Why do think tanks exist? Are they really, as the common phrase goes, "universities without students?" Are they just places where aspiring government officials can do the spadework for their next run at being appointed deputy secretary of something or other? Or perhaps they've stepped into the void created by what some have termed the "cult of irrelevance" in the academy, which used to be a source of advice about public policy but has become too abstruse and method-intensive to be of much use to harried policymakers?
I've had ample reason to ponder the subject, considering that the think tank at which I work, the Cato Institute, is currently defending itself from a hostile takeover attempt by Charles and David Koch, two billionaire industrialists who are intensely involved in partisan politics. (For those who don't know, Cato's mission is to "increase the understanding of public policies based on the principles of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace." This libertarian orientation frequently puts us at odds with both political parties.)
Here's the quick and dirty on what's happening. The Kochs are suing Cato to obtain total control of the institute. They recently began forcing out Cato's libertarian board members and replacing them with Koch operatives who are financially dependent on and/or otherwise entangled with the Kochs. Two of the people they tried but failed to force onto our board were John Hinderaker, a self-described "neocon" who writes for the hawkish and partisan Powerline blog, and Tony Woodlief, who declared that libertarian foreign-policy scholars "sound like absolute fools" or, alternatively, like "naive sophomores," and went on to egregiously mischaracterize some of the things libertarians have said about foreign policy in recent decades. He's within his rights to do so, but those stated views make him an odd pick to sit on Cato's board.
Beyond their hawkish, anti-libertarian board nominees, the Kochs recently funded a project that could fairly be labeled Neoconpalooza, as my colleague Chris Preble documents here. (Quick summary: The Charles G. Koch Foundation gave money to AEI to host a seminar series featuring six speakers, all of whom were strong supporters of the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration.)
More broadly, they've made clear that they want Cato to be more responsive to research requests from their partisan activist groups like Americans for Prosperity. Do those groups really want to hear detached scholarship arguing that security threats are overblown, that immigration is a net plus for the country, that the war on drugs has pointlessly killed tens of thousands of Mexicans, and that the United States should dramatically scale back its global military ambitions? Probably not.
We are fighting back for one reason: to preserve our independence. Cato presently has a broad base of supporters who like the cut of our intellectual jib, and its current leadership has shown a willingness to support its scholars, even when it costs the institute money. After Cato scholars opposed the first Gulf War, former Treasury Secretary William Simon, who was then running the Olin Foundation, pulled Olin's money out of Cato in protest. A number of donors didn't much like our opposition to the 2003 Iraq War, either, and some pulled out money. In both cases, management watched the money go rather than buckle to pressure. These decisions to bleed money in defense of our scholars proved that we were doing work for principle, not for sale.
Back to the opening question, then: What are think tanks for? They really aren't universities without students. Each think tank has a particular ideological orientation, whether neoconservative (AEI, FPI, CAF), liberal (CAP), libertarian (Cato) or establishmentarian (Brookings, CEIP, CFR). Each of those places hires people of a particular persuasion; it would be much stranger to see someone who worked on foreign policy at Cato move to AEI than it would be to see a professor move from the University of Chicago to Harvard. Think tanks come from a particular point of view, and as long as everyone is up front about his or her point of view, there's nothing wrong with that.