people and labor. And we need to spread economic growth to struggling regions. Timidity in responding to the challenges of our nation is—in this moment—the enemy of a sensible conservation of what is best in our political inheritance.
Our brand of radical moderation and (small-r) republicanism has captured the imagination of public intellectuals and academics alike, who are now flocking to our banner. If the ground war for our policy ideas is being fought on Capitol Hill, the air war for our agenda is being fought in electronic and print media. And we’re winning. Niskanen scholars are finding their way into the opinion pages of the two most influential news outlets in the country—The Washington Post and The New York Times—more often than is any other think tank in America once we strip away those with regular columns in the same. In short, we’re winning the daily competition for the most valuable print space in politics today.
Building on Our Success
The Niskanen Center punches well above its weight, but it has done so on a shoestring budget. While we’re extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished in such a short time, the fact remains that our budget (presently $5.2 million per year) is tiny compared to those of think tanks that are standing up our political competitors (e.g., $81 million for the Heritage Foundation, $61.7 million for the American Enterprise Institute, $44.4 million for the Center for American Progress, and $36.7 million for the Cato Institute).
If we’re going to compete effectively in the war of ideas and in the halls of Congress, we need to greatly expand our operations. And that’s where you come in.
Beyond beefing up existing operations, which are woefully under-resourced at present, we would like to launch new policy initiatives to advance the case for strategic investment in critical industries and national infrastructure; demand-side health care regulatory reforms; universal catastrophic health care coverage; tight and inclusive labor markets; tax reform and responsible fiscal policy; criminal justice reform; and various critically needed pro-democracy reforms. We’d also like to launch “Niskanen Clubs” on elite college campuses, and increase our support for non-resident senior fellows.
If you’re in a position to do so, I hope that you’ll consider supporting our work. And if you already support our work, I hope you’ll consider increasing your support. Thanks to you, we’ve accomplished a great deal in our first five years of operations. But as every day’s media cycle reminds us, there’s a lot of work yet to be done if we’re to address the nation’s increasing dysfunction and bring America back from the brink of illiberalism.
With your help, we can wage and win critical political battles with extremists in American politics. In so doing, hyper-partisanship will dissipate, political temperatures will decline, ideological extremism will become less attractive, government will regain its ability to function and solve problems, and our civic fabric would begin to repair.
That’s a lovely thing to wish for in the new year, don’t you think? I invite you to join us.
Thank you once again for all of your support over the past five years. We quite literally wouldn’t be here without you. I wish you a wonderful holiday season.
President and co-founder,
Gifts of cash can be made online via our Donate Now page with a credit/debit card. Checks can be mailed to the address below. For wire transfers or gifts of securities, or for more information and assistance with your gift, please contact our director of development, David Osborne (firstname.lastname@example.org; 202.899.1168).
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