Intermediate Shades Of Grey

The meaningless of Indian think-tanks.

My article on think-tanks evoked some “mixed response”. Jonathan Shainin, a senior editor at The Caravan tweeted: “Young Indian libertarian decides all think tanks are corrupt after his stint at the dodgy Ayn Rand advocacy group. Laughable.” A liberated “young” lady sneered: “This is the most bizarrely written article I have read in ages. I will keep it aside, and read it when I am drunk. Perhaps I would understand it then.” Some WSJ columnist said: “Ideology aside, terribly written to boot.” Another: “Stereotyping at its best.” And: “So, this guy had a bad experience with one of them, so all are bad. Okay.” Yet another: “Angry, but these are issues which think-tanks should address.”

To begin with, this is not a generalization about a whole industry based on my experiences with one organization. In fact, I had similar experiences with four think tanks I have dealt with; of which two are US think-tanks. But, the conclusion doesn’t have much to do with my experiences or anecdotes. Anecdotes are not empirical evidence. Empirical evidence has to be broader, and should not fail the test of consistently applied common sense reasoning. Journalists miss it all the time, but these are obvious facts which a sensible writer wouldn’t miss.

A typical argument is: “Not all Indian think-tanks are bad”. I hear it more often from people who have think tank affiliations, or would like to party with that crowd. What they actually mean is perhaps, “I need my job.” Or “I do not believe in speaking against my ex-employer and risking my future prospects.” Or “I want to get along with people who are pretty much like me.” Or “I want to be part of Delhi’s seminar circuit.” or various permutations and combinations of these. But, I digress.

Now, some facts: Economic analysis of non profits tells us that it is impossible to measure the effectiveness of a non-profit organization. Steve Jobs was right when he said in a 1985 Playboy Interview:

“In order to learn how to do something well, you have to fail sometimes. The problem with most philanthropy-there’s no measurement system. You can really never measure whether you failed or succeeded. So, it is really hard to get better.”

This applies to think-tanks too.

 Tavleen Singh is right on NGOs in general:

“India is one of the few countries in the world where NGOs are not accountable and this has caused most of them to become rotten to the core. Let me put it even more bluntly: most of our NGOs are frauds. Believe me when I tell you that all you need to do is declare yourself an NGO and you can become very rich very quickly because of the amount of money that suddenly becomes available to you. You never need to explain where this comes from or on what you spend it. So a lot of very corrupt people have made lucrative careers out of becoming NGOs. As someone who has observed NGO activities for a while now, may I add here that nearly all the NGOs who set out to save India’s environment are frauds with almost no understanding of what the real issues are.

It is not just my encounters with our so-called environmentalist NGOs that have made me totally cynical about the NGO movement in India. I have met NGOs in the health and nutrition sector who have managed to raise millions of dollars abroad for the supposed cause of eliminating rural poverty in India. Nearly all the NGOs working in this sector spend more money on their ‘administrative’ costs than they do on eliminating poverty and disease in our villages. But, they get away with this because they never need to render accounts to those who fund them. In the days when I was more naïve about NGO activities than I am today I often persuaded my rich friends to donate to NGO causes. I stopped when I discovered that not one of my NGO friends felt that they needed to account for the money they were given.”

Exaggeration? Hardly. These might be friendless truths, but truths nevertheless.

My first brush with these types was a few years back when I attended a seminar. The speakers in the student seminar run by a think-tank which stood against government intrusion were retired civil servants, top level police officers, activists, and think-tankers who looked at state intrusion with some strong approval. When an attendee felt that something was amiss, he asked a young woman who spoke with characteristic naiveté whether she was advocating capitalism. After a moment of hard thought, with vague discomfort, she said, “Oh, Yeah!” to a bunch of students who finally understood what was going on. We got the impression that she was discovering the answer in the process of answering. The four-day seminar was more about having a good time. There were participatory discussions on how we felt towards various social issues including the problems of street hawkers and underprivileged children. As far as I could see, nothing worthwhile came out of it. These are costly, but from an educational point of view, futile exercises. Any sensible man would be able to see it if he is willing to see it.

Here, I was talking of one think-tank which was ranked among the top 50 in the world (Again, laughable) by some survey. Recently, I attended a lecture of an eminent economist (Who turned out to be a bad speaker) hosted by this think-tank. In this city, where virtually no one seriously studies monetary economics, such exercises are again, futile. It is not worth the money spent on it. The economists who enjoy a free ride would go back to their own countries and write that this particular think-tank is efficiently run (!) and does good work fighting all odds in a third-world country-Or that they are vastly talented. Perhaps, but the point is that we do not know. But, perhaps not. Often, the case is that anyone with half a brain knows that these are part of niceties of the polite society, and not much different from throwing a bone to a dog.

