How important are the source and the motivation to pursue an idea?

18 October 2011

George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian, argues that think tanks (many, not all) have become PR fronts for corporations and millionaires with pre-set positions and views. The article can be found here:

Millionaires and corporations are using tax breaks to help sway public opinion: Rightwing thinktanks profess a love of freedom, but their refusal to reveal who funds them is deeply undemocratic.

This article reflects on an issue also addressed by Adam Curtis in his post The Curse of Tina that deals with the way in which the most famous (and original modern) British think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, was set up: he would argue, as a PR initiative. 

I would argue that it is not only corporations and millionaires but also governments, foundations, and NGOs (who may be more on the ‘left’ of things) and who employ (subcontracting or providing grants) think tanks in developed and developing countries to advocate for Aid and to help implement policies defined and designed not by the think tanks but by someone else. As I have said before, the problem is that this reduces the spaces that think tanks have to think and be original.

It is interesting that this is what George Monbiot has picked-up on (besides the fact that not enough is known about who funds them) because I do not think this is something that I had ever considered in attempting to define think tanks.

This makes me think that think tanks ought to have and make use of both the autonomy and agency to identify, use, develop, and pursue the ideas that their own impartial (yet inevitably value-informed) judgement recommends. This is, after all, how think tanks present themselves. Impartial, independent, entrepreneurial, etc. They pursue, in theory, the ideas that they, after careful research and analysis, believe in.

The original source of the idea may be outside the organisation but the think tank must have chosen it freely, after careful consideration of others. This is what Monbiot’s critique appears to imply.

And what about the motivation to pursue the idea -to transform it into policy? Again, one could question an organisation’s advocacy or promotion of an idea (a policy or programme) that it did not develop itself. This would be more akin to the role of a consultancy offering its services to different clients who, by and large, know what they want but do not have the staff and specialised resources to bring it about.