A New York Times article about the relationship between Washington think tanks and corporate donors is sure to be something of a Rorschach test. The main spotlight of the article is on the Brookings Institution, particularly its Metropolitan Policy Program and economic development efforts, which makes it an important read for Rhode Islanders because those activities are interwoven with our state’s current policy. However, it’s only a matter of time before somebody on the political left comments here that my own employer, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity is implicated in the suspicion on account of non-disclosed donations and somebody on the political right takes to Facebook to declare that we’re all a part of some global corporate conspiracy.
Take all these voices together, and one can see what a paranoid mess we’ve made of our society, largely, I’d argue, because we’ve allowed government to become so intrinsic to everything we do.
In Rhode Island, our progressive governor, Democrat Gina Raimondo, has made Brookings an integral part of her economic planning, even making its report — funded by the RI Foundation and several Raimondo donors — the state’s official economic development plan. The Times article should give some new perspective for observations that our governor worked with Brookings in developing its report and that the report comes across as a Raimondo booster.
The question one might ask is whether the Brookings-Raimondo plan for Rhode Island is really developed with Rhode Islanders first in mind or with special political and private interests as the guiding light. I’ve suggested before (here, for one) that the focus of Rhode Island’s policymaking elite is reversed from what it ought to be and intent on shaping the people to match the demands of corporate interests. That is the ultimate manifestation of technocratic tyranny and the corruption inherent in big government and its satellites.
All of that said, though, I should note that I’m perfectly ready to believe that none of the politicians, corporations, or think tanks are knowingly selling their souls for this corruption. As representatives of Washington think tanks suggest in the Times article, what we see is just a confluence of interests. Maybe the pointy heads change their tilt based on who gives them money, but more often, they look to those whose own interests match their ideas to supply their funding.
That brings us to the implied solution from progressives: to force disclosure of donations and corporate documents so that the government can judge whether non-profit status is still deserved and left-wing activists can target donors. That’s the meaning behind Senator Elizabeth Warren’s comment in the Times article:
“This is about giant corporations who figured out that by spending, hey, a few tens of millions of dollars, if they can influence outcomes here in Washington, they can make billions of dollars,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, a frequent critic of undisclosed Wall Street donations to think tanks.
No doubt, wealthy progressives like Warren would prefer for those, “hey,” tens of millions of dollars go toward buying influence directly from politicians. Those without that self-interest, however, should note that the disclosure solution ignores government’s role in the scheme. The harder it is to influence policy, the more valuable is access to policymakers. Indeed, among the service that the article suggests think tanks are selling is the networking and connecting donors with policymakers.
If the ability of special interests to buy unfair considerations is the problem, solutions lie along two paths. Either we give government more power to restrict freedom — particularly freedom of speech — or we limit government’s ability directly or indirectly to give corporations billions of dollars. The first path will make the problem worse and our society less free.