This week the New York Times ran a hit piece against the Brookings Institution, alleging that think tanks regularly act as rogue corporate allies. Of particular concern for the NYT was that a successful home builder, Lennar Corporation, wanted to help revitalize San Francisco through an $8 billion building program. To do so, it appears Brookings helped set up meetings with government officials and engage the national media on the importance of revitalizations. This, we find out, greatly bothered the NYT.

In his celebrated catalogue of American life in the 1830s, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville admired the “unbounded” ability of likeminded people to gather together for a common cause. De Tocqueville favored the right of robust association because it promotes an independence of thought and preserves the ability of self-governance. Indeed, so vital was the right of association that de Tocqueville reasoned that the “progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made.”

More often than not, the chattering class of professional reformers or the NYT chastise effective associations—like that which Brookings formed around its Metropolitan Policy Program. Brookings responded to the NYT and highlighted three important points: (1) the organization’s individual scholars always decide which policies would produce better practices; (2) all research is made available to the public; and (3) it promotes its scholars’ research, not the brands of donors.

It just so happens that when you get a bunch of smart people together in a group, others might be interested in supporting their work. Progressive builders might seek out input, guidance, and yes, favorable press access and public relations, from a progressive think tank. In my years of working with different policy groups and think tanks, it is not uncommon to stumble upon others sharing similar goals and favorable associations to help achieve them. This doesn’t involve smoke-filled rooms or cigars; it simply involves likeminded citizens working together toward a common goal.

Ultimately, think tanks must rise or fall based on the quality of their work. Think tanks playing the role of corporate shills possess little depth and naturally fade away if their research is unsound or their promotional role is discovered. And think tanks who do not reach out to likeminded allies and develop sponsors while building worthwhile research won’t be around for long, either. Allowing the public to sort this out, for frauds to be outed, and for the best think tanks to rise is the real stuff of association, de Tocqueville style.

Had the NYT wished to play a useful role, it could have examined and written about the merits of urban renewal policy. It didn’t. Instead, it attacked the groups behind these ideas. Maybe Lennar Corporation, one of the nation’s biggest builders, has worthwhile ideas about the topic. But when journalists focus solely on deriding the people behind a project, sensible discourse about the issue fades.  

So, while the NYT casts the Brookings Institution as being part of the Dark Side, perhaps it should spend more time reading Alexis de Tocqueville and firming up its knowledge about the right of association. Like most everyone else outside of the NYT’s editorial board, people form associations every day. This is not inherently suspect or dangerous, but vital to the functioning of our nation.