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Think Tanks and the Rise of the New Policy Elite
By James A. Smith
The Free Press, 334 pages, $24.95

The Idea Brokers offers a fascinating and unsettling look at the rise of think tanks and, with it, the growing influence — some would say cult — of expertise in American politics and public affairs. James A. Smith locates the modern concept of "expert" in the latter 19th century with the rise of the new social sciences — economics, psychology, sociology — and, not coincidentally, with the rise of graduate schools in American universities. He notes that despite an avowed democratic disdain for experts, Americans are obsessed with expertise and specialization. There are today over 1,200 think tanks in the USA, with as many as 100 in Washington DC alone. Some are small and ephemeral, others are solidly entrenched and very well-heeled — the Brookings Institution, for instance, established for 75 years, has an endowment of over $90 million.

The earliest think tanks were staffed almost exclusively by academics who felt that social science was the key to better government, according to Smith. They presumed to offer independent and objective advice to the general public and were, compared with their present-day counterparts, politically innocent. Franklin Roosevelt's "brain trust" paved the way for the modern think tank by institutionalizing the role of outside advisers in the policymaking process. The pattern culminated in the reform efforts of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Smith explains, especially the latter's Great Society program. Experts were now called upon not only as public policy advisers but, increasingly, as political process analysts. It was still up to the politicians to define the ends — victory in Vietnam, an end to urban poverty — but the think tanks would provide the means.

In the last twenty years the role of experts has become increasingly geared toward partisanship and political activism. The failure in Vietnam and in the war on poverty discredited the technocratic role of the expert. Conservatives, in particular, argued that the "liberal establishment" and the think tanks it favored were stifling the political process. A new "counter- establishment" emerged that gave birth to several conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

Smith contends that think tanks thrive in America for two good reasons. First, a lot of wealthy foundations are prepared to pay good money to people to sit and think. Second, the American system of government is peculiarly open to such chosen thinkers. Each new administration in Washington appoints not only the heads of its departments or ministries, but also a lot of people further down the departmental ladder. The two houses of Congress employ a bureaucracy with an enormous appetite for independent research.

Smith is deeply skeptical about both the value and the historical contribution of experts in the democratic process. "There has always been something worrisome about the wise man who seeks to advise the king," he writes. "The story of both ancient intellectuals and modern experts is often one of knowledge coupled with ambition ... and in our time, one must ask whether the experts as a class have used mystifying jargon and an array of bewildering models and specialized tools to interpose themselves between the citizenry and their elected leaders." But Smith concludes that, ironically, the mass entry of idea brokers into the public "marketplace of ideas" has in fact demystified expertise and has thus, if anything, intensified public policy debate.

Copyright 1994 by Scott London. All rights reserved.