|Headquarters||Washington, D.C., U.S.|
The Niskanen Center is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates for environmentalism, immigration reform, civil liberties, and a national defense policy based on libertarian principles. The center is named after the late William A. Niskanen, a former economic adviser to president Ronald Reagan. The Niskanen Center states that its "main audience is Washington insiders."
- 1 History
- 2 Goals and guidelines
- 3 Policy areas
- 4 People
- 5 Positions
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
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. Niskanen Center founder 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 president of Cato 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 concrete deliverables, namely, libertarian-friendly legislation and regulation, working within the existing political framework. Their target audience is currently influential Washington insiders, rather than the general public, and includes: policy-oriented legislators, presidential appointees, career civil servants in planning, evaluation and budget offices, congressional committee staff, engaged academics, and interest group analysts. The focus is guided by their reading of the research on the determinants of public opinion. They use two guidelines:
- Embracing relative policy improvements: This includes putting forth second best or even third best or fourth best solutions.
- Willingness to compromise: This includes tailoring their reform proposals to be compatible with the preferences of potential allies who do not share their beliefs.
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 for the imposition of a global carbon tax for the purpose of offsetting global warming and the effects of climate change. In outlining the case for a carbon tax, Taylor proposed a revenue-neutral measure that will be enforced through a global tariff scheme to enforce compliance among participating nations. The Niskanen 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 was the featured guest on an hour-long episode of the John Stossel show in 2009 in which he advanced arguments against anthropogenic global warming and opposed government action to address climate change. Taylor explained his shift in a 2015 interview with Vox.com, 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.
Taylor's first doubts on the issue came when he discovered that scientists on whom he had relied to come to the opinion that climate change would not be as great a problem as the scientific consensus on climate change suggests were privately aware with problems in their public stance on the issue. In the early 2000s, while debating climate activist Joe Romm, he based part of his argument on the fact that the world had not warmed as much as NASA climate scientist James Hansen had predicted it would in his 1988 congressional testimony. Romm pointed out that the reason for Hansen's high estimate for warming over the intervening time period was that global greenhouse gas emissions had grown much more slowly than Hansen had predicted, and that observed warming had actually been entirely consistent with Hansen's projections for a scenario in which global emissions were at the levels that had actually occurred. When Taylor followed up on this with scientists allied with Cato on whom he had relied in the past, they "seemed to be fully aware of the problems with their narratives but they didn't care. Look, I'm not a scientist but I had trusted these scientists to well inform me on the matters, and I can no longer really trust them."
Robert Bradley of the Institute for Energy Research, a former colleague of Taylor's during his time as a climate skeptic, has countered that Taylor's shift coincides with his appeal for donors in the climate activist community to "financially father" his new institute following the break from Cato.
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.
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.
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. The grant was made as part of the Open Philanthropy Project, a spinoff of a collaboration between Good Ventures and charity evaluator GiveWell.
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 for light-touch policy approaches to emerging technologies.
Automation and the future of work
In June 2017 the Niskanen Center published two posts on how automation interplays with American politics. While the center is optimistic about the long-run benefits of automation, the center did express concern about the potential short-run political repercussions.
The debate is often cast between the "job elimination deniers" and the apocalyptic doomsayers, but there is a great deal of substance and nuance that is lost in such a (mis)characterization. The real questions are what the intervening period of dislocation looks like, who gets hurt the hardest, and what the short-term political ramifications of this dynamic transformation means for the people experiencing those changes first hand.
The second post examined potential policy reforms that could be used to ameliorate those risks. These included reforming housing policies, education policies, and social safety net provisions.
In particular, the technology and civil liberties department focuses on reforming government surveillance. As discussed in the department's blog:
As technology has advanced, the idea of total surveillance has leaped from the pages of fiction into reality. Americans are now confronted with a near-Orwellian surveillance system that threatens to abscond with the basic civil liberties guaranteed to every American under the auspices of the U.S. Constitution. Where once courts produced warrants in the public forum, the process has now become opaque as secret courts ordering secret warrants under secret interpretations of law have become a way of life. Under such a system, there can never be a presumption of innocence, or the guarantee of a free and open exchange of ideas.
Ryan Hagemann leads the department and had previously authored works on commercial drones and autonomous vehicles with the Mercatus Center's Technology Policy Program. He maintains an adjunct fellowship with TechFreedom, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Foreign policy and defense
The Center's Foreign Policy and Defense department is led by Matt Fay and focuses on reforming the spending and appropriations practices of the Department of Defense and U.S. armed forces. Fay, in his blog Dollars and Defense, notes 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. Moreover, the Department of Defense is a bureaucracy. It is subject to any number of pathologies from which all bureaucracies suffer. In fact, given its size, it is even more likely to fall prey to dysfunction. Scarcity can provide discipline. It can force useful tradeoffs.
Poverty and welfare
The Center's Poverty & Welfare department is currently headed by Samuel Hammond, who earned his bachelor's degree in economics with honors from Saint Mary's University and his master's in economics from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Hammond's work focuses on improving the efficiency of the United States' welfare system, and has examined the role of welfare state in the United States, the merits of a child allowance, universal basic income, and the dependency (or lack thereof) of immigrants on government programs. 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.
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.
- Bleeding-heart libertarianism
- Green libertarianism
- Libertarian paternalism
- Mixed economy
- Third Way
- Welfare capitalism
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- Will Wilkinson, "Double Edged Denmark," October 15, 2015 https://niskanencenter.org/blog/double-edged-denmark/
- Will Wilkinson, "Is there a Libertarian Case for Bernie Sanders?
- Jerry Taylor, "Is there a Future for Libertarianism?" February 23, 2016 
- Megan McArdle, "A Libertarian Case for Bernie Sanders? It's fun but Not Convincing." February 19, 2016, 
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