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Fisher’s Atlas Network

For Peace and Low Taxes!

Daniel Hannan, Baron Hannan of Kingsclere, gives a toast at the 2017 Freedom Dinner. Photo: Atlas Network.

Tonight supporters of freedom gather together at the annual Atlas Network Freedom Dinner in Miami...

A quiet, scholarly and somewhat aloof Anglo-Austrian Professor at the London School of Economics, Friedrich August von Hayek, suddenly became famous in 1944 after publishing The Road to Serfdom, an eloquent warning against central economic planning. According to the author, Hitler’s national socialism and Stalin’s communism were two of a kind whereas the ‘mixed economy’ was not a stable system, but rather the name of capitalism’s gradual transformation into socialism. This was not an irreversible change however, Hayek argued: the West could and should return to the time-tested principles of private property, free trade, and limited government. In April 1945, Hayek found a large audience when Reader’s Digest brought out a very readable and powerful condensation of the book. One day in the spring of that year there was a knock on Hayek’s office door at the LSE. The visitor was a young pilot in the Royal Air Force, Antony Fisher, who had read the condensed version. He had been convinced, even captivated, by Hayek’s ideas. Now he wanted to do whatever he could to stop the march into socialism. He told Hayek that he was thinking about going into politics. Hayek responded that this would be a waste of time. It was ultimately opinion, in a wide sense, that brought about political change. Paradoxically, if Fisher wanted to change policies, he should stay out of politics.

Solid Research Necessary

What his young visitor might do, Hayek suggested, was to support solid research on the possibilities of solving problems by pricing rather than taxing, by market exchanges instead of government directives. The intellectual elite had to be persuaded, and this could only be done with ideas, backed by facts and arguments. In such an endeavour it was essential, Hayek added, to take a long-term view, like the British Fabian Society had done: over the years it had provided the Labour Party with a lot of intellectual ammunition. The encounter with Hayek made a deep impression on Fisher who subsequently became a successful businessman and entrepreneur. Some years later, Fisher was at a Conservative Party meeting in his constituency of East Grinstead in Southern England where a young economist, Ralph Harris, gave a lively talk in support of the free market. When they walked together back to the railway station, Fisher told Harris about the project that had formed in his mind after the conversation with Hayek: ‘One day when my ship comes in I’d like to create something which will do for the non-Labour Parties what the Fabian Society did for Labour.’ Harris responded: ‘If you get any further I’d like to be considered as the man to run it.’ They kept in contact while Fisher continued to run his business.

In November 1955, Fisher felt that he had enough means that he and a few like-minded academics and businessmen could establish the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. Soon they hired Harris as Director and an old student of Hayek at the LSE, Arthur Seldon, as Chief Editor of the publications that started to flow from the IEA. Slowly, the institute gained ground. It took care to be apolitical, suggesting free-market solutions to problems, and maintaining its independence by not being over-reliant on any one source of funds. British journalists and politicians began to take note, including Margaret Thatcher who became Tory leader in 1975 and Prime Minister in 1979. Meanwhile, Fisher helped to establish similar research institutes in other countries, such as the Fraser Institute in Vancouver in 1975 and the Manhattan Institute in 1977. I first met him in the autumn of 1980 when I attended my first meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society at Stanford, invited by Hayek. Fisher was kind enough to invite me and some other people from the meeting to a reception at the beautiful and spacious flat he shared with his second wife, Dorian, at 1750 Taylor Street, with a stunning view over the bay. He was a tall, thin man with a prominent aquiline nose, well-spoken and direct, very English in his demeanour. In the 1980s I was frequently a Visiting Scholar at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, and Antony and Dorian became good friends whom I often visited. They came to Iceland in April 1986, and Fisher gave a talk to the business community.

International Network

In 1981, Fisher established an international organisation, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, later called the Atlas Network, which sought to support and connect independent think tanks around the world. In 1986–1987 I helped him and Professor Richard Wong set up the Hong Kong Centre for Economic Research. While the Fishers lived most of the time in San Francisco, they also kept an elegant flat on Cadogan Square in London. They entertained frequently in both places, but always to further the cause to which they were both devoted. Fisher neither smoke nor drank, but his favourite toast was: ‘For peace and low taxes!’ It had made a great impact on him that he had lost his father in the First World War and his brother in the Second World War. He was convinced that if we saw potential customers in our neighbours, we would have less propensity to shoot at them. Antony and Dorian were devoted to each other, but also to freedom. They were a formidable team, practical idealists, somewhat akin to Richard Cobden and John Bright in the nineteenth century. Antony was knighted by the Queen in 1988. When he passed away later in the same year, he left behind an extensive network of active think tanks all around the world, on the model that Hayek had outlined in their talk in 1945.

The Atlas Network has been instrumental in spreading the twin ideas of government as the problem and the free market as the solution. Some of the most active institutes in the network besides those four just mentioned (IEA, Fraser, Manhattan, and HKCER) are the Adam Smith Institute in London, the Cato Institute in Washington DC, Timbro and Ratio in Stockholm, CEPOS in Copenhagen, the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna and the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. Two large and influential American institutes belong to the Atlas Network although they were established long before Fisher started his activities, American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC and the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Some of the institutes are named after thinkers discussed in my recent book on Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers, such as the Acton Institute in Michigan and the Ayn Rand Institute in California. Some of the institutes are more concerned with identifying and supporting promising young scholars than with promoting any particular public policies, for example the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University in Virginia and Mannkal Economic Education Foundation in Perth. According to the network’s website, in the beginning of 2020, it has more than 500 partners in more than one hundred countries around the globe. Tonight, on 14 December 2021, the Atlas Network holds its annual Freedom Dinner in Miami, where three coveted awards will be given out: The Sir Antony Fisher Achievement Award,  the Templeton Freedom Award and the new Atlas Network-Cátedra Vargas Llosa Young Journalism Prize.

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