The modern conservative movement was built on a foundation of ideas generated by intellectual giants such as Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, William F. Buckley Jr. and Robert Nisbet, and Nobel Prize-winning economists such as Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, Frederick Hayek and Robert Mundell. These thinkers were scholars and university professors, but they remained aliens inside the academy for 30 years after the end of World War II because socialists and modern-day liberals controlled the universities. College graduates and graduate students who had formed a socialist world view inside America’s institutes of higher education flocked into the arts, business, the media and, of course, politics. For a quarter-century after the end of the war, conservative intellectual thought failed to propagate into the popular culture and the political arena.
In the 1970s, conservatives began to establish their own network of thought-based institutions outside academia to popularize the body of knowledge generated by these conservative intellectuals. These organizations sought to be more than ivory towers of policy; they sought to interject these ideas directly into the political arena by interacting directly with politicians. Organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institute and later smaller organizations such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Policy Innovation formed the backbone of this institutional network.
These organizations were dubbed "think tanks" – a term first used in the 1950s in reference to non-university-based institutes of research and development, such as the Rand Corp. Such organizations usually were associated with military research and frequently were supported by government funding or were arms of big business, such as the Bell Labs.
Modern conservative think tanks were not funded by government or business with a bottom-line R&D objective. Instead, they were funded by wealthy visionaries and their families – such as Robert Krieble, William Simon, the Coors, Koch, Bradley, Scaife, DeVos and Olin families, among others – who acted more along the line of patrons of the arts, in this case as the benefactors of conservative scholars and applied policy analysts.
The think tanks were intended to engage the political process directly to promote conservative ideas and values, but they operated independently of their contributors, who never thought of the think tanks as nonprofit lobbying firms or themselves as "clients" using the organization to enact legislation to their benefit.
As time progressed, the financial base of conservative think tanks began to change. The think tanks became private bureaucracies owning real estate with high overhead and the need for infusions of money to keep them afloat.
When conservatives took political power in Washington, it wasn’t so easy for the think tanks to criticize their own conservative politicians. Indeed, a version of the government-industrial complex arose as elected conservative politicians and business people worked with the conservative think tanks to promote their agendas.
By the late 1990s, many conservatives had come to the conclusion that think tanks should give way to a new era of "do" tanks that would focus more on specific advocacy activities, including getting members elected to Congress, than research and analysis. This change in emphasis, combined with the bureaucratic imperative for broader financial support, led to the creation of an entirely new type of think tank, which began to look more like a nonprofit lobbying firm. A whole new industry arose called third-party lobbying, in which specially organized nonprofit think tanks would lobby on behalf of contributors and elected officials who had specific policy objectives in mind.
Today the network of conservative think tanks seems to have reverted back to something closer to the earlier government-industrial think-tank model than the model created in the 1970s and 1980s to promote supply-side economics, school choice, limited government and personal freedom. It’s no wonder the conservative movement is casting about for a bold agenda to captivate the imagination of the American people.
It’s time to rejuvenate conservative think tanks so that scholars can have a safe haven in which to think and work and the freedom to generate new ideas – yes, even if those ideas don’t comport with the conventional wisdom of the conservative politicians in power. Conservatism needs to restore the raw intellectual spirits that made the movement great – independent thinking and the fierce defense of those ideas, no matter whom they offend or who is in office.