(The following article first appeared in the Winter 2001 edition of Impact.)
Americans use the word "independent" with a near-reverence that springs from our political history. The Declaration of Independence and its anniversary, Independence Day, are hallowed secular touchstones. Children are encouraged to become "independent." "Independent" thinkers are prized. "Independent" action is praised. Financial "independence" is sought. "Energy independence" slogans are mouthed by politicians. Our state welfare department was even renamed the Family Independence Agency.
But "independent" is frequently misused when a journalist chooses a one-word label to describe policy research institutes.When journalists label a think tank "independent," we automatically paint a mental picture of a tough, autonomous, and resolute group. But what, exactly, are such institutions independent of? Might journalists be confusing independence with unpredictability?
The constant flux that results from not being grounded in principles can indeed be dressed up as independence. Unfortunately, it seems that those think tanks frequently described in the news as "independent" are the ones that seem bereft of guiding principles for their work.
You probably know the kind of so-called independent organizations I mean. On any given issue, you can't be sure what guides their thinking. On one issue, they're for a lot more government intervention. On the next, they think a little bit more government is just the right amount. Later, less government is fine. On some issues, they conclude individual freedom is good. On others, people can't be trusted to run their own lives.
Weak or absent principles leads to loss of organizational independence by inviting undue influence from outsiders. Clients who pay for research, powerful constituencies, politicians, and pollsters can end up controlling an unprincipled think tank, buffeting it in different directions.
It's frustrating when such groups, in Michigan and at the national level, are called "independent," because only organizations like the Mackinac Center—who are grounded in principle—stick to a research agenda, conduct studies that test their principles, publish conclusions, and let the chips fall where they may. Truly independent organizations cannot operate independent of strong principles.
Mackinac Center supporters know that we invest every dollar they contribute to investigate sound policy based on enduring principles of limited government and free markets. Those who want ideas on how to become a freer society with less government interference come to us. Those who don't think the amount of government matters very much usually go elsewhere.
The next time you see a policy research institute labeled "independent," think about this: If you cannot imagine substituting the word "principled" for "independent," maybe that organization isn't so independent after all.