I let an unformed idea sneak out the other day in a post on a loosely related subject, and it attracted a lot of interest where people recognized the implications of what I was asking. The question was this: Can blogs -- and related network technology -- serve some of the purposes that one would want progressive think tanks to serve? (Ed Kilgore at NewDonkey.com put the case for new progressive think-tank capacity very succinctly last week. I particularly appreciate the distinction he politely draws between "real live think-tanks" that generate ideas and "talking-points distribution organizations.")
It's become clear to me from comments on other sites, particularly Matthew Yglesias, that I should have been clearer about what I meant. The term "think tank" obviously covers a multitude of sins. (As does "blog.") What I'm thinking of is the think tank as a generator and tester of new ideas and perspectives, in just the way that Kilgore suggests: "the product development side of the political business." For example, if there is a political need to present an alternative approach to Social Security private accounts, could a self-organized network of bloggers, commentors and other participants work out some of the technical and political problems collaboratively over a fairly rapid period? That is, agree on a basic framework that would be equitable and minimize risk to individuals, figure out a way to deal with transition costs, find a creative way to sell the plan, etc. (I recognize that there is a sizable faction that would argue that the only appropriate response to Social Security privatization proposals is to yell and scream that the conservatives want to destroy Social Security and let seniors eat dog food while giving trillions away to Wall Street, but I think at the very least there should be a Plan B on the shelf.)
I use this example because it's largely already occurring, with Kevin Drum, Kieran Healy, Brad deLong and others making significant contributions, even if they are not explicitly working together. On a broader question, such as the liberal response to terrorism, I just noticed the TerrorWiki, which uses a somewhat different approach to aggregate and refine ideas. The idea of collaborative monitoring of legislation that I mentioned in the original post is a more mundane version of the same thing.
A lot of questions remain, however: How will ideas and information developed through this method of never-concluded deliberation be wrapped up, in the way that recommendations or specific proposals from a think tank are often wrapped up? How will the analysis be delivered to members of Congress or other policymakers who are not necessarily blog-readers, which is one typical activity of such think tanks? How would one ensure that the mundane work such as number-crunching or literature searches gets done? How would one give the product of such an analysis the imprimatur of credibility that comes with a report from, say, The Urban Institute? Are any of these things necessary?
What actually would be the competitive advantages of such an approach: Speed? Spontaneity? Depth of collaboration?
I'm particularly interested in the potential of collaboration not only across blogs, but through wikis, or perhaps some other variation of social software yet to be developed. The Wikipedia definition of a wiki begins "Wikis generally follow a philosophy of making it easy to fix mistakes, instead of making it hard to make them." Although that generally applies to projects that are aiming to accumulate facts rather than ideas, so that the term "mistake" is well-defined, it is very much the spirit that I am looking for here. I'm envisioning a culture in which crazy, flawed, provocative ideas can be thrown out freely, and if there is some merit, however small, a process of correction and refinement will follow. The other day, for example, Kevin Drum proposed eliminating the corporate income tax -- a provocative idea I've been interested in also (in exchange for full taxation of dividends and capital gains) but that raises a lot of problems and questions. He got a lot of good response in his comments, but perhaps that process could be refined in order to come up with a more complete proposal.
Here's what people commenting on this idea thought I was referring to, but I'm not:
* More think-tank staffers starting blogs. Not a bad thing, and Max Sawicky, Steve Clemons, John Irons and others are good examples. But not everyone is capable of producing a good blog (indeed, the esteemed Becker-Posner team seems to be having some trouble), and people at policy think-tanks are already in a fairly privileged position to get their ideas into the public debate. More interesting are people outside that world who are capable of contributing to the development of ideas, from perspectives in business, within government (this would be a great opportunity for, for example, a government analyst who has to operate anonymously to provide some knowledgeable insight about policy), or academia. In fact, in the discussion of the need for progressive think tanks that I've been involved in for several years now -- without much to show for it -- one often hears an assertion like, "There must be a lot of academics who have really good policy ideas and want to get them into the public debate." That's not as true as one would hope; many academics in the social sciences are too caught up in the narrow internal questions in their own fields or the demands that go with advancement in the academy, but there are exceptions. Increasingly, a way to get out there as an exception is through a blog, such as Crooked Timber.
* Think tanks starting blogs. Again, if someone wants to start BrookingsBlog, that's not a bad thing, but not what I'm thinking of. In general, these are likely to be as interesting as John Kerry's blog. Especially for an organization that is a 501(c)3 non-profit, too much care is required with what goes out under the official imprimatur of the organization to allow the spontaneity and flawed ideas of a blog. (c)3's have to be very careful about lobbying and cannot do or say anything that implies electioneering. Just the review process alone would slow things down, something I've seen for myself. On the other hand, anyone running a think tank should not stand in the way of someone who wants to write a blog independently.
To me the gratifying thing about writing a blog has not been in reaching the broad public, which I don't expect to do, but in the community it forms, both internally (i.e., among commentors here) but across other sites and other commentors. Even if these communities are narrow by any standard of mass media, they are something that can be used much more creatively for the production of knowledge. I intend to devote some attention to this question over the next year or so, and encourage other thoughts or suggestions of people to talk to and things to read.