Atlas Economic Research Foundation (Atlas Network) early history

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How do we do it?

“fostering impartial research on specific government practices, comparing the costs and effectiveness with alternative methods of accomplishing the same objective.” Antony Fisher, June 1982 about Atlas's grants

Notes by Alex Chafuen 

A work in progress


The Fisher Institute

In 1977, Sherril E. Edwards a businessman in Dallas, Texas, founded a think tank and named it after Antony.  Fisher did not play a major role in the founding but agreed to lend his name and join the board.  When in the early 1980's he saw that Dr. John Goodman was having some issues with his Health Policy Center at the University of Dallas, he made a strong proposition to the board of the Fisher Institute that they should appoint John as head or otherwise, he would resign from the board of FI and distance himself from the think tank. His offer was not accepted so Antony devoted most of his efforts in Texas to help John Goodman start the NCPA.

The Editorial Board of the Fisher Institute, included Dr. Svetozar Pejovich, Dr. Gerhart Anders, Dr. F. A. Hayek, Dr, Richard Timberlake, Jr., Dr. Robert Tollison, and Dr. George Trivoli. Pejovich was the chair of the editorial board, Edwards was the president, and Robert L. Arnold was VP of communications.

Soon after Fisher departure, the institute changed its focus to medical research. It has ceased operations, but it produced some valuable books such as "Life in the Soviet Union" by Steve Pejovich

List of Potential Think Tanks prepared by Antony Fisher in 1982

Fisher scouting for the first Atlas investments

During its first full year of operation, Atlas decided to support a number of established think tanks and also invest in new, always more risky, ventures. In his native England, Antony targeted the Institute of Economic Affairs (he was Chairman), the Adam Smith Institute (he was trustee), the Economic Study Association (ESA) and the Social Affairs Unit (at the time still a unit of IEA).  Antony wrote that he was offering “the maximum supporting funds that Atlas can spare at the present time for these four organizations.” IEA and ASI are well known so I will not spend much time on them. 

ESA was headed by Ronald Burgess who according to Antony, was “not accepted in the academic world.”  Burgess was conducting research on Colin Clark’s (1905-1989) assumption that there might be a correlation between taxation, inflation, and profitability. Atlas offered him a $3,000 travel grant, which perhaps was the first travel grant in its history.

The Social Affairs Unit became independent soon after. It continues to publish outstanding books with a very modest budget. Two Atlas officers, Leonard Liggio (RIP) and Alex Chafuen, became members of SAU’s international advisory board. In 1983, Antony was writing to one of Atlas's main supporters that "the Social Affairs Unit, like its parent, begins to attract ever more press coverage. I hope they will soon be preparing audio and video tapes for use on radio and television programs in the U.K."  

In the United States, the first investments were the Manhattan Institute, the Pacific Institute (later renamed Pacific Research Institute due to the existence of a prior group carrying that name) and the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA).   NCPA still did not have its current legal status, and it was recruiting what in Fisher words was “a quite excellent Board of Directors.”  Antony also joined NCPA board in 1983 and had high hopes for its fundraising potential.  Antony was also on the board of Manhattan and Pacific. [In July 2017, NCPA announced it was closing its doors after not being able to overcome an internal dispute]

The largest donation, $36,000 went for conferences in Canada organized by the Fraser Institute and “its new offshoot, The Institute for Religion and Economics.”  Dr. Walter Block was the director of this institute which, although different in many aspects, was a precursor to the highly successful Acton Institute, which was founded a decade later.

Atlas destined most grants in Continental Europe to promote the Institut Economique de Paris.  Antony used part of the funds from the donation from the Scaife foundation whose president at the time, Dick Larry, “as always, made no stipulation, but as I understand it, he wishes the money to be given outside the U.S.” 

As Antonio Martino, at CREA in Italy, was always able to attract leading figures to the board, I think that Antony thought that eventually, CREA was going to be able to attract considerable funding. At the time it had Brandolino d’Adda, and important businessman, as Chairman, it later had Mr. Umberto Agnelli, the head of FIAT, also on its board.  Atlas grants for CREA were more modest.

International Center for Economic and Policy Studies ICEPS

Antony Fisher was first executive director of ICEPS, he was also Vice President of the board. The chairman was William J. "Bill" Casey, who encouraged Antony to start the think tank in New York. The think tank, as the name shows, was intended to be international. In March 1979, the President was Edwin J. Feulner Jr. The Board of Advisors included some of the best economists and intellectuals of the Western world: James Buchanan, Karl Brunner, Colin Campbell, Clay La Force, Irving Kristol, Henry Manne, Alan Peacock, Ernst Van Den Haag, and Alan Walters.

