Think Tanks and the Rise of the New Policy Elite

By James Allen Smith

Free Press. 313 pp. $24.95

"Think tank": It is, as James Allen Smith writes in this careful study, "a curious phrase, suggesting both the rarefied isolation of those who think about policy, as well as their prominent public display, like some rare species of fish or reptile confined behind the glass of an aquarium or zoo." But though this species is of relatively recent vintage, there is nothing rare about it: More than a thousand think tanks are in business around the country, about a hundred of them in Washington, and their influence on public policy is, if in the end incalculable, considerable.

"The Idea Brokers" is both an account of how they got that way and an inquiry into how they have fit into the eternal struggle between knowledge and power. It is a thorough history, at times a trifle too much so for the lay reader, and a balanced one; Smith is scrupulously fair to all institutions at all points on the ideological spectrum, and his conclusions about the think tanks are judiciously undogmatic.

Smith traces the origins of the think tanks to the rise of the social sciences in the 19th century and, with it, the beginning of "the long quest to devise an empirical science of society and politics." Among the politically inclined intelligentsia, the conviction took hold that human affairs were as susceptible to clinical study and resolution as scientific ones. Robert Ely, a founder of the American Economics Association, wrote, "We regard the State as an educational and ethical agency whose positive aid is an indispensable condition of human progress," while Wesley C. Mitchell of the National Bureau of Economic Research asked, "Are we not intelligent enough to devise a steadier and more certain method of progress?"

Associations and institutions were formed, by Robert S. Brookings and Herbert Hoover among others; the result was to give a certain institutional legitimacy to the American obsession with expertise -- the conviction, which at once attracts and repels us, that experts, especially those expert in efficiency, can solve any problem. Originally these institutions were nonpartisan and objective; "the Carnegie Corporation wanted the {Brookings Institution} simply to apply knowledge of economics to questions of policy, ascertaining the facts and making them clear to both decision makers and the public," a pattern followed by most of the think tanks that came into being from the 1920s to the postwar years.

Smith traces this process from Brookings to Rand to what he calls "the sudden ascent of the expert in the 1960s," a phenomenon in large measure explained by the enthusiasm of John F. Kennedy for experts and the methods of systems analysis they allegedly had perfected; they were as we now know the best and the brightest, and their legacy, for good and ill, lives on. They gave us Vietnam and the War on Poverty and in so doing sowed the seeds for the new generation of experts: those motivated by ideas and ideology rather than data and facts -- the founders of the conservative think tanks of the 1970s and '80s.

The result of all this has been a proliferation of expertise that contributes as much confusion as enlightenment to the public dialogue. Books and reports spew forth at a numbing rate; gurus-in-residence spout sound bites on the evening news; the think tanks compete for attention and influence with elaborate self-promotional campaigns. As Smith writes:

"The cacophony of experts and ideologues -- and a predictable perplexity about the often-obscure institutions that have magnified their voices -- make it difficult for most citizens to gauge their competing claims to expertise, to identify the interests or intellectual affiliations that shape their perspectives, and to weigh their contributions to public discourse. The attentive citizen, by and large a passive witness to the disputes of the experts (as mediated by the newspaper editors who select their Op-Ed pieces and the journalists who interview them) now needs an expert's help to sort out the competing claims to authority."

What worries Smith is that the experts, who came into being to inform both the public and its agents in government, now exist as a buffer between them, presenting issues and problems to government as matters of expertise rather than as questions of political will. He wonders: Does the public decide, or the experts? It's a good question, one not often raised in a climate that takes the experts for granted and assumes them to wield a beneficent influence. Perhaps indeed they do; but they warrant a bit more public scrutiny than they're accustomed to receiving, and "The Idea Brokers" is a valuable step in that direction.