|Headquarters||Washington, D.C., U.S.|
The Niskanen Center is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates environmentalism, immigration reform, civil liberties, and strengthening social insurance around market-oriented principles. The center is named after William A. Niskanen, an economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan. The Center states that its "main audience is Washington insiders," and characterizes itself as a moderate think tank.
The Niskanen Center was founded in early 2015 by Jerry Taylor. At its launch, the center was composed primarily of former staffers of the Cato Institute who departed in the wake of a 2012 leadership struggle pitting Ed Crane against the Koch Brothers for control of the libertarian think tank. Taylor and vice president Joe Coon publicly aligned themselves with Crane during the dispute. Both departed shortly after Crane was replaced by John Allison as Cato's president as part of the settlement with the Kochs.
Funding for the center includes donors who seek to counter libertarian conservative hostility to anti-global warming measures. North Carolina businessman Jay Faison, a Republican donor, made an early contribution to the Niskanen Center to spur public climate education but has ceased all ties to the organization in recent years. Some supporters of the Niskanen Center are more traditionally aligned with left-libertarian causes. They include the Open Philanthropy Project, which supports the Center's work to expand legal immigration, the Lawrence Linden Trust for Conservation, which provided the Niskanen Center with a grant "to develop and analyze a potential economy-wide carbon tax", and a $400,000 operations grant from the Hewlett Foundation.
Goals and guidelines
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The Niskanen Center focuses on producing advice on libertarian-friendly legislation and regulation by working within the existing political framework. The target audience is influential Washington insiders, rather than the general public. The Center's activities are guided by its reading of the research on the determinants of public opinion. The Center seeks to embrace relative policy improvements, rather than a single, optimal one.
The Niskanen Center focuses on four distinct areas of public policy: climate change, foreign policy and defense, immigration reform, and technology and civil liberties.
The Niskanen Center advocates the imposition of a global carbon tax for the purpose of offsetting global warming and the effects of climate change. The Center also endorses the understanding of climate change as anthropogenic and believes that government action is a necessary component of mitigating the risks associated with long term sea level rise and extreme weather events associated with climate change.
The Niskanen Center's support for carbon taxation represents a nearly complete reversal of Taylor's previous advocacy at the Cato Institute, where he was a vocal climate change skeptic. Taylor explained his shift in a 2015 interview with Vox, indicating that he had "fundamentally switched" his previous beliefs on the issue after seeing new scientific evidence and the more general strengthening over time of the case for the dangers of climate change, as well as arguments from fellow libertarians about responses to the challenge of climate change that were consistent with, and even required by, a libertarian political stance.
In November 2015 the Niskanen Center announced the founding of a new Center for Climate Science under the direction of Dr. Joseph Majkut, a climatologist who previously served on the staff of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). The Center for Climate Science publishes analysis of climatology research in support of anthropogenic theories of global warming. Majkut has sought to position the Niskanen Center as an opponent of the Cato Institute's Dr. Patrick J. Michaels, a prominent skeptic within the scientific community.
Niskanen's immigration department, directed by Kristie De Peña, generally argues for “moderate” and “pragmatic” reforms to expand legal immigration to the United States for humanitarian, economic, and national security reasons.
Creating American Jobs and Energizing Economic Growth — The Niskanen Center advocates for an expansion of programs to expand opportunities for high-skilled immigrants to come to the U.S. in order to “address America’s labor shortage,” arguing that this would not take jobs away from native-born Americans. Initiatives have included attracting foreign entrepreneurs to build companies on American soil; improving the EB-5 program to better accommodate projects and investors while promoting American job creation; retaining promising foreign graduates; and reforming the H-1B visa to combat fraud and protect Americans, and protecting the H-4 work authorization program.
Addressing Labor Shortages — In January 2018, Niskanen released a policy brief arguing that the U.S's failure to acknowledge its reliance on Mexican and Central American workers was its most persistent problem. The brief, and subsequent advocacy efforts have focused on increasing the total number of H-2A and H-2B visas to meet seasonal demands; creating a disaster worker visa; and addressing the growing shortage of healthcare workers in rural and underserved areas.
Strengthening Humanitarian Immigration — The Niskanen Center has argued that the United States best safeguards its national identity and global leadership by welcoming those refugees and other immigrants. In September 2018, it released a flagship paper by Idean Salehyan which focused on making a strong foreign policy and national security case in favor of refugee resettlement, and on creating new channels of private engagement in refugee resettlement. Since then, Niskanen has hosted two Hill events focusing on the practical benefits of refugee resettlement to the U.S.
