Entrepreneurs in Ideas

Article in Ariadne Capital Journal by Philip Booth

F. A. Hayek was always sure that the turning point in the fight against socialism would not come as a result of fighting political campaigns but as a result of winning the battle of ideas amongst the intellectuals. To change the tide of intellectual opinion we needed entrepreneurs in ideas – not new thinkers, but people who brought together the ingredients needed to spread ideas in a radical new way.

As is the case for a successful business, in the battle of ideas several favourable factors need to come together to produce the conditions where there can be a fundamental change in political direction. Also, as when we get radical developments in business, the spark was not provided by a large organisation, an established political party or by government, but by one man who unleashed a chain of consequences that he could not have possibly foreseen when he embarked on his mission. That man, Antony Fisher, put together the ingredients that created the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in the UK. He set off a chain of events that led to think tanks being developed all around the world. The remarkable work of those think tanks is reported in the new IEA publication Taming Leviathan: Waging the War of Ideas Around the World, edited by Colleen Dyble.

Commenting on the book, Hayek’s daughter-in-law, Esca Hayek, describes the story as follows: “It was my father-in-law, F. A. Hayek, who first suggested to Antony Fisher that he should eschew politics and instead set up an institute to promote a wider understanding of the principles of a free economy to society’s intellectuals. He knew that this was the only way to rescue Britain from the socialists of all parties, but had no idea how successful the model would be, both in the UK and internationally. This book tells the story of how the war of ideas is being pursued all around the world, sometimes in the most hostile of climates.”

Fisher’s decisive first step was to establish the IEA in 1955. Fisher himself eschewed politics. Importantly, the think tank he established, led by Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon, also decided, quite deliberately, not to seek political influence. Instead, over a long time period, it tried to change opinion amongst intellectuals and opinion formers. It was not as a result of the IEA influencing Mrs Thatcher that free-market ideas gained the ascendancy in government. It was the change in the climate of opinion that the IEA precipitated over a generation that allowed Mrs Thatcher to be true to her beliefs in government – and prevented future socialist governments from being true to theirs.

Sparking the course of events that changed the political face of a major country would probably be a sufficiently satisfying achievement for most people to have a contented retirement. However, Fisher then went on to help ensure that the model was applied more widely around the world. The IEA was copied in a number of countries and another Fisher creation, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, has, since 1981, nurtured the development of think tanks all around the world.

In Taming Leviathan, 13 authors recruited by Dyble tell the stories of how their think tanks have operated and achieved remarkable success. Turkey’s Association for Liberal Thinking is working in the most difficult of circumstances publishing hundreds of free-market books and is a major player in a very difficult intellectual climate; in Italy, Istituto Bruno Leoni is injecting free market ideas into political debate - something that has not been seen for generations; the Lithuanian Free Market Institute developed the legal framework for the first Lithuanian commodities market and was active in the opening of the first stock exchange in the former Soviet Union. By seeking to change the intellectual climate, small think tanks, led by entrepreneurs in ideas, have ensured that Labour governments in Australia and New Zealand have implemented radical free market reforms and that privatisation programmes have been implemented in hitherto staunchly socialist countries.

No part of the world has been unaffected by the influence of think tanks. Indeed, senior UK Conservative politician Oliver Letwin traces the fall of the Berlin Wall as being a possible consequence of Fisher’s work.

Rarely do entrepreneurs succeed in any field of life by excelling at doing the obvious. Entrepreneurs create new knowledge, develop completely new ways of doing things and bring factors of production together in ways that nobody had ever thought of before. As such, think tank models rarely translate directly from country to country. Some think tanks get involved in campaigning, whilst others stick to teaching the second hand dealers in ideas, some try to engineer policy solutions for politicians, whilst others try to harness intellectual support for a general approach to policy and leave it to civil servants and politicians to sort out the detail.

And what is ironic, of course, is that throughout the 1960s, large numbers of generally well-meaning people set out to change the world for the better by trying to get governments around the world to adopt policies that would organise societies in what they thought was an ever more perfect way. The result was socialism and stagnation in the former capitalist West and abject misery and poverty in the under-developed world.

Fisher had a much more humble objective of trying to ensure that people had a better understanding of the intellectual case for a free society. By achieving that objective – and spreading its achievement around the world – Fisher, and those who work