In recent weeks the Mackinac Center has been accused of being “partisan” because of inquiries it made about the apparently pro-union activities of government university labor studies programs. What the accusers specifically mean by the charge is that the Center’s actions are motivated by a desire to help Republican politicians win elections. Anyone familiar with the Mackinac Center’s work over the past two decades will instantly recognize how off-base this is, and that the “partisan” charge says much more about the accusers’ worldview than the Center.

Here’s one example of how off-base the charge is: Mackinac Center analysts generally agreed with Republican Gov. John Engler’s policies of lower taxes and less regulation, but when he flip-flopped from opposing corporate welfare to enacting new programs expanding it, the Center became an outspoken and persistent critic of Engler’s new policies.

This was not the action of a political partisan. Hundreds of other examples could be cited where the Mackinac Center has criticized policies favored by Republicans and supported ones favored by Democrats. In every case the Center did so for the exact same reason: The specific policy either advanced or undercut the core principles of constitutional self government, free enterprise and civil society the Mackinac Center exists to promote.

Indeed, the very week recent “partisanship” accusations were flying, one of the Mackinac Center’s publications ran a story about a vote in Washington sure to displease two Republican members of Congress. That same week, responding to a request from a Democratic state representative, a Mackinac Center analyst testified before a House committee in opposition to a civil asset forfeiture law that a Republican bill could potentially expand.

For those who view the world through the lens of their own partisan political preferences, all this can be confusing. In such a worldview, every other person and organization is perceived as having the same motivations as the partisans themselves, all of which revolve around electoral politics. Therefore, an organization opposed to a policy currently favored by the partisan’s preferred party must be acting in the interest of the opposing party. The partisan holds this opinion very strongly in spite of its obvious contradictions with evidence like that described above.

People who do not view the world through a partisan lens are not subject to such contradictions. Among other things, they are able to distinguish between the world of ideas and the world of partisan electoral politics. They may still wonder why the two worlds are so separate, however.

Why Think Tanks Are Not Political Parties

One definition of a political party in a democratic system is “an organized attempt to get control of the government” (Schattschneider, 1942). In the two-party system, to “get control of the government,” parties must assemble coalitions of disparate groups with sometimes contradictory interests. Major party platforms constantly evolve by adopting positions intended to bring in a particular interest, sometimes at the cost of excluding some others.

In other words, parties are about power — getting it and keeping it — and not about ideas. (Which is not to say that some party officials and most supporters may also care about certain ideas; but the particular ideas they care about may vary greatly from person to person within a party). This is why there is no real philosophical consistency in the platforms of the two major political parties in America. Parties and candidates often pretend that there is some overarching set of principles, but “cross-pressured” voters who support one platform plank but oppose others intuitively recognize that this is just a pose.

A free-market think tank like the Mackinac Center is very different. First, its goal is not to “get control of the government,” but to study and make public policy recommendations that it believes should be adopted no matter which party controls the government. These recommendations are based on consistent core principles that do not change regardless of which way the political winds blow.

Recently, some think tanks have taken on an additional mission, which is educating the public about policies that have been or currently are being enacted into law by politicians of both parties, and about the actions of government entities supposedly governed by those laws.

The Mackinac Center has taken on this role because we recognize that voters are often misled by parties, politicians, government agencies and special interests about what existing or proposed laws actually do, and how they are being implemented. Further, that with the decline of traditional media news operations, no one else is providing the information people need.

One existing law that government entities are supposed to observe is a ban on using taxpayer-provided resources to pick sides in political battles. Based on material openly posted on their own website, at least one of three specific government institutions — the labor studies departments at Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University — appears at the very least to be skirting very close to this law.

That one is Wayne State's program, and given their similar purposes, this is why the Mackinac Center made inquiries about all three, including Freedom of Information Act requests for emails sent by their staff.

Individuals who view the world through the partisan lens described above naturally perceived these requests as either supporting or opposing their preferred party and candidates. Given that the activities in question are supportive of labor unions, whose policy preferences are strongly advanced by the Democratic Party at this time, partisans on that side naturally viewed the Mackinac Center’s inquiry as an “attack,” and concluded the Center’s motivation must be to “help Republicans.”

In other words, the charge says quite a bit about the worldview of those making it, but nothing at all about the Mackinac Center.