Niskanen Center

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Niskanen Center
Formation2014; 5 years ago (2014)[1]
FounderJerry Taylor
HeadquartersWashington, D.C., U.S.
Key people
  • Jerry Taylor
  • Joe Coon
Revenue (2017)
Expenses (2017)$3,281,090[2]

The Niskanen Center is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates environmentalism, immigration reform, civil liberties, and a national defense policy based on market principles.[3][4][5] 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,"[6] and characterizes itself as a moderate think tank.[7]


The Niskanen Center was founded in early 2015 by Jerry Taylor.[8] 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.[9] Taylor[10] and vice president Joe Coon[11] 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 [12] 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,[13] the Lawrence Linden Trust for Conservation, which provided the Niskanen Center with a grant "to develop and analyze a potential economy-wide carbon tax",[14] and a $400,000 operations grant from the Hewlett Foundation.[15]

Goals and guidelines[edit]

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.[3] The Center's activities are guided by its reading of the research on the determinants of public opinion.[16] The Center seeks to embrace relative policy improvements, rather than a single, optimal one.

Policy areas[edit]

The Niskanen Center focuses on four distinct areas of public policy: climate change, foreign policy and defense, immigration reform, and technology and civil liberties.[3]

Climate change[edit]

The Niskanen Center advocates the imposition of a global carbon tax for the purpose of offsetting global warming and the effects of climate change. [17] 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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20][21]

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).[22] 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.[23]


The Niskanen Center argues for expanding immigration to the United States. In particular, they have argued for protecting the Diversity Immigrant Visa program in the United States, increasing low-skilled immigration, and getting the United States to increase its refugee intake.[24][25]

Good Ventures, a private foundation run by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna, made a $360,000 grant to the Niskanen Center in October 2015 to support its work on immigration policy, specifically the hiring of an Immigration Policy Counsel.[26] The grant was made as part of the Open Philanthropy Project, a spinoff of a collaboration between Good Ventures and charity evaluator GiveWell.[27][28]

Technology and civil liberties[edit]

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.[29][30][31] The department advocates light-touch policy approaches to emerging technologies.

Ryan Hagemann is a senior fellow at the department and had previously authored works on commercial drones and autonomous vehicles with the Mercatus Center's Technology Policy Program.[32][33] He maintains an adjunct fellowship with TechFreedom, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.[34]

Foreign policy and defense[edit]

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 Deptartment of Defense as a factor in this.[35]

Poverty and welfare[edit]

The Center's Poverty & Welfare department is currently headed by Samuel Hammond.[36] The department focuses on improving the efficiency and merits of the United States' welfare system.[37][38][39][40][41] Through its poverty and welfare department, the Niskanen Center is also a part of the Economic Security Project,[42] which aims to "comprehensively explore the merits of a universal basic income."[43]


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).[3][4] Will Wilkinson, who also previously worked at the Cato Institute, is the Niskanen Center's Vice President of Policy.

Advisory Board members include Yoram Bauman, Tom G. Palmer, John H. Cochrane, Tyler Cowen, Grover Norquist, Reihan Salam, Virginia Postrel, Matt Zwolinski, and Jacob T. Levy.[3]

The Niskanen Center also has several prominent senior fellows, including Steven Teles, Jacob T. Levy, Ed Dolan, and Linda Chavez.[44]

Philosophy and political theory[edit]

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.[45]

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."[46] 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.[47]

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."[48] University of Chicago economist John Cochrane echoed this assessment by noting the political dangers of "libertarians for Sanders" position.[49]

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.[46]

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."[50] 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.[51] 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[52][37] and government in market economics.[53]

After the 2016 U.S. elections, the Niskanen Center also began to focus on the importance of institutions in protecting economic and civil liberties.[54] This has included examinations of legitimacy,[55] authority,[56] sovereignty,[57] political discourse,[58][59] the role of protests,[60] the relationship between socialism and fascism,[61] political resentment,[62] and nepotism[63] among other issues.

Critiques of philosophical approaches[edit]

