Think Tanks

DRI Working Paper No. 87
By Peter T. Leeson, Matt E. Ryan and Claudia R. Williamson

This paper is the first to investigate the relationship between think tanks and economic policy empirically. We use panel data for the US states to examine state-based, free market (SBFM) think tanks’ relationship to eight key economic policy objectives. We find little evidence that SBFM think tanks are associated with more “pro-market” policies along the policy dimensions they aim to influence. However, we find stronger evidence that SBFM think tanks are associated with more “pro-market” citizen attitudes about the role of government vs. markets in economic policy. These results suggest that if think tanks’ connection to economic policy is important at all, its importance may be long term and operate via the channel of “ideas.” In contrast to think tanks, we find evidence that political lobby groups are associated with current policy. This may reflect the fact that, unlike think tanks, lobby groups are legally permitted to lobby for policy changes directly. Thus they don’t need to engage in a long-run “battle of ideas” to secure desired policy outcomes.