Spotlight: Think Tank Entrepreneur
San Francisco has been chosen as the site of free-market academic entrepreneur Antony Fisher's latest think tank, the Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research.
Fisher is best known as the founder of the 25-year-old Institute of Economic Affairs in England. When its general director, Ralph Harris, was recently created a life peer by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Daily Telegraph of London noted, "The honour is a sort of promissory note…indicating Mrs. Thatcher's determination to practice in office what the IEA has long preached." Even the venerable Economist, caught in the swing of the free-market mood in Britain today, conceded that "The institute was once regarded as a rather unfashionable right-wing organization, but it has had two successive triumphs. First, it concentrated on detailed microeconomic studies—of housing, medical care, pensions, education, etc.—at a time when the free-market views of most of its authors were regarded as rather old hat; by halfway through the IEA'S life, these had come back very much into economic fashion."
No economic Cinderella, Fisher's current triumphs are the product of many years of hard work. When he left his job as a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force in 1945, two important events influenced him deeply: he came across a condensed version of Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom in the British Reader's Digest, and he was suddenly frightened by the vicious socialist, anti-rich mood of that year's elections. Fisher immediately rushed out to obtain the unabridged version of Hayek's book and went on to seek out Hayek himself. Contrary to what others were telling him, Hayek advised him to stay out of politics and to work to build an intellectual movement. Since Fisher didn't have the cash to do anything at the time, he set about making it.
In 1953, Fisher was one of the founders of a successful business, Buxted Chicken. Two years later, with a little money in his pocket, he created the IEA as a legal charity and produced its first book, The Free Convertability of Sterling, by George Winder. Reviewed by Henry Hazlitt in Newsweek, the book quickly sold out. Later he became involved in exposing the failure of the British Egg Marketing Board and the Subsidy Scheme (both of which were dissolved in early 1966).
In 1956, he invited an ex-teacher "with a touch of genius," Ralph Harris, to run the IEA. Harris enthusiastically agreed, and Fisher continued pouring in money from his chicken business. He slowly gathered supporters, financial and other, and the institute has been growing steadily since then, advancing free-market scholarship, educating students, attracting media coverage, and influencing policymakers. Its current budget is $800,000 a year, to support a modest staff of 12.
"In 1975, I retired from business," Fisher says. "I was extremely depressed with Great Britain. Fortunately, I got a call from a Vancouver businessman who had set up the Fraser Institute in Canada and who wanted my help." He was elected a trustee and acting director of the Canadian institute, where he assisted its chief economist, Dr. Michael Walker, in developing it as a focal point for free-market research and education in Canada.
Like its prototype IEA, it has been acknowledged in the Canadian press in such stories as that in Toronto's daily, The Globe and Mail: "It hasn't gone unnoticed that Prime Minister Joe Clark and his private-enterprise-is-better Conservatives rolled over the West and that the Fraser Institute is a western organization. Not that the institute immodestly takes all the credit for the new Conservative theories—but it sure takes some of it, because it has helped to focus public thinking on what the institute considers the fallacy of interventionist government policy planning." As an example, Fisher points out that the Fraser Institute's book Unemployment Insurance came out three or four months before the Canadian government cut half a billion dollars from its unemployment program. Again, Fisher harks back to Hayek's advice to first create the desired intellectual climate in order "to make politically possible what sensible people have regarded as politically impossible."
The Fraser Institute now has 400 supporters, and its publications have sold in over 40 countries. Its treatise on rent control has sold over 12,000 copies, and 2 of its 17 other titles have been bestsellers in Canada.
In 1977, Fisher was elected director of the International Center for Economic Policy Studies, again modeled on the IEA, in New York. In two and a half years, ICEPS has grown into a $600,000 a year organization. Its first book, The New Protectionism, is in a second printing by New York University Press.
That same year Sherrill Edwards, who had independently begun the Fisher Institute in Dallas, Texas, invited Fisher to become a director and contribute some advice and ideas. The Fisher Institute, like its sibling organizations, publishes free-market-oriented books, such as Milton Friedman's Tax Limitation, Inflation, and the Role of Government and Svetozar Pejovich's Fundamentals of Economics: A Property Rights Approach.
And now, San Francisco. Last year, Fisher created the Pacific Institute (first called the Center for Economic and Environmental Analysis) incorporated as a tax-exempt foundation. Fisher hopes to sponsor up to 12 major studies and a conference each year, focusing on the western United States/Pacific Basin region, and on various economic, environmental, social, and trade issues such as state building codes and federal lands.
Fisher attributes his inspiration to Hayek's The Intellectuals and Socialism. "We're trying to get back to basic principles," he asserts. "What are the wrong decisions that are causing America's problems?" As with its forerunners, the Pacific Institute's immediate market is the intellectual community.
With offices in San Francisco, the institute has hired David J. Theroux as executive director and signed on economist M. Bruce Johnson as research director. Its first book, on private versus public education, is scheduled to be out soon.
A member of the Mont Pelerin Society since 1954, Fisher maintains a very active schedule, commuting between San Francisco, New York, and London to keep in touch with the various projects in which he is involved. A revised edition of his book Must History Repeat Itself? has been published in the United States by Caroline House under the title Fisher's Concise History of Economic Bungling. It traces 5,000 years of economic history, demonstrating how the free-market system best serves everyone's well-being.
The world can only be grateful that the tradition of questioning fashionable ideas was handed down from Hayek to Fisher to the hundreds of free-market converts they both can claim.
Christine Dorffi is REASON's assistant editor, filling in for Spotlight columnist John Lott.