20 Sep 2018

Niskanen Center Scholar Outraged That Nancy MacLean Relying on 2015 Description of Itself

Niskanen Center 4 Comments

This is really funny. (Full disclosure: I have had many unfriendly interactions with Jerry Taylor, founder of the Niskanen Center, over the last few years, so take that into account when reading this post.)

Nancy MacLean took an ad hominem swipe (as is her wont) on Facebook against Steven Teles, a Senior Fellow with the Niskanen Center, who had earlier criticized her scholarship. That’s dog-bites-man story. But what I find hilarious is that Teles in his response was shocked that MacLean had the audacity to accuse the Niskanen Center of being a libertarian organization.

So here’s the offending passage from MacLean’s Facebook post: “…I notice that Kabaservice, like Teles, whose driveby, ill-informed attack on my work he cites, is on the payroll at the Niskanen Center. It’s named after the former Cato President, and launched by some who couldn’t abide the climate science denial anymore, but hold on to the libertarianism.

In response to that charge from MacLean, here’s how Teles reponded:

Let’s start with the simply wrong and move on from there. First, Bill Niskanen was not president of Cato, but chairman of the board. That’s a pretty big difference. She can find the evidence right here on Wikipedia. If she had done any research on the Niskanen Center whatsoever, she would recognize that Bill Niskanen’s work has very little in common with the Center’s, beyond a willingness to call things as we see them. Second, when the book was published Brink Lindsey was no longer at VP at Cato, as he had moved to Niskanen. She would have found that here.

Third, the Niskanen Center does not describe itself as libertarian. For those who are interested, here’s Niskanen’s “About” page. It is certainly true that a lot of Niskanen’s staff came out of libertarian organizations, including Cato. And it’s right that Jerry Taylor’s original motivation for starting Niskanen had a lot to do with his rejection of climate science denial. But she might also find that Jerry was very involved on one side of the battle over control of Cato, with a certain bête noire of hers on the other side.

In any case it’s certainly not even remotely correct to say that that Niskanen “holds on to the libertarianism.” Has she even bothered to visit the Niskanen website before saying things like this? If she had, she’d have run into, for instance, Sam Hammond’s excellent work on the “free market welfare state,” which argues that in an era of market disruption the cause of social insurance is even more vital than ever.  If that was too long she could have read Jared Bernstein’s interview with Sam, craftily hidden at the Washington Post.

Looking around elsewhere on the Niskanen site, Prof. MacLean might have read our Vice-President for Research Will Wilkinson’s attack on the Republican tax bill last year, which traces its flaws back to libertarian ideas. It was deep in the dark web…no, it was in the New York Times, which is easily available in Durham. She might also be interested in Will’s argument with a prominent George Mason University libertarian, Ilya Somin, on what he sees as libertarianism’s fundamental conflict with democracy. The piece, by the way, says that Professor MacLean is right on the question of libertarian hostility to democracy, but that, among other things, she is “overly fond of Infowars-style dot-connecting.”

If Professor MacLean was under the impression that Niskanen is just a libertarian mouthpiece, she could have also picked up my book with Niskanen VP for Policy Brink Lindsey, The Captured Economy. There are two copies in Duke’s library, for her reading pleasure. There she would have found us arguing for reversing Republicans’ cynical cuts in Congressional analytical capacity, which we argue simply empower lobbyists for concentrated interests. She might have also looked on the New York Times website, where she would have found Brink and I criticizing the Trump administration’s record on regulation as simply advancing upward redistribution and rent seeking. Neither of these are the standard argument around the halls of Reason or Cato.

As I say, your mileage may vary, but I find the above absolutely hilarious. Note, early on, that Teles can’t believe MacLean would think “the Niskanen Center” might have something to do with the work of Niskanen.

But beyond that, it’s great that Teles says the actual work of the Niskanen Center should be enough to tell any disinterested observer that it is NOT a libertarian organization, advancing libertarian ideals. I agree with you wholeheartedly, Dr. Teles!

Teles is also right that if you look at the current description of Niskanen on its website, you won’t find any mention of libertarianism.

Ah, but that’s why you need to look at their ORIGINAL “conspectus,” when they launched a few years ago. Fortunately it’s still online (and I’ve downloaded the PDF in case something should happen to this link…), and it contains stuff like this:


And, lest you think the above is just some obscure language buried deep in their website, here’s the press release from Feb. 2015 when Niskanen first launched, with quotes coming from its founder, Jerry Taylor:

So in sum, the Niskanen Center has been just as slippery as I’ve been warning since its founding: It is (e.g.) urging libertarians and conservatives to support a carbon tax, even though the alleged safeguards (like revenue neutrality) go out the window when convenient.

I just feel bad for Dr. Teles, who joined an organization without apparently realizing that three years ago, it told the world it was libertarian.

4 Responses to “Niskanen Center Scholar Outraged That Nancy MacLean Relying on 2015 Description of Itself”

  1. Joe Esty says:

    What does it mean to have “scholarship”? And why must we reflexively defer to scholarship when it is invoked? Nassim Taleb’s IYI (intellectual-yet-idiot) so frequently comes to mind when reading the thoughts of a scholarly author.

  2. Daniel Kuehn says:

    Ya I linked to and liked his response too but this was exactly the point that I found pretty ridiculous.

  3. Matt M says:

    Heh, I recently had an online argument where someone insisted that the Mises institute has nothing to do with Mises at all, and that it was all just a cover for those crazy Nazis running it to plausibly deny their anti-semitism by naming themselves after a Jew, and that the real Mises would clearly object to and disavow the institute were he still alive.

  4. Bob Roddis says:

    Wow. Something I never realized before. Our opponents all lie.

    Who knew?

Leave a Reply