In March 16, 1979, Antony Fisher wrote to Rene Wasserman, KCLJ, h.c., in Lausanne, Switzerland, his vision of what later would become the Atlas Economic Research Foundation: “I’m hoping to establish another 25 IEA—type institutes in some 24 countries, ultimately producing 250-350 new books per annum in some 17 languages.” 

He then added: "as of today I am free to go to the next development, as is my pattern for establishing institutes, from the IEA in 1955 to Fraser Institute, Vancouver and now ICEPS. I am also helping the Fisher Institute in Texas and the Institute for Research and Development in Colorado."

Fisher and the Center for Economic and Environmental Analysis (CEEA): Precursor of Pacific Research Institute

One of the think tanks in his list was CEEA in San Francisco, where he was establishing an office. In 1979, Fisher and Jim North, were ready to launch a research center that would have an important focus on environmental topics. They recruited David Theroux who had an outstanding career developing academic programs in the early years of Cato. David agreed but one of his conditions was that he could change the name to "Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research." 

Also involved in the founding of Pacific was Jeffery D. Stein. At the time, there was a luncheon club in San Francisco that met at the University Club. During one of those luncheons, he met Fisher who convinced Stein to join the board. As there was another non-profit with the name "Pacific Institute" rather than battle a lawsuit the board changed the name from "Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research" to "Pacific Research Institute" PRI, which continues today. 

Stein recalls that often they would have dinner at Dorian and Antony Fisher's apartment, 1750 Taylor Street, and that Milton Friedman, who also lived in the same building, would stop by. Everett Berg, who later moved to Canada, was also in that initial group.

International Institute for Economic Research IIER

In the mid 70s, Fisher also started an international think tank to do IEA type work on a global basis. Arthur Shenfield was its director, and could boast some of the leading economists and public figures on its board. Its letterhead looked like the Who's Who of the Mont Pelerin Society. The preponderant role of intellectuals and the lack of management talent led to the short life of the institute.

One of its stars was Prof. William R. Allen (b. 1924) who had a popular radio program "The Midnight Economist."

Atlas founding, 1981:

Atlas was incorporated in the State of Delaware in July 14th, 1981. That is the date when the French celebrate “Bastille Day.” It is mere coincidence that the founder of Atlas, Antony Fisher, recorded that the first grant given abroad after incorporation was to a French institute, the Institute Economique de Paris, IEP. It had Guy Plunier (1930-) as its executive director, and Pascal Salin (1939-) as research director. When he was 52, Guy had left a promising career at Michelin to pursue his think tank dream. Pascal Salin became a noted scholar and was president of the Mont Pelerin Society (1994-1996). Although IEP closed its doors, both Plunier and Salin are still active. The last time I saw them together was during the Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Istanbul (September 2011).

Another institute in Antony’s radar was CREA (Center for Research in Applied Economics) in Italy.  It also closed its doors, but Antonio Martino (1942- ), its leader, later became Foreign Minister and Minister of Defense in Italy. There are so many successes in Atlas’s history of support and encouragement, that I do not feel bad if I start by sharing by some of the efforts which were discontinued. In both, France and Italy, free-market champions learned from past experiences and are building new organizations and consolidating others.

Going back to Atlas history, the first trustees were Antony Fisher, Jim North (who was chairman of Pacific Institute), and executives at the attorney’s office of William Lehrfeld.  Soon after the foundation was legally incorporated and received its tax exempt status (December 30, 1981), T. Patrick Boyle, Chuck Brunie, and Ralph Harris (not yet “Lord”) joined the board.  Brunie was for many years chairman of the board of the Manhattan Institute.  Boyle, a founder and key trustee of the Fraser Institute in Canada, worked side by side with Mike Walker to make Fraser one of the leading think tanks in the world.  Ralph Harris was leading the IEA U.K. which, at the time, had larger budgets than Manhattan and Fraser.

During Atlas launching, among all new US efforts, Fisher had special high hopes for John Goodman, who had started the Center for Health Policy Studies at the University of Dallas in 1980, and had began to develop the plans of what later became the highly successful NCPA. Goodman met Fisher at the MPS meeting in Stanford, in September 1980. Fisher became a trustee and in 1983 he becomes a trustee of NCPA with Atlas donating its first $25,000. 

Also predating Atlas, was the founding of what later became The Manhattan Institute. William Casey encouraged Antony to create a think tank in New York and they became co-founders in 1978. William "Bill" Casey had an interesting career in London, and when he established himself in New York, saw a need for a policy think tank. Casey did not help much with the fundraising. They recruited Ed Feulner, Jr. to be the first president. Feulner, however, was involved also in the founding of the Heritage Foundation, and his colleagues and donors made him an offer to head Heritage which he could not refuse. 

