ARTICLE: Think tanks help alter public opinion

DRI postdoctoral fellow Claudia Williamson writes for The Oklahoman on December 9, 2011:

Voters aren't particularly thankful for government right now. According to Gallup, congressional job approval is tied for an all-time record low of just 13 percent.

Voter frustration stems from the fact that things at the federal level never seem to change; national debt grows while corporations get taxpayer handouts. But what about policy groups trying to improve government at the state or local level, such as the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs?

Research I recently completed with colleagues at George Mason and Duquesne universities suggests these think tanks have made some strides in changing the public's mind, but that their legislative impact is limited.

State-based think tanks are nonprofit research organizations that operate with two goals: educating the citizenry and affecting public policy. We looked at think tanks whose policy preferences included reducing the role of government and increasing the role of private markets.

Unfortunately, these groups don't appear to have a direct impact on policy. We analyzed data sets for each state between 1997 and 2010 and found little evidence that market-oriented think tanks lead to more pro-market policies such as lower tax rates or less government spending.

Evidence shows that, unlike think tanks, political lobby groups influence state public policy. For example, union lobbyist spending leads to more government employees and higher government wages. This finding may reflect the fact that lobby groups are legally permitted to advocate directly for policy changes. Think tanks are not. In other words, they don't need to engage the public to secure desired policy outcomes. Lobbying dollars trump public opinion.

Discouraging as this might be for advocates of better and smaller government, here is some good news: Spending and investment on the part of free-market think tanks between 1997 and 2002 led to an increase in pro-market attitudes between 2003 and 2008. These think tanks were particularly effective in shifting public opinion on issues regarding welfare policies and government intervention into the market.

For example, the OCPA increased its expenditures from $50 to almost $300 per thousand state residents over the past 13 years. During this time, the policy environment improved slightly from a free-market perspective. However, state employee wages also increased, as did government expenditures for education and welfare.

Yet the council's spending wasn't a complete waste; public opinion in the state regarding markets in general and welfare spending in particular shifted toward less government intervention.

The way any policy group potentially influences economic policy is by shifting ideology. But translating shifting attitudes into policy change takes time — perhaps decades — in sharp contrast to lobbying efforts that can have an immediate political impact.

These results suggest policy groups operate via the channel of ideas while lobbyist groups go directly to the source: politicians. Still, free-market advocates have reason to hope. Politicians ultimately respond to public opinion. And though free-market think tanks might not be winning legislative battles, they are winning a longer war of public opinion.

Read more on the Oklahoman

Read the working paper "Think Tanks"