Established in 2014, the Niskanen Center is a libertarian 501(c)(3) think tank that works to change public policy through direct engagement in the policymaking process: developing and promoting proposals to legislative and executive branch policymakers, building coalitions to facilitate joint action, and marshaling the most convincing arguments in support of our agenda. The Center’s main audience is the Washington insiders – policy-oriented legislators, presidential appointees, career civil servants in planning, evaluation and budget offices, congressional committee staff, engaged academics, and interest group analysts – who together decide the pace and direction of policy change.
The Niskanen Center’s focus on policy change complements the work of existing libertarian organizations, most of which are engaged in other activities such as analyzing or criticizing public policy, changing public opinion, blocking counterproductive regulation and legislation, and electing friendly politicians.
The Center’s mission of producing concrete deliverables – libertarian-friendly legislation and regulation – suggests the need to accept the political terrain as a given. Successful near-term legislative and administrative operations – like successful military operations – require political actors to allow the terrain to dictate strategy and tactics. Hence, there are two important guidelines for our work:
Embracing relative policy improvements – While major changes in legislative or administrative policy are possible, they are rare. More typical are marginal policy changes that, cumulatively, often have major impact and help set the stage for more sweeping reforms down the road. The Niskanen Center will aggressively forward second, third, or fourth best reforms (as allowed by the political terrain) if they represent improvement over current policy while keeping an eye out for windows of opportunity for more sweeping change.
Willingness to compromise – Sustainable policy change is rarely possible without broad coalitions across partisan and ideological lines. Assembling such coalitions will require the Center to tailor its reform proposals so as to be compatible with the preferences of those who often do not share our beliefs. Hence, the exact nature of our reform proposals will likely mutate and evolve in the course of the deal making necessary to construct winning political coalitions.
The Center is named after William (Bill) Niskanen. Bill was a long-time friend whom we knew as chairman of the Cato Institute. Before his time at Cato, Bill was a defense policy analyst at RAND, director of program analysis at the Institute for Defense Analyses, assistant director of the Office of Management and Budget, professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, chief economist at the Ford Motor Company, professor of economics at UCLA, and a member (and later, acting chairman) of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Ronald Reagan.
Bill was a personification of the qualities we embrace at the Niskanen Center. He was an exemplary scholar who never let ideology or partisanship color his interpretation of facts and data. He was an idealist but, at the same time, a political realist with a burning desire to improve the state of affairs to whatever extent he could. And he was a man who earned great affection and respect from people across a wide range of governing networks in Washington.
For more about the Niskanen Center’s theory of policy change and how we go about our business, read our conspectus.