The Pioneer Institute: Privatizing the Common Wealth

A report from Political Research Associates


For the last two decades, two political developments have brought revolutionary changes to state-level politics.The first is the devolution of power and money from the federal government to the states.This process began with President Jimmy Carter’s “block grants” to the states, but was accelerated by President Ronald Reagan’s advocacy of “states’ rights.”The second is the commitment on the part of the political Right to the development of state-level, policy-oriented think tanks, designed to pull state policy in a conservative direction. In 2002, nearly every state in the United States has at least one such think tank.These think tanks or policy institutes are largely funded by a small number of conservative individuals and foundations, including the Scaife Family Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Thomas Roe Foundation, and the Carthage Foundation. [1]

While the influence of national level, right-wing think tanks and policy centers, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, is widely known, state-level think tanks are less well known and often receive little attention in the media. They have made it possible for the Right to dramatically increase its effectiveness at the local level.By saturating local media with policy proposals and by organizing and participating in academic forums, these groups shape the environment in which state-level policy is made. [2]

Unfortunately, liberal or left policy think tanks are far fewer and less well funded. [3] Thus the Right is generating most of the new and innovative ideas that then become policy initiatives in many states. Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado argue that a polity is served best by an equal infusion of ideas from the Left and the Right, and that the extraordinarily well-funded, well-organized, and disciplined network of right-wing think tanks creates a severely unbalanced contest of ideas. [4] This thesis applies equally to the policy situation in Massachusetts, where a right-wing think tank known as The Pioneer Institute provides ready-to-implement proposals as well as more general guidelines for policy formation, with few such proposals coming from centrist groups, and fewer still initiated by liberal organizations.

Massachusetts’s Pioneer Institute has been a member of the State Policy Network (SPN), an umbrella organization for libertarian/free-market oriented state-level policy institutes. While no longer officially a member of SPN, its agenda is nearly identical to other SPN members, who advocate “free market solutions to public policy, with an emphasis on individual rights and responsibility.” [5]

The existence of high profile, influential right-wing think tanks in traditionally conservative states is not surprising. It is harder to explain their influence in what have been regarded generally, and perhaps erroneously, as liberal states. In describing such influence in Oregon, David Callahan, the director of research at Demos: A Network of Ideas and Action, has said that, contrary to the popular image of Oregon as a liberal bastion, conservatives have actually been able to secure a foothold since their capture of the state legislature in 1994. [6] This, he argues, is in large measure due to the vast resources channeled by right-wing philanthropists to effect favorable political and policy changes. [7] But it is also worth looking at the results of conservative ballot initiatives, such as Oregon’s antigay Measure 9, which was defeated in the state’s two major cities, yet won across rural areas. [8]

Despite similar political differences in the New England region—both between and within states—Massachusetts is undoubtedly one of the most liberal and solidly Democratic states in the country. Yet the Pioneer Institute exerts influence in government policy-making at both the local and state levels.This has in large measure to do with the administrations of Republican Governors William Weld, Paul Cellucci and Acting Governor Jane Swift. [9] So, we must first ask how a state so solidly Democratic as Massachusetts, came to have a succession of Republican governors?

Massachusetts is not an exception to the nationwide trend of the political center’s move to the right, in part a backlash against the successes (even if limited) of progressive policy initiatives in the areas of racial and gender equality, economic justice, and gay and lesbian rights. The state’s recent Democratic political leaders (apart from Senator Edward Kennedy) have been from the party’s moderate and centrist wing. Presidential candidates, such as former Governor Michael Dukakis and former Senator Paul Tsongas (like former President Bill Clinton, former Vice-President Al Gore, and Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CN)), are associated with the “New Democrat” Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which moved the party rightward in response to these trends. Further, Governors Weld and Cellucci are moderate Republicans, who reached out to Democratic voters with libertarian platforms that emphasized free-market economic principles, while supporting gay rights and a prochoice position on abortion.With these positions, they distinguished themselves from the social intolerance associated with the Republican Party’s right wing.

Jean Hardisty, who has extensively researched and written on the U.S. Right, points out that libertarianism itself is ideologically broad enough to have both a left and a right wing. [10] The positions taken by the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, tend to reflect leftist libertarianism, while the Cato Institute, and many of the Right’s state-level think tanks pursue right-wing libertarianism. [11] Moreover, libertarians historically have recruited some supporters from liberal and progressive ranks, including the ranks of the New Left. [12]

Libertarians’ differences with traditional liberals and progressives are most notably in matters of economic justice and interpretations of the nature of the State. In these cases, rightist libertarians valorize the “invisible hand” of the free market system, claiming that the best regulator of the economy is an unfettered market. For this reason, rightist libertarians support a capitalist economic system with few, if any, constraints, and a minimalist State that maintains law and order and guarantees civil liberties. Government programs that seek to redistribute wealth or extend economic opportunity are unwelcome interventions, as are government policies that restrict individual rights and freedoms.

