The Fine Line Between Legitimate Think Tank And Industry Shills
from the reputational-arbitrage dept
What was going on is that property rights are popular, while the pharmaceutical and recording industries are not. The panel was a small part of a long-range, carefully planned campaign to hitch their rent-seeking agenda to the broader free-market movement. I don't think SPN discloses who pays for its conferences, but I'd be willing to bet a lot of money that the "intellectual property" industries wrote large checks for the privilege of putting that panel together. The situation irritated me so much that I wrote a piece for reason denouncing the project.While he notes that, so far, these groups haven't been all that successful in the "reputational arbitrage" attempt of using the good names of some real free market think tanks to suggest that stronger intellectual property is, in fact, a "free market" concept, similar attempts elsewhere have had pretty drastic consequences. Take, for example, the extremely controversial Arizona immigration law. It turns out that part of the support for it came out of some very questionable places:
The campaign to co-opt the free-market movement for the agenda of "intellectual property" intersts continues to this day. Another quasi-think tank called the Institute for Policy Innovation tried to get me fired in 2006 for writing this admittedly intemperate post about a shoddy study they had put out on the costs of copyright infringement. And just today I was followed on Twitter by a representative from the Property Rights Alliance, the (presumably industry-funded) organization that sponsored that 2005 conference and puts out embarrassingly bad "studies" promoting stronger copyright and patent protections.
Which brings me to this appalling story (via E.D. Kain) documenting that private prison companies were a key lobbying force behind Arizona's "papers, please" immigration law. If private prison companies had openly drafted and lobbied for a new immigration law that would increase the state's prison population, it would have been obvious what was going on and the effort would have gone nowhere. So instead, the prison companies went to the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that performs think tank-type work for conservative state legislators (and regularly attends SPN conferences), and asked them to draft the language. The legislation was drafted by an ALEC committee, with industry input. An Arizona ALEC member then took the legislation back to his state, where several other ALEC members signed on as co-sponsors.Tim notes that this is not specific to any particular political ideology. It shows up on all sides of the political spectrum. And, he notes (accurately) that many of those involved would deny any sort of "corruption," often pointing out that their own interests already very much "agree" with the positions of their corporate sponsors. But it does worry Lee that this is becoming more common, and when some researchers and scholars from more reputable firms move to others that are less reputable, it sometimes becomes tricky to determine the borderlines of what is legitimate output, and what's really propaganda.
It's important to be clear that ALEC isn't just about this kind of corruption. I imagine ALEC provides real services to its legislator-members, who often have small staffs and benefit from the help of ideologically like-minded policy experts. And ALEC often collaborates with state-based think tanks, many of which employ genuine policy experts. The problem is that the details of legislation drafted this way are likely to be driven by sponsors' interests. Even assuming that conservatives are going to push for anti-immigrant legislation, there are a number of ways you might do that. If the prison lobby has a seat at the table, the legislation is likely to be written in a way that maximizes the prison population—and the cost to state taxpayers.
Unfortunately, this kind of institutional rot is endemic in the public policy world. This ALEC story is particularly egregious, but most of the time the process is more subtle. Some think tanks (such as Cato) do a pretty good job of insulating their scholars from donor pressure. But there are lots of quasi-think tanks who make no such effort. And the result is a steady gravitational pull in directions that benefit corporate sponsors.
He points out that he's not quite sure what the solution is, but I'd argue transparency, and more openness to debate is a key aspect that could help. Those who are being intellectually honest do not fear an honest debate about the research and claims they make -- and often will encourage it. Those who are simply trying to drive home a certain point for a certain interest will do whatever possible to avoid an honest and open debate.