Beyond the US and the U.K., Fisher's most important role was in Canada. In 1975, he became acting director of the Fraser Institute, founded in 1974 by Patrick Boyle and a handful of colleagues. They recruited Michael Walker as chief economist and Walker succeeded Fisher as director in 1977.

Of the foreign think tanks mentioned by Fisher as receiving modest support and that are still with us I should start with the Instituto Libertad y Democracia, ILD, the Institute for Liberty and Democracy, founded by Hernando de Soto in Lima, Peru.  F.A. Hayek visited Peru in 1979, invited by Hernando de Soto. F.A. Hayek recommended De Soto that he should meet Fisher who then went to Lima for one week to help Hernando launch the ILD in 1980.

Fisher was concerned that Schwartz political involvement would hinder the development of his institute

Pedro Schwartz, another great figure in the world of free-market economics, also appears in the early history of Atlas.  Pedro had the Instituto de Economía de Mercado, in Madrid.  Antony had great hopes for the institute, which wanted to follow the IEA model.  Yet, commenting on Pedro Schwartz effort to compete for a seat in Parliament, he concluded “this may make support for him difficult, impossible.” I knew Pedro from the Mont Pelerin Society and at the time I was studying in Spain, so I followed the election. I had not yet met Antony but since then have learned on many occasions how correct he was about the difficulties and sometimes insurmountable barriers which come up when think tank leaders get mixed up in politics.

Pedro Schwartz was elected president of the Mont Pelerin Society for the 2015-2016 period and continues to be extremely active.

As a precursor to efforts in Poland, still under the Soviets, Antony started to discuss the possibility of creating a Copernicus Institute to do studies in Polish, with Professor Andrej Brzeski, who at the time was teaching at the University of California in Davis. Soon after, Ljubo Sirc’s effort, creating the Centre into the Research of Communist Economies in the U.K. fulfilled some of the goals sought by Brzeski and Fisher. Dr. Sirc, a noted Slovenian who escaped to England, created a publishing space for scholars still suffering under communism. 

In 1983 he wrote “Ralph Harris and I are helping Professor Ljubo Sirc set up the Center for the Study of Communist Economies. I am confident that an IEA type institute aimed at studies of the economies behind the Iron Curtain and elsewhere in the world will make a significant impact and be one of the first, if not the first, organization to offer positive solutions to the impossible economic conditions that have been created by Communism.”

Dr. Sirc recommended Borut Prah to meet with Antony Fisher. Prah, a fellow Slovenian who had moved to the San Francisco area, became a wonderful supporter of Atlas and a member of its Board of Overseers.  In 1985 and 1986 Prah introduced Atlas to the wonders of the internet (not yet developed) which greatly increase our networking possibilities. Atlas first session on the use of computers to connect think tanks across the globe took place in April 1987, in Jamaica.  

On the donor front, a couple of corporations began donating to Atlas (Pfizer and Procter & Gamble) and remained as supporters for some time. It was at this time that Atlas received a grant from a US government source. The United States Information Agency, through the Office of Private Sector Programs, headed at the time by a young Robert R. Reilly, gave a grant to help bring think tank leaders to the first Atlas international workshop (in Vancouver, 1983). No funds remained at Atlas, but there was sufficient discussion at the board level to warrant an apology from Antony to Chuck Brunie (RIP), who objected strongly. Although I only joined Atlas in 1985, I do not recall any other instance in Atlas history where we sought or accepted any kind of government support. It is an Atlas policy not to accept such funds. [Thirty five years later, that first and only grant to Atlas from a US government source led to accusations, totally unfounded, that Atlas was and is a front of the US government ]      

Antony Fisher efforts fundraising for public policy research

In 1983 Antony Fisher started fundraising money for studies on exchange controls. He was seeking $100,000. At that time many  countries imposed them in Antony’s words they “are applied with such abandon by one country after another.” He hoped that the IEA in London and the Pacific Research Institute would do case studies “which in themselves will demonstrate the real effects of government constraints on an economy.” He was fundraising in the corporate world “I have talked to a number of top executives in banks and am confident I will manage to raise support for this study which will be published in many countries.” 

