Tuesday, September 14, 2010

American Enterprise Institute

Via MR, a thoughtful post about AEI from Arnold Kling.

He addresses two interrelated but separate topics: how to think about AEI and how AEI can best accomplish its political aims. Let me remark on those topics in turn based on my admittedly limited - one visit, a few lunches with AEI folks, reading their emails - information.

Arnold thinks of AEI as stogy, which is a reasonable view. I think of it as incoherent, in two senses. First, unlike the Brookings Institution with which it is often paired (both literally as they run some joint programs as well as figuratively), AEI produces middlebrow policy-oriented research as well as explicitly political output. I would argue that this dilutes the value of the academic work. Second, and more broadly, because of its strong orientation toward free markets as well as traditional social conservative themes, it embodies more than any of the other DC conservative think tanks the deep intellectual and cultural incoherence at the heart of modern American conservatism. There is much talk of freedom and free markets but there is also intolerance of homosexuals and, more generally, no love of cultural difference. It is a sort of pointless freedom, that is possessed but whose actual use is discouraged through cultural and religious norms. On another dimension, it is simultaneously argued that the government is incompetent to deliver mail but competent to engage in vast military/political enterprises half a world away. Inconsistent? You bet.

On the question of how AEI can accomplish its aims, I would say that AEI is pretty good at the middlebrow policy-oriented academic work and should specialize in that valuable activity. Brookings and AEI benefit from having each other, and it would be a shame to see that useful combination of cooperation and competition disappear. Rather than trying to reorient AEI to have a focus on the moral aspects of markets, doing that should be the task of some new entity, or perhaps just left to existing entities such as the Institute for Justice that already do a fine job at just that. Otherwise I think AEI will end up losing something useful, incurring a lot of transition costs, and probably not getting where it wants to go.

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