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Powerful officials often seek to influence “thinkers” and pundits by flattering them with access and requesting advice that ultimately is treated as superfluous. That is the upshot of this interesting post from Jeremy Shapiro at The Brookings Institution: “Who Influences Whom? Reflections on U.S. Government Outreach to Think Tanks“.

These relationships are of a different character than the symbioses often existing between government officials (elected and unelected) and private corporations and unions. The corporatist relationships that most often come to mind are infamous for bleeding taxpayers, distorting the economy and using the power of government to advance private interests. The nexus highlighted by Shapiro between officialdom and think-tank experts, as well as influencers in the media and academia, is a different corner of the rent-seeking world, but it is rent seeking nevertheless.

Shapiro, himself a former government official, describes a sequence of events that might be experienced by an outside expert leading up to an “important” meeting with a high government official. Such experts have a strong interest in their areas of study and naturally hope to promote their own views and analyses. An opportunity to provide input to a policymaker is obviously attractive to such a person. Interactions with officials also confer status on experts, who can then trade on the impressive access they’ve been granted. Invitations to meetings like these, in and of themselves, represent successful rent-seeking by policy experts, regardless of whether their policy advice is given serious consideration by public officials.

While outside experts are often called upon for real policy advice, the government official is frequently after something else; in all likelihood, the official already has a policy position:

The government official desperately wants the thinkers to give him the benefit of the doubt when his inevitably flawed policy comes up for critical examination, as they are an important source of its ultimate evaluation by the Congress and the public. The briefings therefore tend to take place before important diplomatic meetings or foreign trips that will predictably occasion a round of media coverage on the policy in question.

So the official hopes to engineer mutually beneficial trades with outside experts. Trades of this kind may have no real value to anyone outside of the direct parties. Shapiro’s example relates to foreign policy, but the same dynamic takes place in almost every area of government policymaking:

The thinkers are the validators. They will write op-eds, give pithy quotes to important newspapers, and appear on network news programs.

As Shapiro tells it, an intriguing aspect of this process is that the experts are often well aware of the circumstances. Usually, they can be counted upon to pay for their access and the esteem it bestows by offering at least subtle forms of support for the official’s policy initiative:

The meetings, their grandeur and secrecy, are intended to foster a sense that the thinkers have been listened to and thus are somehow complicit in the policy—the illusion of inclusion. A meeting that seems to the thinker to be an opportunity to persuade is actually an opportunity to be persuaded. It doesn’t always work, of course. Fundamental positions are rarely altered and many of the supposed validators will remain fierce critics. But the biggest secret of all is that, even if the thinker does understand the real purpose, it often works at least at the margins.

Large numbers of tremendously talented, well-compensated people are engaged in charades like this on a regular basis. We know there are beneficiaries and there are real costs, but who pays for the largess? Obviously taxpayers, but private parties pay in other ways: Media time devoted to pundits is often paid by advertisers and, ultimately, consumers. Private think tanks are supported by private contributors who expect their own views to be validated by analyses and promoted in policy debates. The activity described by Shapiro may subvert those intentions. The real cost to society, however, is the value of resources diverted from productive, private activity to support the circle of rent-jerking. The bigger the government, the bigger the circle.