A couple of years after that effort Antony Fisher was fundraising to lead a program to promote sound money. In 1985, a few months before I arrived to Atlas, he wrote to a potential donor: “I have been offered $50,000 towards the cost of a publication on the history of money. I believe that one of the most effective ways of teaching economics would be a television series telling the story of money, going back 4,000 years. It would interest a whole cross section of the public in many countries.” (March 22, 1985) The donor, a major philanthropist to many Libertarian, arts and medical causes, never donated to Atlas directly. Soon after that letter US monetary policy became less inflationary. Things changed during the beginning of this century. In 2009, Atlas was able to start an important effort to promote sound money, In 2017, Atlas spun off the social media aspects of the sound money project to the American Institute for Economic Research.

Atlas in 1983

In the attachments you will find the 1983 report from Atlas. It has highlights from 15 think tanks and two universities, which proves, or at least indicates, that Antony Fisher was open to consider universities as part of the mission of Atlas. The two universities, Universidad Francisco Marroquín (founded in 1972), and Buckingham University, (founded in 1971) are still relevant players in educational efforts favorable to the free society. The fact that he included them might indicate as well that he was more interested in their vision of the free society, than in their effort to produce research with a similar style and methodology than those he recommended for think tanks. The report also listed think tank centers, specialized units within those think tanks, as having their own standing such as The Center for the Study of Economics and Religion, founded in 1982, and The Economic Education Resource Center, founded in 1980, both within The Fraser Institute.

Fisher estimated that the total budget of the think tanks in that 1983 report (excluding the two universities) was 5 million U$.

Today, the combined budget of the surviving think tanks mentioned must be $40 million. The US think tanks continued to grow while the think tanks in the U.K. failed to develop at the same pace and some, at least when measured by income, stagnated.

Like in any area of investments, not all are successful and void of controversy. Jim North and Jeff Stein, early trustees of Atlas, did not see the same potential for the Mid-America Institute in Chicago. They advised against providing support but Antony Fisher went ahead with his plans to help them. That motivated the resignation of Jim North and Jeff Stein.  Mid-America was able to attract Archie R. Boe, former president of Sears Roebuck, to its board but the think tank did not thrive and is no longer in existence.

Stein and North continued on the board of the Pacific Research Institute for some time. In 1986 there were major differences of opinion at Pacific which lead to the removal of David Theroux. David went to found the Independent Institute. William "Chip" Mellor became the next president of Pacific, with the condition that he could start a Center for Applied Jurisprudence within Pacific. The center later became the very successful Institute for Justice. Sally Pipes, from the Fraser Institute, replaced Mellor as CEO.  Mellor's departure created a temporary shortfall in income and Atlas gave a major grant to help in the transition. There was considerable discussion on the board of Atlas and the decision was to avoid giving "emergency" grants in the future. After some years of Sally Pipes tenure at PRI Jeff Stein left the board. He still attends events of the Hoover Institution at the Pacific Union Club and is chair of the board of two non-profits, not related to free-market work. 

Visits to think tanks by future leaders

Atlas Boards in 1984

Early grants and research projects

Writings by Fisher and other documents

Where are they now? Those who passed through Atlas

What was Atlas doing in mid 1985 (Check Atlas mid year report in the attachments bellow), when I arrived to Atlas, Antony Fisher listed 27 institutes in 17 countries. He calculated that the aggregate world income of these think tanks would add up to 7 million dollars.

Early Workshops:

St. Vincent, Italy, August 31, 1986

Montego Bay, Jamaica, April 1987

Indianapolis, September 5-6 1987 (attachment has complete program and short speaker bios)

Atlas XXIst International Workshop, June 29, July 2, 1993, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia

Although CEDICE in Venezuela was not yet founded, Antony was in touch with several of those involved in CEDICE’s early years, like the Zuloaga family, the Vollmers, and the untiring intellectual and business entrepreneur, Jesús Eduardo Rodríguez. [For early think-tank efforts in Venezuela go here]  

Fisher was also following the Centro de Estúdios Públicos (CEP), in Chile, but as he did not meet its leaders, he was unsure about providing support. Unlike Milton Friedman, his friend, inspiration, and neighbor, Fisher missed the 1981 Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Viña del Mar, Chile, during which CEP members played a prominent role.   

                                                                                                                            Fisher with Dorian, and Ricardo Zuloaga (1919- 2011)

Antony was also encouraging a younger generation. Atlas decided to "risk" $500 as an encouragement grant, to support the Freedom Association in Iceland, founded by Hannes Gissurarson.  Hannes then went to get his Ph.D. at Oxford (1985) and founded the Jon Thorlaksson Institute in Iceland. The institute became inactive but Hannes continued to promote the free society through many endeavors, today he is a professor at the University of Iceland. Gissurarson is today affiliated with the Research Centre for Innovation and Economic Growth.