In Massachusetts, Governors Weld and Cellucci and Acting Governor Jane Swift, like many libertarians, have supported women’s rights, gay rights, and are prochoice on the issue of abortion. [13] These ideological overlaps with liberals on social issues, along with a national backlash against liberal economic policies, largely explain the favorable reception of libertarian ideas and politicians in a “liberal” state such as Massachusetts. It was this mix of socially liberal and fiscally conservative agendas and policies that brought together a White middle class coalition of conservative businessmen, professionals, and lesbians and gays to support William Weld for governor in Massachusetts in 1990. [14]

Many of the Pioneer Institute’s positions strongly indicate a libertarian ideology: especially its promotion of privatization, deregulation, and fee-for-service arrangements regarding public goods. [15] Fee-for-service is a libertarian solution to the problem of government service provision when privatization is not politically feasible.In fee-for-service schemes, only those who use public services pay for them.In the early 1990s, Pioneer began pushing for an increase in the cost of public transportation in Boston, ultimately complaining that, “taxpayers—regardless of whether they took a single MBTA ride—subsidized the T.” [16] Public services, which are seen by liberals as a public good, are not considered a public good by libertarians, including many Pioneer authors.

Libertarians often take seemingly paradoxical positions on social and economic issues. While critical of government provision of public services (evident in its support for privatization), the Pioneer Institute has also criticized nepotism and waste in government spending. Pioneer has conducted a long-running public relations battle with the city of Boston against the construction of a new convention center, contending that there is not enough demand for a new facility to justify a projected $800 million taxpayer outlay. [17] It has also been sharply critical of state legislative leaders for, in its view, creating hundreds of patronage jobs in the state court system at a cost, the Institute maintains, of $48.3 million between 1998 and 2001. [18]

But despite the fact that Pioneer’s former executive director James Peyser spoke at the Massachusetts Libertarian Party convention, there is no clear relationship between the Pioneer Institute and the Libertarian Party. Pioneer is a member of, a market-oriented website run by the libertarian Henry Hazlitt Foundation. is described on its website as “the libertarian portal,” and a click on this description takes you to which is a site claiming to present “an overview of the libertarian philosophy and the libertarian movement.”

[1] See Frederick Clarkson, “Takin’ It to the States: The Rise of Conservative State-Level Think Tanks,” The Public Eye, vol. 13, nos. 2/3 (Summer/Fall 1999), pp. 1-13, p. 5. See also, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Special Report, Burgeoning Conservative Think Tanks (Washington, DC: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 1991), Sally Covington, Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations (Washington, DC: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, July 1997), and David Callahan, $1 Billion for Ideas: Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990s (Washington, DC: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, March 1999).
[2] Clarkson, op. cit.
[3] See David Callahan, “Clash in the States: Can progressive nonprofits match their conservative rivals?” The American Prospect, vol. 12, no. 11 (June 18, 2001), pp. 28-30.
[4] Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado, No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations changed America’s Social Agenda, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), p. 3.
[5] Clarkson, op. cit., p. 3.
[6] Callahan, “Clash,” p. 28.
[7] Ibid.
[8] See Arlene Stein, The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community’s Battle over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), p. 2.
[9] William Weld was elected governor in 1990 and re-elected in 1994. He resigned in 1997 when President Clinton nominated him as ambassador to Mexico (he was never confirmed by the Senate), and Lieutenant Gov. Paul Cellucci became acting governor. Cellucci won election as governor in 1998 and resigned in 2001, when he was named ambassador to Canada.With Cellucci’s resignation, Lieutenant Gov. Jane Swift became acting governor.
[10] Jean Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), p. 164.
[11] Ibid.
[12] See Sara Diamond, Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States (New York: Guilford Press, 1995), pp. 123-124.
[13] Although Swift had opposed gay marriage, she at the same time had selected openly gay legislator Patrick Guerierro to be her running mate for the 2002 elections. Swift withdrew from the race in March 2002. Guerierro followed suit.
[14] Further, Weld ran against John Silber, who while a registered Democrat, alienated many progressives and liberals with his opposition to organized labor, bilingual education, and gay rights.
[15] Pioneer rejects labels such as conservative. Pete Peters noted that he did not like conservative because it implied supporting the status quo. He claimed that they were radical. Steve Wilson said that he never considered himself to be conservative. Pioneer has reached out to Republicans and Democrats for its board, and Peter Nessen, a Democratic former board member asserted that the label conservative is applied to Pioneer because of its close association with the Weld Administration. Pete Peters claimed that “we wanted to be non-partisan. . . . After all, the Weld administration is an anomaly in Massachusetts politics. One day, we’re going to have a Democratic governor, and we hope to be able to offer him ideas.” Esther Scott, “Going Against the Grain: A ‘Conservative’ Think Tank in Massachusetts,” John F. Kennedy School of Government Case Program, 1998, p. 21.
[16] Charles D. Chieppo, “MBTA fare hike is fair deal,” Boston Herald, July 6, 2000. See Chieppo is director, Shamie Center for Restructuring Government at Pioneer.
[17] See Charles D. Chieppo, “Convention center facts vs. fictions,” Boston Herald, July 23, 2001, p. 23.
[18] See Frank Phillips, “Court staffing faulted,” Boston Globe, December 2, 2001, p. A1.

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