Mr. Smith Goes To Town

Mr. Smith Goes To Town

June 01, 1999

In America, everyone sees himself as the underdog. Perhaps it’s in our national character. When we see Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, we all see ourselves as Jimmy Stewart. No one wants to be Claude Raines.

That tendency might explain an odd little report published recently by a left-leaning group called the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Entitled "$1 Billion for Ideas: Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990s," the report describes, in alarming tones, the size and growing influence of 20 leading conservative and free-market policy institutions, including CEI.

While no doubt meant as an exposé of the nefarious activities of groups like ours, we are frankly rather flattered by the report’s description of our effect on policy. "There can be little doubt that conservative policy institutions have played a pivotal role in shaping the framework of national deliberations," it glumly intones.

It goes on to describe how "lean and agile think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute strive relentlessly to get their work into the hands of policymakers." The report specifically cites CEI as one of several groups expected to "expand into significantly larger institutions" in the near future. If this is criticism, who need compliments?

This growing influence, of course, could never be attributed to our groups’ better ideas. Rather our gains must be due to some illicit advantage. "Enormous resources have been placed at their disposal," the report says, toting up $158 million in annual spending by the top 20 groups (including $2.5 million by CEI), and over $1 billion overall in the 1990s. Breathlessly, it says that’s more than the GOP spent in "soft" money in 1996.

For a minute there, we were celebrating. "Hey, we’re rich!" we thought. But wait a second – what kind of yardstick is that? Spending more money than a losing political party? That kind of money isn’t to be sniffed at, but the federal government goes through $158 million about every 50 minutes.

How does this funding compare to that of policy groups on the left? The truth is that, despite the pretensions of pauperism, the left is still significantly better funded. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but two recent reference books, The Right Guide and The Left Guide, provide a glimpse into the funding of some 1,400 policy groups on both sides. According to author Derk Arend Wilcox of Economics America Inc., groups on the left had total revenue of almost $4 billion in 1995, about four times the total found for groups on the right. (Excluding the activist but quasi-governmental Legal Services Corporation, the left’s total is still about $3.7 billion.) This includes a Brobding nagian total of some $60 million for the Sierra Club and Sierra Club Foundation, and even $30 million for Greenpeace and the Greenpeace Fund.

None of this is to say that we wouldn’t love to have more resources than the pro-government crowd. (You donors out there shouldn’t get the wrong impression.) But given the current funding disparity, the left is no Mr. Smith. It needs to find another explanation for losing the war of ideas.