Other groups mentioned in Atlas’s first report were the Adam Smith Institute (U.K.), and the Center for Independent Studies. The latter was founded by Greg Lindsay in Sydney some time before the Atlas founding. 

Greg Lindsay at MPS Istanbul, 2011

Antony summarized: “There are ten operating institutes using similar methods, fourteen more trying to get started, and at least sixteen other places where help would be effective. That would be a total of some forty institutes in thirty countries in twenty languages.”

Atlas has never been endowed, so I should devote at least a paragraph to the early donors which made the launching possible.  Some are still generous supporters, like a Canadian family that wishes to remain anonymous, and the Scaife Foundation.  Scaife donated $30,000, which 30 years ago was 20% of Atlas’s budget.  Scaife’s largest donation to Atlas was five times larger, but thanks to our growth, it represented at the time just under 3% of Atlas support.  Using an analogy of the investment world, a 20% stake in Atlas made by Scaife, $30,000, would be worth today over $1,800,000.  Charles B. “Chuck” Brunie was also a generous donor during our first year. The other donors who helped Atlas start were Dorian, Antony’s wife, Milton Petrie, the Uranus Trust, and Donald Hodgson.  David Fasken donated the rent of the first office.  Thanks to all!

The experience of Atlas with Dr. John Goodman deserves a longer story as it led Atlas and other players to be very cautious when starting think tanks under the umbrella of a university. Thirty-two years ago, Fisher described John as a “young entrepreneurial academic who has already achieved recognition by such organizations as the Hoover Institution [another University based think tank].” Goodman had written what Fisher considered an excellent book: The British Health Care in Great Britain: A Lesson for Americans, which Fisher remarked “was praised in the London Daily Telegraph by Arthur Seldon of the IEA.” Praising John Goodman Fisher concluded: “I have known him for a long time and believe him to be capable of running and institute and also of fundraising.”

The University of Dallas was friendly to the ideas of free enterprise but did not allow Goodman to approach the donors and supporters of the university.  This led to the creation of the National Center for Policy Analysis, which retains a leadership position in the elaboration of health policy studies, but expanded to analyze most relevant areas of the national policy scene.  It took some time for scholars and donors to warm up to the idea of university and college based centers.

In May of 1982 Antony wrote:

"Dorian, my wife, and I visited Texas where Dr. John Goodman, having set up and raised money for the Center for Health Policy Studies within Dallas University, is now creating his new National Center for Policy Analysis which will have its own tax exempt status. His first project will be an analysis of the possibilities for, and consequences of denationalizing at least part of the United States' social security and welfare systems. 

Continuing with donors, John Templeton (not yet knighted) also appears in Atlas’s first reports.  He is not listed as a major donor but as being the one who introduced Antony Fisher to the anonymous Canadian benefactor who was essential for Atlas success, especially in North America. He was also a member of Atlas's business advisory board. I continue to marvel at the culture of generosity preserved diligently by some in Canada and the United States. Most of Atlas start-up grants to institutes in the United States came from donors who do not want to be mentioned and, as in the case of Atlas Canadian friends, do not even get a tax-deduction.

Although Atlas never received a major portion of its funding from corporations (the historical average must be less than 3%) Antony’s business background allowed him to have good access to leading business leaders.  During the first year Antony was able to tell the Atlas story to Peter Davidson, the retired head of General Electric, U.K.; Robert “Bob” Bee, who was Chairman of London Interstate Bank, became trustee of the Adam Smith Institute (before retiring to the San Francisco Bay Area with his lovely Italian wife Delores, Bob was considered as a potential CEO for Atlas); Nelson Brams (Chairman of the Equitable Life Holding Corporation of New York); and Malcolm Wilcox (Midland Bank in London).


During the first years of Atlas Antony had some help, but not much. Most came from Dorian, his wife and most important collaborator. Before creating Atlas, in 1978, Antony and Dorian started Fisher Research Development, Inc., a consulting company to help raise money for establishing and advising institutes. Soon after they realized that a not-for-profit structure would be more appropriate for their goals. I met two of the first Atlas collaborators, one very briefly, and many years later: Mrs. Patricia Patterson, described by Antony as having “worldwide contacts” and a “most successful fundraiser.  Recently she became very interested in the free market cause and hence her desire to help Atlas.”  Pamela Lentz joined Antony as full-time secretary/office manager on January 1, 1982, and remained until 1985.  Antony received part time help by Beryl Magilavy, who he praised, but I never met her.

Atlas was going to start its first full year of operations in 1982.  Its small offices in the elegant “Mills Building” at 220 Montgomery Street, in San Francisco, served Atlas well until Antony’s death.