Spotlight: Getting Legislators to Listen


Five years ago, A. Lawrence Chickering perceived a problem. Congressmen were frequently enacting laws with little idea of the difficulties likely to arise. Articles in newspapers and magazines, while timely, exposed legislators to few lasting insights on issues. Monographs explored subjects more deeply, but lost impact by relying on jargon or appearing only after crucial votes had been taken.

Chickering sought an alternative. With the advice and support of some California associates, he founded the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco-based organization that is now making a mark on policy-making processes. Since the Institute became active in 1974, Chickering, a 36-year-old libertarian lawyer, has overseen preparation of 11 studies of current problems.

Presenting readable, impeccably researched critiques of—and alternatives to—proposed programs, the studies have won praise from a remarkable number of legislators, including individuals as diverse as Congressman Phil Crane, Senator Henry Jackson, and former Speaker of the House Carl Albert. One recently released study on energy has become a rallying point for Congressmen who had previously lacked any systematic alternative to the Carter Energy program. "The book is a smash," says Chickering. Under the efforts of Institute president H. Monroe Browne to acquaint Congressmen with the study, key members of the Senate and the House now have the figures to show that Carter's plan will do nothing to increase energy supplies.

The welcome reception for Institute publications owes much to the speed at which they appear, and to the outstanding quality of the authors. The latest energy book, entitled Options for U.S. Energy Policy, was published in just three weeks. Its contributors include some of the brightest market-oriented economists in the country, such as Henry Rowen of the Stanford Business School and Robert Pindyck of MIT. Among the contributors to past books by the Institute are prominent individuals spanning the political spectrum: Milton Friedman, Armen Alchian, Nathan Glazer, Michael Novak, Thomas Sowell, Herman Kahn, George Meany, James Schlesinger, and Robert Nisbet. The variety and standing of Institute contributors, Chickering believes, assure that free market alternatives will receive a hearing by policymakers.

Chickering did not always see merit in arguments for laissez-faire. Raised in a conservative San Francisco family, he showed early on what he describes as a "constitutional adversary impulse," which led him to challenge both liberal and conservative doctrines while an undergraduate at Stanford. As a law student at Yale, he supported Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater.

Yale Law School moved Chickering to a greater sensitivity towards individual rights. Taking courses by Robert Bork and Alexander Bickel, he found libertarian and conservative views more appealing than before. After a short stint practicing law in San Francisco, Chickering had lunch with columnist William F. Buckley. "He got me drunk, very drunk," remembers Chickering. By the end of lunch, Buckley had persuaded him to move to New York to help with National Review's research and legal work.

Partly because his job in New York led to meetings with such individuals as Milton Friedman and Edward Banfield, and more importantly because of concurrent conversations with black activists, Chickering eventually put aside his last vestiges of liberalism. "I became talked out of my liberal position by black militants," he says. Social welfare programs, he became convinced, were devastating the black community. A subsequent job with the California Office of Economic Opportunity confirmed his view. "I felt very strongly that OEO was subsidizing pseudo-leaders," says Chickering. Unsubsidized black lawyers—a natural leadership class—lost clients to white lawyers employed in the OEO free legal services program.

By 1972, Chickering had grown concerned enough at the direct and hidden costs of government to begin exploring ways of communicating with policymakers. "I felt a lot of issues and a lot of constituencies were not being appealed to effectively," he recalls. By mobilizing some of the best thinkers in the country to contribute chapters to books, and publishing works before the issues faded, Chickering hoped to influence lawmakers on vital questions of the day.

His concept was vindicated by the response to the Institute's first book in 1975. Titled No Time To Confuse, the study was a reply to a sloppily researched document by the Ford Foundation called A Time to Choose: America's Energy Future. Authors of the Institute's report—including Armen Alchian, Herman Kahn, and Morris Adelman—overturned the Ford study's assertions and conclusions. Milton Friedman remarked: "Seldom has good economics been so promptly and effectively marshalled to offset bad economics," while the Wall Street Journal praised the book for its "pungent language" and for observing that the Ford report "set a world record for errors in fact and economic analysis."

Ten studies have followed release of the first, on such subjects as defense, health care, public employee unions, and national planning. Since H. Monroe Browne, a California-businessman, became president in late 1975, the Institute's staff has grown to 10 full and part-time employees. Chickering edits the books and oversees research in his capacity as executive director. As staff and publications increase, the Institute has gained a reputation in Washington for top quality studies that are usually far more timely than those of the Brookings Institution or the American Enterprise Institute. Even among libertarian critics of the organization's "gradualist" efforts, few question the exceptional effectiveness achieved with the Institute's $600,000 yearly budget.

Chickering, who has been strongly influenced by Friedman's economics and philosophy, has doubts about the cultural orientation of many libertarians. "One thing lacking in libertarians is passion and caring," he says. "I hate to sound mawkish, but it is the case." Partly as a result, he feels, libertarians have paid insufficient attention to the upbringings and values that encourage people to be at ease with autonomy. In pushing vigorously for policies that make individuals more free, Chickering hopes that libertarians will not lose sensitivity to the communities in which they live. If they do, the struggle to fulfill the libertarian political vision may prove to be arduous indeed.