Niskanen has also promoted a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, dramatic reforms to the asylum process, due process improvements, and special rights for vulnerable populations, among other issues.
Defending the Rule of Law and Integrity of the Judiciary — On family separation and other issues, the Niskanen Center has accused the Trump administration of using the immigration courts to “further a political agenda,” advocating instead for the independence and authority of the judiciary. Niskanen has also pointed to Trump's policies as a reason for the increasing backlog of cases in asylum courts across the country.
Technology and civil liberties
The Niskanen Center advocates a civil libertarian position on issues of privacy, cybersecurity, surveillance, and technology policy. Some of their issue areas include robotics and automation (in particular commercial drones and autonomous vehicles), encryption and cybersecurity, commercial outer space policy, and issues relating to the Internet of Things. The department advocates light-touch policy approaches to emerging technologies.
Foreign policy and defense
The Center's Foreign Policy and Defense department focuses on reforming the spending and appropriations practices of the Department of Defense and U.S. armed forces, noting that the Pentagon often makes ill-advised choices about future needs, and Congress pushes programs that create jobs in individual districts but do little to improve America's security. The Center has also pointed to the pathologies of bureaucracies besetting the Department of Defense as a factor in this.
Poverty and welfare
The Center's Poverty & Welfare department is currently headed by Samuel Hammond. The department focuses on improving the efficiency and merits of the United States' welfare system. Through its poverty and welfare department, the Niskanen Center is also a part of the Economic Security Project, which aims to "comprehensively explore the merits of a universal basic income."
The Niskanen Center was founded and is led by Jerry Taylor, who formerly worked at the Cato Institute, where he served as director of natural resource studies, assistant editor of Regulation magazine, senior fellow, and then vice president. Before that, Taylor was the staff director for the energy and environment task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Will Wilkinson, who also previously worked at the Cato Institute, is the Niskanen Center's Vice President of Policy.
The Niskanen Center also has several prominent senior fellows, including Steven Teles, Jacob T. Levy, Ed Dolan, and Linda Chavez.
Philosophy and political theory
The Niskanen Center has sought to differentiate itself from other think tanks on the political right by espousing a position of strategic compromise, including on issue areas that break from doctrinaire noninterventionist and free-market positions. In addition to taking an aggressive stance in favor of climate change action and carbon taxes, the center generally supports the maintenance of a more robust welfare state safety net in exchange for other market reforms. Vice President for Policy Will Wilkinson advocates a social democracy-style system that incorporates the position of liberal political philosopher John Rawls. This ideal mirrors European states such as Denmark that pair free trade liberalism and labor market reform with heavy unemployment benefits and a public healthcare system. The center advocates for reform and reduction of what it views as anti-competitive, anti-market regulations in such areas as occupational licensing, zoning, and housing construction; additionally, it calls for a sharp reduction in explicit and implicit government subsidies for financial market risk-taking.
In early 2016, the Niskanen Center published a post on the "libertarian case" for socialist Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. As Wilkinson wrote, "The libertarian case for Bernie Sanders is simply that Bernie Sanders wants to make America more like Denmark, Canada, or Sweden ... and the citizens of those countries enjoy more liberty than Americans do. No other candidate specifically aims to make the United States more closely resemble a freer country." Taylor seconded this position, asserting that there is a "case to be made that Sanders has been the most libertarian candidate in the presidential race" and calling for a "more thoughtful re-draft of the Sanders agenda." Taylor further linked this case for Sanders to a broader reformulation of political libertarianism, stating:
Were libertarians to ungrudgingly accept the case for a more adequate social safety net (a case, after all, accepted to some extent by libertarian heroes F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman) and give up on their blanket, dogmatic opposition to all regulation and market intervention (a perfect example is their remarkable hostility to mainstream climate science), they'd find a ticket to intellectual respectability. They would also find a ticket to political relevancy — something that is being well demonstrated by the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Their arguments for Sanders provoked a heated discussion by other libertarian commentators about whether there was a case to be made for Bernie Sanders. Megan McArdle countered that the thought of backing Sanders was "fun, but not convincing." "We heard a similar argument about Obamacare spurring entrepreneurship, which sounded splendid except for the total lack of evidence that national health care schemes had caused entrepreneurship to surge anywhere." University of Chicago economist John Cochrane echoed this assessment by noting the political dangers of "libertarians for Sanders" position.