A few years back I heard from a friend that an economist was looking for a Hindi translator for his 900+ page tome on monetary economics. His donor was willing to pay a remuneration which was high by Indian standards. It is obvious that very few Indians, if any, would read such a work in Hindi. A typical Econ enthusiast here (There are not many) is likely to be far more comfortable with English than with his own mother tongue.  It might be true that someone somewhere might learn from such a work, but that is irrelevant. It is not worth the time, money and effort spent on it. People ignore such obvious facts when strangers foot the bill.

Reading my article, Joseph Bast of The Heartland Institute replied:

“This is a very interesting commentary on think tanks in India generally, and your experience with the Liberty Institute and with us specifically. In our email exchanges of a year ago, I tried to convey that we have little choice but to trust the heads of “over-seas” think tanks that we work with, to achieve the outputs we request. I don’t doubt that sometimes the money isn’t spent as planned, but I do hold out hope that the people we work with are honest and hard-working. 

You mentioned two things I would also like to comment on. First, that few of the people who were sent copies of Climate Change Reconsidered could have been expected to read them, and second that elected officials are unlikely to respond to appeals to research or good ideas.  

Your first observation could be correct, but our experience is that putting a “big book” on the desks of academics, judges, teachers, and elected officials makes an impact on some of them, and a very positive impact on a few of them. It is impossible to know in advance who will respond very positively. And sometimes, the books find their way to other peoplepeople on the staff of a politician, or even to a used book store where it is bought by someone else entirely – who then are influenced. This is not the only or perhaps even the best way to change minds and then public policy, but it is one method that works, especially in combination with other efforts. 

My response to your second observation is similar. Perhaps most politicians don’t care about ideas and facts; of those who do, perhaps half are ideologically pre-disposed to disagree with us and won’t be moved by our work. But this leaves a few, and if policy is to be changed for the better, it is those few who will make it change. Again, the books will circulate to staff, perhaps to people who inherit the offices of outgoing elected officials, perhaps someone browsing in a private home, library, or bookstore. A “big book” will give them the courage of their convictions needed to take a stance.”

Quick points:

  • I might hope that my servant is honest and noble, but I would not let him guard my teenaged daughter (If I have any) when I am out for a two week vacation. The risk is too big for me, and I value my daughter highly-because she is mine.
  • Public choice research proves that politicians are not in the business of education. They almost never defy voters purposefully.
  • Reading a huge, systematic treatise is undoubtedly the best way to begin learning a subject. But human nature being what it is, it is wasteful to freely distribute a huge tome to ten thousand people—most of them, half-wits.
  • No businessman would invest his money in a venture hoping that a miniscule fraction of his products might sell. When it is other people’s money, people care less.

What Steve Landsburg said on charities , again, applies to non profits in general:

“Monitoring charities and supporting the most efficient one increases the impact of your charitable dollars on the world, but reduces the impact of your charitable dollars on your self-image.  As long as the donor can sustain the belief that the charitable market is working efficiently, he gets the greatest possible psychic payoff from his donation. If charities compete for contributions from rational altruists, fraud and deception by charities should be no more prevalent than in the for-profit sector; like consumers in other markets, rational altruists will somehow verify that they are getting what they pay for.  Yet in practice the level of malfeasance in the charitable sector seems unusually high. But avoiding this insight has offsetting benefits: You need not acknowledge that your past donations were sub-optimally allocated; neither do you indirectly oblige yourself to ascertain the identity of the most deserving cause in the world.”

As Bryan Caplan points out:

“Non-profits are heavily subsidized by both governments and private donors. This hardly shows that non-profits are more efficient than for-profits in any non-trivial sense. Throughout my life, non-profits have done the world for me.  They pay a lot more for the services I like to sell than for-profits ever would.  But that doesn’t change the fact that non-profits are crazy.”

Lew Rockwell hits the nail on the head:

“Let’s stop pretending. All DC think tanks are fakes. They are all fronts for powerful pressure groups while pretending to be idea driven. That’s why they cluster in the imperial city. But the underlying reality never changes: the State pretends to be influenced, and the think tanks pretend to influence.”

The great Murray Rothbard said this decades back:

“But talk about your Knaves! In the history of ideological movements, there have always been people willing to sell their souls and their principles. But never in history have so many sold out for so pitifully little. Hordes of libertarian and free-market intellectuals and activists rushed to Washington to whore after lousy little jobs, crummy little grants, and sporadic little conferences. It is bad enough to sell out; it is far worse to be a two-bit whore. And worst of all in this sickening spectacle were those who went into the tank without so much as a clear offer: betraying the values and principles of a lifetime in order to position themselves in hopes of being propositioned. And so they wriggled around the seats of power in Washington.”

Are all think-tanks bad? The quality of my life would have been largely diminished if there weren’t think tanks like the Mises Institute and private foundations like the Liberty Fund. Not everything which is good wins out in the market. But, the disaster is when we try to replicate western model think-tanks in a city where virtually no one can be considered a scholar.

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