Three Themes of the Niskanen Center
By Bryan Caplan
The Niskanen Center has been an engine of idea creation since its foundation in 2014. I know many of its scholars well. But I’m still trying to figure out Niskanen’s fundamental goal. Perhaps I’m obtuse, but I detect three distinct – and pretty incompatible – themes.
Theme #1: Open-mindedness. Instead of rigidly appealing to the libertarian “party line,” Niskanen scholars strive to be flexible and pluralist. Scholars and policy analysts across the political spectrum have useful ideas; let’s give everyone a hearing and pick the best.
Theme #2: Pragmatism. Instead of making the best the enemy of the good, Niskanen scholars remember that politics is “the art of the possible.” Achieving minor reforms by assembling diverse political coalitions is a lot better than writing irrefutable essays for the elect.
Theme #3: Liberaltarianism. Instead of sticking to the time-honored “fusionist” alliance between libertarians and conservatives, Niskanen scholars go full “liberaltarian.” They’re not merely looking for common ground with liberals. Instead, they’re ready, willing, and eager to admit that on many issues – global warming, poverty, race – the left is largely correct.
How do these themes conflict? In every possible logical combination!
1. Open-mindedness vs. pragmatism. Being flexible and pluralist can help achieve real-world results. But so can polarization, demagoguery, and loyalty to your long-term political allies.
2. Open-mindedness vs. liberaltarianism. If you really give everyone a fair hearing, you’re not just going to acquire some liberal views. You’re also going to acquire some conservative views. For example, you might discover that for all its evils, the U.S. criminal justice system isn’t racist. And if you acquire too many conservative views, the budding liberal-libertarian alliance falls apart.
3. Pragmatism vs. liberaltarianism. Liberals and libertarians see eye-to-eye on many issues, starting with immigration and terrorism. Sadly, these are also issues where both liberals and libertarians are out of step with mainstream America. So what should they do? Quixotically push their shared views – or focus on issues where the audience is more receptive?