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.[64]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "About". Niskanen Center. Retrieved February 27, 2017.
  2. ^ a b "The Niskanen Center Inc" (PDF). Foundation Center. Retrieved August 2, 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d e "About". Niskanen Center. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
  4. ^ a b O'Connor, Patrick (January 29, 2015). "Libertarian Group Aims to Influence Immigration, Climate-Change Policies". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved December 8, 2015. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)
  5. ^ Young, Richard C. (January 30, 2015). "Breaking News: A New Libertarian Think Tank". Retrieved December 10, 2015.
  6. ^ "Announcing the Niskanen Center Summer 2016 Internship Program - Niskanen Center". Retrieved December 20, 2017.
  7. ^ "THE CENTER CAN HOLD: Public Policy for an Age of Extremes" (PDF). Retrieved May 30, 2019. External link in |website= (help)
  8. ^ Center, Niskanen. "Niskanen Center, New Libertarian Think Tank, Launches with Focus on Congressional Action". Retrieved December 20, 2017.
  9. ^ "The Cato Institute Switches Out Captains". NewsMax.
  10. ^ "Jerry Taylor". Koch v. Cato.
  11. ^ "Joey Coon". Koch v. Cato.
  12. ^ Mooney, Chris (June 10, 2015). "This businessman thinks he can change the GOP's mind on climate change". Washington Post. Retrieved January 16, 2016. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)
  13. ^ "Niskanen Immigration Policy Grant | GiveWell". GiveWell. Retrieved January 21, 2016.
  14. ^ "Recent Grants (archived from May 2015)". Lawrence Linden Trust for Conservation. Archived from the original on May 3, 2015. Retrieved January 16, 2016.
  15. ^ "Grants". Retrieved December 20, 2017.
  16. ^ "Niskanen Center Conspectus" (PDF). Niskanen Center. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
  17. ^ Taylor, Jerry. "The Conservative Case for a Carbon Tax" (PDF). Niskanen Center.
  18. ^ "Libertarian Principles & Climate Change". Niskanen Center. April 6, 2015. Retrieved December 10, 2015.
  19. ^ "Stossel – Global Climate Change". YouTube. December 10, 2009. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)
  20. ^ Roberts, David (May 12, 2015). "he arguments that convinced a libertarian to support aggressive action on climate". Vox. Retrieved December 18, 2015. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)
  21. ^ Pope, Carl (April 29, 2015). "Let the Dialogue Resume!". Huffington Post. Retrieved December 10, 2015. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)
  22. ^ Geman, Ben (December 1, 2015). "Conservative-to-Conservative Outreach Heats Up Climate-Science Debate". National Journal. Retrieved January 16, 2016. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)
  23. ^ "Is There a Divergence between Climate Models and Temperature Data? - Niskanen Center". Retrieved December 20, 2017.
  24. ^ Bier, David (June 9, 2015). "Four Ways to Provide Legal Pathways for Lesser-Skilled Immigrants". Niskanen Center. Retrieved December 18, 2015.
  25. ^ Bier, David (November 16, 2015). "Six Reasons to Welcome Syrian Refugees After Paris". Niskanen Center. Retrieved December 18, 2015.
  26. ^ "Niskanen Center — Research on Immigration Policy". Good Ventures. October 1, 2015. Retrieved December 18, 2015.
  27. ^ "Niskanen Immigration Policy Grant". Open Philanthropy Project. October 1, 2015. Retrieved December 18, 2015.
  28. ^ "Immigration Policy Counsel, Niskanen Center". Retrieved December 18, 2015.
  29. ^ Hagemann, Ryan (November 9, 2015). "Encryption, Trust, and the Online Economy: An Assessment of the Economic Benefits Associated with Encryption" (PDF). Niskanen Center.
  30. ^ Hagemann, Ryan (December 29, 2015). "The Future of Transportation: Autonomous, Electric, and Looped". CapX.
  31. ^ "The Future of Space Commercialization". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  32. ^ Adam Thierer, Ryan Hagemann (September 2014). "Removing Roadblocks to Intelligent Vehicles and Driverless Cars" (PDF). Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy.
  33. ^ Eli Dourado, Ryan Hagemann, Adam Thierer (April 24, 2015). "Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems". Mercatus Center.
  34. ^ "TechFreedom's Staff". Retrieved January 21, 2016.
  35. ^ "About | Dollars & Defense". Dollars & Defense. Retrieved January 21, 2016.
  36. ^ "Poverty and Welfare Analyst". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  37. ^ a b "What Is the "Free Market Welfare State" For?". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  38. ^ "How Our Broken Welfare System Threatens Economic Growth". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  39. ^ "Bad Arguments Against a Child Allowance". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  40. ^ "The Pro-work Case for Universal Basic Income". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  41. ^ "Report: The Myth of the Government-Dependent Immigrant". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  42. ^ "Economic Security Project". Economic Security Project. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  43. ^ "Niskanen Center Joins the Economic Security Security Project". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  44. ^ "About". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  45. ^ Wilkinson, Will (October 15, 2015). "Double Edged Denmark". Niskanen Center. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
  46. ^ a b Wilkinson, Will (February 11, 2016). "Is There a Libertarian Case for Bernie Sanders?". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  47. ^ Taylor, Jerry (February 23, 2016). "Is There a Future for Libertarianism?". RealClearPolicy. RealClear Media Group. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
  48. ^ McArdle, Megan (February 19, 2016). "A Libertarian Case for Sanders? It's Fun But Not Convincing". Bloomberg. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
  49. ^ Cochrane, John H. (February 12, 2016). "The Grumpy Economist: The Libertarian Case for Bernie Sanders". Retrieved December 20, 2017.
  50. ^ "Double-Edged Denmark". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  51. ^ "Opinion | Is there a libertarian case for Bernie Sanders?". Washington Post. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  52. ^ "Libertarian Principles, Niskanen, and Welfare Policy". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  53. ^ "Good Government Can Reconcile Economic Freedom and the Welfare State". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  54. ^ "Liberalism Beyond Markets". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  55. ^ "Should We Care Whether Trump Was the Legitimate Winner of the Election?". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  56. ^ "It may be time to disobey the commander in chief". Vox. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  57. ^ "The Sovereign Myth". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  58. ^ "Three Ways to Lower the Stakes of Political Disagreement". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  59. ^ "The Why and How of Reasonable Disagreement". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  60. ^ "Op-ed: Why Walking Out Is Better Than Shouting Down". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  61. ^ "The Shortcut to Serfdom". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  62. ^ "Why Liberalism Needs Resentment". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  63. ^ "A Government of Laws, Not Son-in-Laws". Niskanen Center. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  64. ^ Robert Bradley, "Jerry Taylor Old vs. New: What would Bill Niskanen say? [1]; Robert Bradley, "Jerry Taylor: Climate Change as Political Theater" [2]

External links[edit]