June 25, 2015 | by George H. Smith Print

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In 1945, after serving as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II, Antony Fisher read a condensed version of Nobel laureate economist Friedrich A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in Reader’s Digest. Alarmed at the rise of socialism in Britain, Fisher considered a career in politics, but Hayek dissuaded him, arguing instead that he should direct his energies to changing public opinion. As Fisher recalled many years later in an interview:

I happened to read F.A. Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom, and asked his advice. He told me, “Keep out of politics, and make your case to the intellectuals—that is, the teachers, and the media—because they in turn influence the people. ... He who makes public sentiment actually makes legislation possible.”

Hayek’s advice came to fruition a decade later when, in 1955, Antony Fisher founded the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), a think tank devoted to the free-market ideas and policies of classical liberalism. Although IEA exerted an enormous influence on the policies of Margaret Thatcher, it wisely steered clear of endorsing any political party or candidate, focusing instead on publishing many dozens of economic analyses that applied free-market principles to contemporary economic and social problems, and that demonstrated the deleterious, unintended consequences of government intervention.

Fisher later played a formative role in establishing many additional free-market institutes, most notably the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, today known as Atlas Network, in 1981. All of these institutions were modeled to some degree on the theory of intellectual entrepreneurship proposed by Hayek, especially in his 1949 essay, “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” An intellectual, as Hayek used the term, is a “professional secondhand dealer in ideas.” By “secondhand,” Hayek meant second in the order of the transmission of knowledge. Hayek’s intellectual is defined in terms of his social role in the dissemination of specialized knowledge to a wider audience; he is an “intermediary in the spreading of ideas.”

Hayek distinguished the intellectual from the expert — the academic, scholar, or original thinker in a specialized field of knowledge. This concept of the intellectual encompasses many professionals, including politicians, journalists, teachers, novelists, ministers, and even cartoonists and artists who convey ideas through their work. Also included are various professionals and technicians, such as scientists and doctors, who, because of the respect they command in their own areas of expertise, are taken seriously in other fields. Essentially, therefore, intellectuals are those who deal with ideas that are taken from other sources. Concerning the influence of intellectuals in modern society, Hayek wrote:

There is little that the ordinary man of today learns about events or ideas except through the medium of this [intellectual] class; and outside our special fields of work we are in this respect almost all ordinary men, dependent for our information and instruction on those who make it their job to keep abreast of opinion. It is the intellectuals in this sense who decide what views and opinions are to reach us, which facts are important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what angle they are to be presented. Whether we shall ever learn of the results of the work of the expert and the original thinker depends mainly on their decision.

There is no greater testament to the value of Hayek’s theory of intellectuals and public opinion than the work of Antony Fisher. His unremitting efforts to found, support, and encourage free-market think tanks have provided many economists, sociologists, and other academic experts in the classical liberal tradition with the funding and outlets by which the ideas of freedom have been transmitted to thousands of intellectuals, and from them into the mainstream of public opinion. There is no question but that free-market ideas are far better known and more widely disseminated today than when Fisher founded IEA in 1955. Much of the credit for this progress must go to the labors of Antony Fisher. Although his name may not be as recognizable as those of Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and similar champions of freedom, his behind-the-scenes work played an indispensable role in spreading free-market ideas to a broad audience of intellectuals, who in turn have applied those ideas to their own work.