Antony Fisher and Think Tanks

Antony Fisher and think tanks: going beyond luck to develop successful organizations

(welcome presentation by Alejandro A. Chafuen to the 2014 Think Tank MBA Class of the Atlas Network. Several parts of the presentation based on articles by the author on )

A short biography of Antony Fisher (1915-88) as a think tank builder would include his founding of the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) in 1955, the Manhattan Institute in 1978, and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in 1981. It should also include his role in the early stages of the development of the Fraser Institute and the Pacific Research Institute, as well as his early support for the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Antony Fisher founded Atlas with the goal of replicating his experience with the IEA, the Fraser Institute and the Manhattan Institute. Bob Waterman, a co-author of In Search of Excellence, with Tom Peters, described Fisher as a typical product champion. [During the 1980’s Bob Waterman was an Atlas trustee for a couple of years]. Through Atlas Fisher worked to promote a model of think tank which, to be successful, had to follow a similar strategy. Here are some of his main points that Atlas continues to champion

Work Like A Business

Fisher placed a high value on managing think tanks like a business. Very few successful think tanks have been founded and led by academics. Fisher wrote, “To start, it is necessary to have a competent, business-minded president, whose job it is to organize the institute. He has to help the research director with his program, insure competent publication of whatever is produced, and then insure proper promotion through every channel.”

Of course, there are exceptions. One was John C. Goodman, of the NCPA. He led the think tank since its founding in 1983. Goodman complemented his academic talents with a business savvy board and a talented marketing expert. Unfortunately, NCPA lost key staff, the business savvy board knew about business but not about think tanks, and when they confronted a major crisis earlier this year, the situation exploded into a major crisis.

Another exception is Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Part of Brooks’ scholarly work, however, focused on non-profit management.

Have High Academic Standards

Running a think tank like a business must be partnered with rigorous academic standards. Fisher wrote that the research of a think tank, “has to be, and has to be seen to be, academic, and to that end, it is necessary to have an academic advisory board to help the research director.” Fisher further noted that, “The institutes provide an outlet for those academics who understand markets and can write suitable papers.”

Pay Attention To The Media

Early into his endeavors, Antony Fisher realized the importance of the media. In 1971 he wrote a letter to J. Howard Pew boasting that one of IEA’s publications, “was given a column by Henry Hazlitt in Newsweek and every copy of the book [The Free Convertibility of Sterling] was sold quickly throughout the world.”

Certainly the media has changed, and the Newsweek print edition is history, but earned media−having the publications of a think tanks reprinted by competitive and widely circulated publications−remains a relevant measurable outcome.

Stay Outside Of Politics and other special interests

In the same letter to Pew, Fisher described the IEA as “a research and educational body completely outside politics.” As supporting material he included a copy of a book by H.S. Ferns that recommended the creation of private, independent universities in the United Kingdom. The book, which focused on a “politically impossible” goal, was signed by 102 academics. Fisher also included a description of the high-level businessmen and academics attending a trustee’s dinner at the IEA as, “evidence of the standing of the IEA as a non-political research group.” But think tanks should not serve business interests either. When the president of one of Fisher’s think tanks hosted a program at the offices of a major corporation, he sent the president a strong, yet polite complaint.

Focus On Cause and Effects

Fisher emphasized the need to stay focused on policy not politics: “The publications are on issues and attempt to relate cause and effect. They never attack people. They are as independent as any publications can be. No attempt is made to try and say things which will please either politicians, businessmen, or anybody else.”

Fisher promoted think tanks that focused more on research than advocacy, education or grass-roots efforts. As ideas without action are just ideas, it is natural, however, that some of you will target activism and implementation. Fisher was also trustee of the Adam Smith Institute which went beyond research and played an important role in advocating and helping implement several relevant reforms.

Not just the result of luck or spontaneous order

During this last week I attended the events of the two largest pro free-market organizations, at least as measured by income. The Heritage Foundation, and Hillsdale College. They did not become large by chance or just “spontaneous order.” No doubt that there were many unintended consequences during the implementation of each of their strategic plans. But when you attend their programs and study the evolution of these organizations, you learn how much the results depend on planning and strategy.

