The key to achieving a free society is, first and foremost, to change the climate of ideas. That’s the lesson that Atlas Network founder Sir Antony Fisher drew from Nobel laureate economist Friedrich Hayek before he abandoned his electoral ambitions to begin work founding and supporting think tanks that would assemble the analytical nuts and bolts of classical liberal thought, apply them to practical policy solutions, and thereby build a worldwide freedom movement.
On April 16, Atlas Network held a daylong event celebrating the vision of Antony Fisher — how think tanks can influence public policy, and how the independent think tank model can be replicated on a worldwide basis. That vision has generated a legacy with a tremendous influence on the world today, with more than 460 Atlas Network partners in 94 countries around the globe.
William “Chip” Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice.
“Antony was persevering,” said William “Chip” Mellor, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice, and who headed the Pacific Research Institute for a few years at Fisher’s behest before he co-founded IJ in 1991. “He was irrepressible, resolute, and an entrepreneur who wouldn't take no for an answer. He expected and demanded that the institutes rise or fall based on the leadership.”
Several representatives of Atlas Network’s many partner organizations who were visiting Washington, D.C., as part of Atlas Leadership Academy’s Leveraging Indices for Free Enterprise Policy Reform grant training, spoke throughout the day in panel sessions that explored some of the unique challenges and opportunities that each group faces.
Miguel Collado, senior economist Centro Regional de Estrategias Economicas Sostenibles (CREES); Ali Salman, executive director of Pakistan-based Atlas Network partner Policy Research Institute of Market Economy (PRIME); Svetla Kostadinova, executive director of Institute for Market Economics; and Matt Warner, Atlas Network’s vice president of programs and institute relations.
One of the most crucial aspects of influencing the policy discussion is simply becoming a part of the conversation, so that media, taxpayers, and policymakers have a chance to hear and consider the benefits of specific proposals that advance individual liberty and free markets.
“Gaining a seat at the table is critical,” said Miguel Collado, senior economist for Atlas Network partner Centro Regional de Estrategias Economicas Sostenibles (CREES), based in the Dominican Republic. “In order to be influential in the Dominican, it requires strong relationships. This is a key part of our approach to influence public policy. And this is why we hold this at the heart of our strategy in addition to having a strong research and communications program.”
Žilvinas Šilėnas, president of Atlas Network partner Lithuanian Free Market Institute (LFMI); and Brad Lips, CEO of Atlas network.
Sometimes groundbreaking work can itself be the catalyst for starting conversations about policy and the ideas of liberty, explained Žilvinas Šilėnas, president of Atlas Network partner Lithuanian Free Market Institute (LFMI).
“Our goal is to create many products to drive change,” Šilėnas said. “For example, our Municipal Performance Index, for which we won the Templeton Freedom Award in 2014. The index opened many doors to conversations about taxes and regulation. Because local government is very close to the people, it is important to create tools that can help them. The index is widely used in town hall debates, and now we are exporting it — first in Hungary and next in Georgia.”
Particularly for newer organizations, gaining a seat at the table can be more of an art than a science, pointed out Ali Salman, executive director of Pakistan-based Atlas Network partner Policy Research Institute of Market Economy (PRIME), which was founded two years ago. He related an example of how one prominent government official came to seek policy advice from PRIME after positive interaction in other less formal contexts.
“There was no conference; there was no pressure,” Salman said. “But the key factor for me was that the contact and the confidence-building that we had with an important official helped for him to say go ahead and make a proposal.”
Part of the process of gaining access to the broader policy conversation is making sure that the organizational message is tailored to the needs and interests of each unique audience.
“We try to tell the truth,” said Svetla Kostadinova, executive director of Bulgaria-based Atlas Network partner Institute for Market Economics. “It's often not so much liked, but we repeat it and we create different messages for different groups. We try to design the simple truth in different ways, so everybody can see the incentive to support it, or at least not to actively oppose it.”
Alex Wild, research director for The TaxPayers’ Alliance; Cristina Berechet, head of research at Civismo; Arpita Nepal, co-founder and director of research & development at Samriddhi, The Prosperity Foundation; and Brad Lips, CEO of Atlas network.
This type of message tailoring can facilitate coalition-building for specific policy proposals that include members who would ordinarily see themselves as fundamentally opposed.
“I work with the Maoists, I work with the Marxist-Leninists, with the Marxists, with the Stalinists,” said Arpita Nepal, co-founder and director of research & development at Nepal-based Atlas Network partner Samriddhi, The Prosperity Foundation. “I work with the ones who are reform-minded in any group, and make it in their interest to work with us — reach out to all the stakeholders. What we do is explain the issue to them in terms that nobody has been able to explain it to them before.”
The public sector is fundamentally resistant to substantial reform, as public choice economists have explained, because individual government officials have strong incentives to preserve their institutional position, funding, influence, and advantage.
“No politician is going to advance the kind of proposals that we've suggested,” said Alex Wild, research director for U.K.-based Atlas Network partner The TaxPayers’ Alliance. “We have a duty to start planting these ideas in people's heads, because it will eventually happen, even if it happens very gradually. We spend a lot of time criticizing politicians, but it's also important that for certain ideas, we provide a certain amount of covering for them if they want to do something ambitious — shifting the Overton Windows for them.”
Part of that shifting process includes demonstrating to the public how bad government policies affect their lives in tangible, practical ways. Cristina Berechet, head of research at Atlas Network partner Civismo in Spain, explained how her organization’s work in comparing the differences in property and gasoline taxes between different municipalities allowed taxpayers to understand for the first time how abnormally high their rates often were.
“The average driver in Cantabria was paying 80 euros more to fill his gasoline tank compared to drivers in the Basque,” Berechet said. “If you give a policymaker a straightforward argument that his policy is highly inefficient, and convince a journalist of this, you can win the policy battle.”