However, the argument put forward by Wilkinson and Taylor may have been more of a thought exercise in relative tradeoffs between aspects of economic freedoms. As written by Wilkinson in the post:
The biggest problem with my particularist, data-first libertarian argument for Bernie Sanders is that Bernie Sanders doesn't seem to actually understand that Denmark-style social democracy is funded by a free-market capitalist system that is in many ways less regulated than American capitalism.
This critique had been outlined in an earlier piece by Wilkinson, in which he wrote: "The lesson Bernie Sanders needs to learn is that you cannot finance a Danish-style welfare state without free markets and large tax increases on the middle class." Rhetorical exercise or not, the idea of a "libertarian case for Bernie Sanders" helped contribute to a debate among libertarians about ideological priors during the 2016 election cycle. The Niskanen Center has challenged some of the engrained policy ideas of the right-leaning American libertarian orbit, including on the role of the welfare state and government in market economics.
After the 2016 U.S. elections, the Niskanen Center also began to focus on the importance of institutions in protecting economic and civil liberties. This has included examinations of legitimacy, authority, sovereignty, political discourse, the role of protests, the relationship between socialism and fascism, political resentment, and nepotism among other issues.
Critiques of philosophical approaches
The Niskanen Center's rejection of the traditional libertarian position on free markets in favor of regulated mixed markets, and its embrace of an incremental approach to achieve political victories, has come under broader criticism, particularly on the global warming issue. Robert Bradley of the Institute for Energy Research and former colleague of Taylor called upon the Niskanen Center to abandon its current name and claim to the "libertarian" label, noting that the late William A. Niskanen was personally skeptical of many of the climate change policies that they now advocate.
- Center-left politics
- Green libertarianism
- Libertarian paternalism
- Mixed economy
- Neoclassical liberalism
- Third Way
- Welfare capitalism
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- "Refugee Resettlement Programs, Part 1 | C-SPAN.org". c-span.org. Retrieved November 14, 2019.
- "Press Release: Niskanen Continues to Support Bipartisan Immigration Deal to Permanently Protect Dreamers". Niskanen Center. March 26, 2019. Retrieved November 14, 2019.
- "Niskanen Immigration Policy Brief: Asylum". Niskanen Center. May 16, 2018. Retrieved November 14, 2019.
- "What Everyone Has Gotten Wrong About Family Separation". Niskanen Center. May 31, 2018. Retrieved November 14, 2019.
- Lanard, Noah. "What would it actually take to fix the asylum system?". Mother Jones. Retrieved November 14, 2019.
- "The Causes of our Immigration Court Backlog, and How We Can Fix It". Niskanen Center. July 19, 2017. Retrieved November 14, 2019.
- Hagemann, Ryan (November 9, 2015). "Encryption, Trust, and the Online Economy: An Assessment of the Economic Benefits Associated with Encryption" (PDF). Niskanen Center.
- Hagemann, Ryan (December 29, 2015). "The Future of Transportation: Autonomous, Electric, and Looped". CapX.
- "The Future of Space Commercialization". niskanencenter.org. Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
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- "Poverty and Welfare Analyst". niskanencenter.org. Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
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- "How Our Broken Welfare System Threatens Economic Growth". niskanencenter.org. Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
- "Bad Arguments Against a Child Allowance". niskanencenter.org. Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
- "The Pro-work Case for Universal Basic Income". niskanencenter.org. Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
- "Report: The Myth of the Government-Dependent Immigrant". niskanencenter.org. Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
- "Economic Security Project". Economic Security Project. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
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- Wilkinson, Will (October 15, 2015). "Double Edged Denmark". niskanencenter.org. Niskanen Center. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
- Wilkinson, Will (February 11, 2016). "Is There a Libertarian Case for Bernie Sanders?". niskanencenter.org. Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
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- McArdle, Megan (February 19, 2016). "A Libertarian Case for Sanders? It's Fun But Not Convincing". Bloomberg. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
- Cochrane, John H. (February 12, 2016). "The Grumpy Economist: The Libertarian Case for Bernie Sanders". Retrieved December 20, 2017.
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- "Libertarian Principles, Niskanen, and Welfare Policy". niskanencenter.org. Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
- "Good Government Can Reconcile Economic Freedom and the Welfare State". niskanencenter.org. Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
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- "It may be time to disobey the commander in chief". Vox. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
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- "Three Ways to Lower the Stakes of Political Disagreement". niskanencenter.org. Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
- "The Why and How of Reasonable Disagreement". niskanencenter.org. Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
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- Robert Bradley, "Jerry Taylor Old vs. New: What would Bill Niskanen say? ; Robert Bradley, "Jerry Taylor: Climate Change as Political Theater"