Think tanks make a valuable contribution

In his recent column on think tanks in the June 10 edition of The Telegram, headlined “Methinks the think-tanks protest too much”, Telegram editor Russell Wangersky places himself solidly in the tradition of those who don’t know how to defeat an argument they don’t like, and so resort to attacking the person who makes it. It is a sure sign of a weak position, poorly defended.

Apparently think tanks such as AIMS cannot be registered charities, and issue tax receipts to those who fund them, and at the same time criticize wasteful public policies (such as equalization, employment insurance for seasonal workers, regional development subsidies to business, etc.). They are hypocrites if they do, because they are financed, indirectly, by the very tax dollars whose use by others they criticize.

Since think tanks can issue charitable receipts for contributions by companies, are we somehow the beneficiaries of government largesse because we use money that otherwise would have gone in taxes to government?

Most think tanks get a relatively small share of their annual budget from companies and individuals. Much more comes from charitable foundations that support public policy work. Since by law their money must be spent on recognized charitable activities, it is never taxed. The primary reason why think tanks require charitable registration is so that they may get funding from such foundations. The fact that a foundation may give money to us does not deprive governments of one cent of revenue, since if it did not go to us it would go to some other recognized charity.

The same might be said of companies, all of whom have a budget for charitable contributions. Whether it goes to us or not does not affect the government’s tax receipts to the tiniest degree.
Perhaps, then, the argument is that think tanks, unlike say the Cancer or Arthritis Societies, should not qualify as charities. But this complaint is then not about think tanks, but the whole notion of charitable organizations existing to serve a variety of goals that contribute to the public good, including educational missions such as ours. Like other charities, think tanks go through a stringent approval process by Revenue Canada to ensure that our activities qualify as charitable.

Governments certainly do not share the view that our work should be discounted. They consult AIMS on public policy matters because, as a much-decorated institute with a broad and highly diversified funding base, we are one of the few truly independent and analytical voices on public policy in the country.

Last year AIMS won the prestigious Templeton Freedom Award for Institute Excellence, our fifth such international award from our think tank peers. Premier Danny Williams wrote to say “Your staff and you are to be congratulated on this latest international recognition for your work on public policy alternatives. You continue to open the debate and engage the public on these important matters in Atlantic Canada and beyond.” Many other politicians from every major party have praised our work as have many of the country’s editorialists.

Is the complaint that institutions cannot be truly educational (and therefore charitable) in scope if they criticize government policy? But why is it acceptable if a taxpayer-funded university professor calls for higher taxes so that he can live an even more comfortable contemplative life, while it is scandalous if a think tank wonders if taxpayers are getting value out of some government programs?

Are think tanks, unlike universities, somehow one-sided? At AIMS we recommended a taxpayer-financed national Pharmacare program in our response to the Romanow Report, and we have often remarked that healthy Atlantic Canadian economic growth and federal transfers go hand in hand – until the transfers get too large. Contrary to Mr Wangersky’s suggestion, I have been pointing out for years that EI is a subsidy to companies working in seasonal industries.

Finally, Mr. Wangersky is curiously selective in his criticism. Think tanks he doesn’t like are taken to task for being charities. He is silent, however, on trade unions, for example, who use their members’ tax-deductible dues to finance a great deal of public policy research and advocacy. He seems to think the Cancer and Arthritis Societies are legitimate, but groups like that will often properly criticize governments for excessive waiting times for health care, for example. Should we stop reading The Telegram’s editorials on public policy because the paper gets lots of government advertising dollars?

So, even if AIMS ceased to exist, the government would not be one penny richer in tax revenues. We are a legitimate and qualified charity for educational purposes and recognized for the quality of what we do by credible sources too numerous to list. We hold governments to a high but fair and balanced standard in public policy. What we don’t do is to attack the good faith or integrity of those who disagree with us. We look at the merit of their arguments.