Why We Need Independent Think Tanks

Commentary, Think Tanks, Frontier Centre

Norm Frohlich’s recent critique of a Frontier Centre commentary (Monopolies can be efficient, Winnipeg Free Press, June 2, 2003) laid out a classic defense of single provider model for health care. We disagree, but appreciate the value of intelligent policy discussions. Frohlich crosses the line, however, when he intimates that independent think tanks like the Frontier are hired guns for mysterious private interests. He draws a pay cheque from a public sector organization, a university. Does he therefore have a “public sector” bias because he is on the public payroll? To use his own words, such a suggestion would be simplistic and extreme.

Lest Winnipeg Free Press readers (note: Manitoba's largest newspaper publishes FCPP commentaries) buy into Frohlich’s conspiratorial musings, let me provide some background on the Frontier Centre. Founded in 1997, it received charitable status in 1999. It operates with a staff of seven, backed up by a research advisory board composed of well-known scholars and thinkers from here and abroad. A modest budget of approximately $400,000 a year comes from a diverse mix of sources, about 59% from private charitable foundations, 19% from local businesses, 16% from individuals and 6% from national corporations. (Note – 10 staff and budget approaching approximately $1.4 million in 2012)

We do not accept government funding because it frequently complicates and taints the work it supports. We also maintain a “firewall” between our governing board – composed of distinguished local professionals, former civil servants and executives — and our day-to-day operations. Both measures safeguard the objectivity of our work. The Frontier Centre does prefer to see contested, or open markets for most services, but that position is amply justified by evidence that they produce outcomes superior to monopoly delivery frameworks. Do we “consciously or unconsciously” take this position because we’re paid to do so, as Frohlich imputes? Hardly. We explored such arguments before a dime arrived in our bank account.

Organizations like the Frontier have more latitude to challenge orthodoxy. In Manitoba, we can look at constructive alternatives to government ownership of commercial activities, tax policies that export people, or health and education policies that focus on the needs of providers instead of consumers, without fear of retribution. Our research on the Swedish use of competing public and private providers to chop health waiting lists, is stirring up new thinking to meet a real challenge. Those reforms, not coincidentally, came out of the Timbro Institute, Stockholm’s most prestigious think tank.

What about government research groups, like one Frohlich is affiliated with, the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy? Not a jot of ink critical of Medicare has ever dropped from the pens of that organization. No surprises here: yes, to an ever bigger monopoly, no, to bold concepts of substantive reform like medical savings accounts, even while the line-ups get longer. Although many do great work, government-funded think tanks tend to defend the status quo to protect their funding sources. Get too bold and their political masters may pull the financial rug out from underneath them.

The professor might consider more blatant examples, where government money is advanced to promote issues of the day or worse, to support a political party’s agenda. To push its case for the flawed Kyoto Treaty, Environment Canada created a “Climate Change Action Fund” which handed out millions to groups like the Pembina Institute in Alberta. According to author Mark Milke, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, an anti-market think tank frequently quoted in the media, received over $400,000 from the disgraced NDP government in B.C. Predictably, the CCPA oozed with praise for the doomed regime.

We all benefit from a vigorous policy debate and the most influential dialogue comes from independent think tanks uncompromised by politics. The superior quality of much public policy in the United States is the product of strongly independent research institutes and all major states have ones on the left and right. Michigan, and Colorado, among many, have thrived due to policies that originated in them. Multi-million dollar Washington think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, not universities, attract top scholars to wage the battle of ideas. They are training grounds, for administration officials who arrive in office with a comprehensive foundation for advancing their goals. The success of politicians like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Margaret Thatcher was based on background work done by independent think tanks.

Canada has proportionately fewer idea factories than the United States. Awkward tax regulations, the predominance of predictable government think tanks and a timid business sector have discouraged needed hotbeds of new ideas. But there is progress. The remarkable change in thinking among Québec’s Liberals was influenced by the Montreal Economic Institute , that province’s newest independent think tank. The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax is turning old thinking on federal subsidies and equalization on its head with quality scholarship and outreach programs. Bans on corporate and union donations to political parties may direct new resources to innovative think tanks outside the dead zone of party politics.

Defenders of the status quo should stick to arguments about public policy and avoid ad hominem attacks. People support the Frontier because they like what we do, not because we do what they like.

More about the Frontier Centre for Public Policy..