Sunday, March 2, 2014

Why You Should Never Send Your Money to Inside the Beltway Think Tanks

By Gary North

I turned 72 in February. I want to make a few comments on the history of the American Right, while I still have my wits about me.

I have spent my life on the fringes of academia. I earned a Ph.D., but I never went into full-time teaching. Well, not quite never. In the fall of 1979, I taught a course on the free market at a little-known Baptist college in North Carolina. At the end of the semester, I left North Carolina, moved to Texas, and did it in such a way that I avoided something in the range of $25,000 in state income taxes (1979 dollars). I never got paid personally for my teaching. I had the money paid to my foundation, the Institute for Christian Economics, from which I never drew a salary. I also taught a night school course in economics for two weeks at an Oregon community college in the spring of 1974. These schools were surely on the fringes of academia.

I came into the conservative movement in 1956 in response to a lecture by the anti-Communist Australian physician, Fred Schwarz. I was taught civics in 1958-59 in high school by the man who was probably the most conservative high school teacher in the state of California, and probably on the entire West Coast: Wayne Roy. He was legendary in the district.

I was the part of the Goldwater for Vice President movement in 1960. There were not many of us, especially in California.

I started reading The Freeman in 1957, a little over a year after it began publication. I started reading National Review in 1959, when I went off to college.


I have watched more money from conservatives go down the drain over the last 50 years than you can imagine. I have watched the same mistakes being made, over and over, all with enthusiastic financial support from donors. I have seen a few things that worked, and I have seen a lot of things that did not work. Still, in the overall sweep of life, most things don't work. But when there is a pattern to that which doesn't work, and when that pattern fails, again and again, to gain traction, I figure it's time to sound a warning.

Here is the warning: if an organization is inside the Washington Beltway, do not send any money. It doesn't need any money. It has enough donors who are doing that, donors who are terminally na├»ve, and will keep sending the money.

I'm not speaking here of lobbying organizations. I understand that lobbying organizations have to be inside the Beltway, or else close to it. I am also not speaking of public interest legal organizations that are trying to roll back the juggernaut federal court system and federal bureaucracy (administrative law). I am speaking here of what are euphemistically called think tanks.

The problem with most ideological think tanks is simple to describe: they are trying to gain political leverage. The closer they are to Washington DC, the more they are trying to gain this leverage at the top of the pyramid of power, or at least the visible pyramid of power. (There are three geographical pyramids of power in the United States, but there has never been a book or a documentary on two of them.) The farther away that think tanks are from Washington DC, the more dependent they are on developing philosophical principles that are not dependent upon the leverage provided by proximity to the federal government.
In 1973 and 1974, three major organizations were set up in the Washington area. They were created specifically to gain political leverage. One was the Committee for the Survival of the Free Congress, which was created by Paul Weyrich. Another was the Heritage Foundation, which was co-founded by Weyrich. The third was the Conservative Caucus, which was founded by Howard Phillips.

In terms of a long-term strategy, Howard Phillips had the best one. The problem was, he never implemented it. What he wanted was a national grassroots political organization. He wanted to train local people in local politics. Yet he never implemented this program. Like a moth attracted to a flame, he set up his organization just outside the Beltway. Unfortunately, he never had the money or the direct influence that the other Beltway conservative organizations had. He never developed a decentralized program for training people in local political mobilization, which was his original idea. He had the worst of both possible worlds. He had no influence inside the Beltway, and little influence outside the Beltway.

When you look at what the think tanks inside the Beltway have accomplished, you find essentially no traces. They have not stopped any major legislation. They have surely not passed any legislation. The most important single piece of legislation that was clearly stopped by the conservative movement was the Equal Rights Amendment, and that was stopped because of Phyllis Schlafly, who lived in Alton, Illinois. She mobilized a decentralized army of women.

Some of these organizations have raised huge amounts of money. The most important things that they have accomplished have been related to publishing. They have criticized this or that piece of legislation, and although they have not been able to stop any of this legislation, they have at least provided intellectual ammunition against it. But this could have been done from anywhere in the country. The worst place that it could have been done was inside the Washington Beltway.

The terrible lure of Washington DC is simple to state: power. People who want power are playing with fire. People who want to influence the federal government are playing with fire, and they are also deluded. 

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