Since 2009, Hillsdale income multiplied by three. It grew from 77 million to over 200 million. Its revenue from tuition grew only slightly and it is just over 40 million. You might ask why I include a university as a competitor of think tanks. The answer: most of Hillsdale growth was due to marketing think tank type products. Heritage Foundation grew modestly, from 67 to 80 million, and an extra 5 million for one of its subsidiaries, Heritage Action.

On the other extreme we have the dozens, if not hundreds of small free-market organizations. Many think tanks today are just “non-Profit legal entities used to accomplish certain tasks or conduct programs consistent with their mission or vision.” “They” do not have the goal of becoming a lasting institution, or at least, not yet.

I founded several of these groups, and two are still very active. These non-profit entities can sometimes produce output and outcomes in a more efficient and cost-effective way than larger organizations but they can rarely provide the lasting effect which comes from institutions which become an essential part and players of civil society.

The steps of strategic planning are very similar for all organizations. You have to have a clear mission and spend time refining it, same with the vision, which can be more general. You then have to reassess you internal strengths and weaknesses and set the goals. Finally you need to prepare the action or business plan. In the same manner that most gloves have room for five fingers, but then need to adjust to the unique characteristics of a hand, strategy and planning will have to be adapted to each organization, but they always require the above 5 steps.

A key element of the process is to study the market and analyze the opportunities and threats. In the United States the two trends that I see in the production and disseminations of ideas are a) the growth of university and college based centers and b) the growth in reach of individual bloggers. The former compete and collaborate with think tanks on research. The latter on advocacy and dissemination.

Will you become one of the “Masters of the Universe?”

How do think tanks contribute to produce outcomes conducive to better public policy? I developed a simple model based on complex inputs. Outcomes are the result of four factors: ideas, incentives, leadership, and providence or luck.

A recent book by Daniel Stedman Jones,“Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics” (Princeton University Press, 2012), touches on all of these factors. As a source of fundamental ideas, Stedman Jones focuses on four prominent figures, Ludwig von Mises, Karl Popper, F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman. He quotes Friedman: “The role of thinkers I believe is primarily to keep options open, to have available alternatives, so when the brute force of events make a change inevitable, there is an alternative available to change it.”

On political leadership, Stedman Jones focused on Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Think tanks need to learn to connect with leaders who can implement their policy solutions. On the role of incentives, Stedman argues that the free-enterprise vision became dominant thanks to a transatlantic network of think tanks, businessmen, politicians, and journalists. This network was held together by the views and intellectual leadership of Hayek and Friedman and benefitted from the generosity and leadership of Richard Mellon Scaife, The Earhart Foundation, Charles Koch, the John M. Olin Foundation, and Liberty Fund.

Despite devoting many pages to the intellectual foundations of free-market Stedman argues that “luck, opportunism, and a set of contingent circumstances played the most crucial roles.” But when luck, circumstance or providence created the condition, the network was ready: “a genuinely transatlantic enterprise, the network had by the 1980′s become increasingly international through the efforts of such organizations as the Atlas Foundation and the Mont Pelerin Society.” I became a member of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1980, and president of Atlas in 1991, so I can give credence and appreciate his analysis.

Hayek also stressed luck but Fisher responded “You mentioned “luck”! … No doubt luck is important … Was there not an intention on both our parts and consequent action? [to start a think tank] How much is luck?”

The book concludes that “reason-based policymaking needs to return.” For Stedman this means the rule of the enlightened bureaucrat. Those whose work led to a temporal triumph of free-market thinking also believe in reason-based policy making. But it is a reason tempered by their empirical and theoretical understanding of the superiority of simple rules over the detailed regulation of business and people’s lives. Hayek wrote that “probably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rough rules of thumb, above all the principle of laissez-faire.” He seemed to have in mind those who, to any policy problem, basically respond, “it is the government’s fault, the free-market will solve it.”

The road back to free enterprise, and away from state and crony capitalism, will require a new generation of think tank leaders who will go back to serious research and proper promotion of policy solutions. I know that many of you will be such leaders.