Spotlight: Gaining Ground in Manhattan


Losing Ground by Charles Murray. Wealth and Poverty by George Gilder. Markets and Minorities by Thomas Sowell. The State Against Blacks by Walter Williams. Is there a REASON reader who isn't familiar with at least one of these pathbreaking books—each of which has sent liberal tumbrels spinning?

All of these books were encouraged, financed, and promoted by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, an eight-year-old "think tank" that works to develop unconventional, free-market ideas and then win acceptance for them among academics, journalists, and government officials.

William Hammett, a genial, energetic 40-year-old, has been president of the Institute since 1980. "What we are trying to create," says the fast-talking Hammett, "is a place where the best thinking of free-market scholars can be attractively packaged, intelligently presented, and vigorously defended."

To that end, Hammett has also put the Institute in the intellectual "catering" business. To date, the Manhattan Institute has sponsored over 50 forums and lunches in New York City, featuring such speakers as Milton Friedman, legal scholar Richard Epstein, and M. Gatsha Buthelezi, chief of the Zulu people of South Africa.

Hammett's forums are attended by a diverse cross section of people. "We don't supercharge our ideas with politics as much as you might see in Washington. That's why we invite liberals and local officials to our forums. People like that were burned by the ideological over-promising of the '60s. They're looking for something that will work. That's why privatization, for example, will gain more acceptance if it's pitched as a practical, good-government reform rather than as a battering ram against the state. If implemented, the result will still be the same: a smaller public sector."

This ecumenical approach has won Hammett praise in unexpected quarters. New York Daily News columnist Ken Auletta, a prominent liberal thinker on poverty issues and author of several books on urban policy, has written, "William Hammett believes in a free marketplace for ideas as well as business, which is not always the case among those with fervent ideological views."

The Manhattan Institute was founded in 1978, fueled with funding from such conservative Republicans as William J. Casey, now the director of the CIA. (Its original name was the International Center for Economic Policy Studies.) The first president was Jeffrey Bell, a young supply-side theorist who had lost a US Senate race in New Jersey to Bill Bradley. "In 1980 Jeff left," recalls Hammett, "and George Gilder, the program director, decided that since he was so busy writing Wealth and Poverty, he had to go out and find a new boss to run the place. He found me."

At the time, Hammett was president of the Center for Libertarian Studies, a small scholarly research organization which has since moved to California. "The Center was my first stab at trying to bring ideas off dusty library shelves and into the public debate," says Hammett.

Born the son of a foreign-service officer, Hammett grew up partly in Taiwan and Germany. He studied economics at the University of Chicago before embarking on a career in investments and marketing in California. "Even then I was always into ideas—I read von Mises and Hayek—but I was frustrated at being one of the few people I knew who had. I guess what I'm doing now is trying to find the free-market scholars of the 1980s and make certain that their ideas aren't ignored for 40 years."

Hammett wants the Institute to shift its focus slightly and concentrate more on state and local issues. "I think the big spenders know that more money isn't coming from Washington, so there will be pressure for new programs at the state and local level. We have to avoid being put on the defensive in city halls and state capitols."

And Hammett's approach is already winning supporters. William J. Stern, the former public official in charge of New York's Urban Development Corporation, is working with the Institute to promote a state tax cut and more private contracting-out of public services. What makes Stern's support especially heartening is his background: A lifelong Democrat, he served in 1982 as finance chairman for Mario Cuomo's successful campaign for governor.

Hammett is most proud of the response to sociologist Charles Murray's Losing Ground, a comprehensive analysis of the negative effects that several Great Society poverty programs have had. Losing Ground was easily the most talked-about public-policy book of 1985. "How did this statistical tome become such a media event?" asked New Republic staff writer Chuck Lane in an article on the Murray phenomenon. "It was no accident. Murray says himself that the book might never have gotten the coverage it has without the help of a well-funded promotional campaign led by the Manhattan Institute."

But Hammett is the first to say that free-market ideas cannot prosper through intelligent marketing alone. "Our ideas have to be of much higher quality than those of our opponents," he emphasizes. "They will be looked at much more critically because they come from a minority point of view. Just as the New Dealers had to work harder to get their ideas accepted in the 1930s, we have to do the same thing today."

John H. Fund is deputy editorial features editor of the Wall Street Journal.