The Washington Intellectual Gravy Train

by | Jun 8, 2015


Intellectuals have long been glorified as champions of truth and defenders of society’s highest values. But in Washington, they serve as Leviathan‘s Praetorian Guard. Intellectuals are thriving in DC thanks in large part to the ruinous policy advice they proffer.

The District of Columbia has 120 times more political scientists per capita than the rest of the nation. But rather than producing “good governance,” the 3,200 political scientists and legions of other would-be Brain Trusters provide endless excuses to further extend the federal sway. Intellectuals usually come to Washington to help politicians leash other Americans, not to leash the government. And since they presume their preferred policies are better than freedom, intellectuals propel government programs to force their inferiors to “take their medicine.”

Washington think tanks have proliferated at the same time federal policies have become far more intrusive and harebrained. There are now roughly 400 think tanks in the Washington area, some of which are little more than “cash machines for power” for politicians. Clifford May, the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, commented in 2005: “It is the job of think tanks to create political capital. It is the job of politicians to spend it.” May’s think tank extols politicians who advocate bombing Muslim nations. Journalist Ken Silverstein, in an excellent report last year on think tank corruption, noted, “The Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank, has never met a weapons program it didn’t like. That is not surprising since a good chunk of its funding — about $2.5 million in 2010 — comes from defense giants like Boeing, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman.”

Some think tanks are fronts for political operatives. Jack Abramoff, the most powerful lobbyist in Washington, placed an aging beach lifeguard at the head of American International Center, a think tank he created to funnel money to himself and his favorite causes. The scam was fruitful until Abramoff’s other machinations won him admission to federal prison. Newt Gingrich’s boutique think tank, the Center for Health Transformation, pocketed $37 million from health care corporations and industry groups before going bankrupt in 2012 after Gingrich’s presidential campaign floundered. Gingrich used his op-eds and speeches to tout positions favored by his think tank donors and omitted mentioning who was bankrolling his operation.

Think tanks are increasingly lackeys for foreign governments. The New York Times last June exposed how the government of Norway paid the Center for Global Development $5 million to hustle Washington officials to boost foreign aid spending. The Brookings Institution received a windfall from the government of Qatar to set up a research institute that, according to the Qatar government, would devote itself to “reflecting the bright image of Qatar in the international media, especially the American ones.” After an especially tawdry fixed election in 2011, the Kazakhstan government image was burnished by two think tanks on its payroll — the Center for Security and International Studies and the Institute for New Democracies. The Atlantic Council, another prominent DC think tank, pockets cash from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and NATO.

Some think tanks offer little more than an intellectual version of “rent-a-mobs” of political protestors. In the same way that medieval kings grabbed any shabby pretext to invade neighboring countries, today’s politicians perennially seek pretexts to further invade citizens’ lives. And there is never a shortage of intellectuals who, like the courtiers of medieval courts, assure their masters that God — or at least social science — blesses their aggression.

Washington think tanks provide a sheen of intellectual legitimacy to Leviathan. The profusion of think tanks and policy wonks also spawn the illusion that ideas drive policy in Washington. But in most cases, the ideas are simply pretenses to sanctify the pursuit of power.

The role of intellectual grafters in contemporary Washington is epitomized by Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist who received a $297,000 federal contract for aiding the push for the Affordable Care Act and earned the nickname, “the Oracle of ObamaCare.” He boasted in 2009 of his “black box” software program he used to gin up the numbers to promote the Obama legislative agenda. Invoking a secret computer model is the contemporary version of the tricks Merlin the magician practiced in King Arthur’s court. Gruber told a conference of economists in 2013 that the administration had to bamboozle the public about ObamaCare due to “the stupidity of the American voter.” His comments sparked a conservative firestorm but the liberal New Republic exonerated him as an “independent-minded professor” devoted to the public good.

The more power politicians capture, the more profitable lying about government becomes. Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek, in his famous 1944 essay in The Road to Serfdom, “Why the Worst Get on Top,” showed why, once government acquires vast power, “the readiness to do bad things becomes a path to promotion.” In the same way, Washington is biased in favor of intellectuals who defend torture, total government surveillance, and the president’s assassination prerogative. The advocates and apologists for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq continue to be esteemed inside the Beltway as foreign policy visionaries.

The bigger government becomes, the more the “intellectual playing field” is tilted in favor of servility. Kowtowing is also spurred by Medals of Freedom, National Humanities Awards, and other honorifics bestowed by the White House and federal agencies. Regardless of how badly previous government policies failed, the expert consensus is almost always in favor of new programs and new interventions. Washington intellectuals fret far more about public distrust of government than about federal oppression of American citizens.

The closer that intellectuals get to politicians, the more weaselly they usually become.

The Washington definition of “independent thinker” is merely someone without a visible receipt for his opinions. Americans should be as wary of “gravy train intellectuals” as they are of congressmen and other serial perjurers.

Reprinted with permission from the Mises Institute.

Image: Wonkette.


  • James Bovard

    James Bovard is an American libertarian author and lecturer whose political commentary targets examples of waste, failures, corruption, cronyism and abuses of power in government. He is a USA Today columnist and is a frequent contributor to The Hill.

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