In the book of Ecclesiasticus it is recorded: “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.” Sometimes, though, it is equally appropriate to praise those who are not famous yet deserve to be. Such is the case with the founder of the Atlas Network.
On June 28, Atlas Network will celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of Sir Antony Fisher (1915–1988). Born in Great Britain in World War I, Fisher was a businessman with a strong entrepreneurial streak and a penchant for risk-taking. As an engineering student at Cambridge University in the 1930s, he helped found a sports car company and established a pioneering car rental business, possibly the first in Britain. As a fighter pilot and flight instructor in the Royal Air Force during World War II, he developed an advanced system of gunnery training that probably saved many British airmen’s lives.
Fisher in these years was not just an eager young entrepreneur, however. Deeply interested in economics and the future of freedom, he was alarmed by the growing regimentation of wartime Britain and the prospect that his country would plummet even further into collectivism when the war was over. He joined the Society of Individualists, which adhered to the tenets of classical liberalism, and read ardently the American anticommunist monthly Reader’s Digest. There, in its April 1945 issue, he discovered the condensed version of a riveting new book that was rattling the intelligentsia in both the United Kingdom and the United States: Professor Friedrich A. Hayek’s critique of socialism, The Road to Serfdom.
Fisher was so enthralled by Hayek’s polemic that he visited its author, who was then teaching at the London School of Economics, and asked for advice: what should Fisher do to turn “discussion and policy” onto the “right lines”? His own thought was that he should enter Parliament and fight the ideological battle there.
Hayek emphatically dissuaded him. Forget about a career in politics, the professor admonished, and concentrate on convincing the intellectuals. They are the ones who create the climate of public opinion that shapes political action. He pointed out that the Fabian Socialists and their followers in Britain had (in Fisher’s words) “tilted the political debate in favour of government.” The professor advised his youthful visitor to establish “a scholarly research organization” that could reach the intellectuals with “authoritative studies” of a classical liberal character.
Fisher’s encounter with the The Road to Serfdom and its author profoundly altered the direction of his life. In the next several years, the dream of building an institution that would disseminate “better ideas” to the intellectuals never faded from his mind. In 1949, he told an acquaintance, “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.”
In 1954, the audacious entrepreneur launched a chicken farm for the breeding and eventual processing of poultry on a massive scale. Highly successful, the venture opened the way for him to establish in 1955 an “educational trust” with a mission to examine “economic policies by reference to the requirements of a free society.” He named it the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). It was one of the first free-market think tanks ever created.
Fisher insisted that the IEA not indulge in party politics or accept the snare of government funding. Faithful to Hayek’s counsel, Fisher and his colleagues — led by Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon — relentlessly pursued what Fisher’s biographer, Gerald Frost, has called a “strategy of ‘top down’ intellectual conversion.”
During the next two decades, the IEA commissioned and published hundreds of policy studies by friendly academics. It became a clearinghouse for Hayek’s thought, as well as the monetarist economics espoused by Milton Friedman and his allies. In the 1970s, as Britain’s economy floundered, Tory politicians like Opposition Leader Margaret Thatcher began to take notice.
The impact of IEA’s ideological offensive was extraordinary. According to Milton Friedman in 1991, the trio of Fisher, Harris, and Seldon “deserve[d] major credit for transforming the intellectual climate of opinion in Britain.” Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher agreed. Of the academics and journalists who joined IEA’s “great endeavour,” she declared in 1987: “They were the few. But they were right, and they saved Britain.”
Fisher himself, characteristically, was modest. Describing himself as an “intellectual entrepreneur,” he asserted that he was “only the catalyst” — a builder of bridges between the worlds of business and academe. But those who knew him best discerned in him something more: a “missionary zeal” (as his biographer termed it) that appeared to intensify in his older age. By the mid-1970s, he had begun to see in the IEA not just a British success story but a model that needed replication elsewhere if the freedom movement was to triumph. “Proliferation is required,” he argued. “The echo is as important as the message.”
And so, in the last dozen years of his life, Fisher became, in the words of John Blundell, “the Johnny Appleseed of the free-market movement.” Wherever he traveled, it seemed, a new IEA (or something like it) took root. In 1975, he served for a time as acting director of the nascent Fraser Institute in Vancouver, Canada. Two years later, he cofounded in New York City a think tank that soon became known as the Manhattan Institute. Many other such successes could be mentioned.
Fisher’s climactic achievement was his creation in 1981 of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation (now known as Atlas Network), which he served for six years as founding president. Atlas Network’s primary function was (and remains) to advise and facilitate the proliferating array of classical liberal think tanks springing up throughout the world — many in imitation of, or inspired by, IEA. Today, their number has grown to more than 460 in over 90 different countries.
Ralph Harris once described Fisher as a “venture capitalist in the world of ideas.” Fisher did not act alone, of course, nor was he altogether unique in his choice of vocation. Viewed in historical perspective, he can be seen as a representative in Great Britain of a type of individual more common in the United States in his lifetime: the intellectually oriented conservative or libertarian businessman, committed not just to conventional philanthropy but to securing the intellectual foundations of a free and prosperous society. In America, one thinks of such early luminaries in sustaining the cause of liberty as William Volker and Harold Luhnow of the Volker Fund; Pierre Goodrich, founder of the Liberty Fund; and Harry Earhart, whose long-running Earhart Foundation is about to close its doors after quietly assisting the work of thousands of scholars and others since the late 1940s. In one respect, however, Fisher stood out more than most: in the ultimately global scope of his endeavors.
Fisher’s life reminds us also of another behind-the-scenes contributor to Atlas Network’s success: its longtime executive vice president for academic affairs, Leonard Liggio, who died in 2014 and would be celebrating his 82nd birthday this July 5 if he had lived. Although of very different backgrounds, the two men had much in common. Generous and devoid of ostentation, they preferred the unassuming roles of mentor and “catalyst” and declined to seek the limelight. That is one reason they are not better known.
Today, thanks to Fisher and others like him, the friends of liberty are more connected worldwide than ever before. Think tanks, institutions virtually unknown in the 1950s, are now a common feature of the political landscape — so common that it is tempting to take them for granted.
But “an institution,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is but the lengthened shadow of one man.” One such man was Sir Antony Fisher, originator of the Atlas Network and much else. As we celebrate the centenary of his birth and recall his remarkable legacy, it is fitting to honor him. In this “Age of Celebrity,” it is not always the famous who do the most to improve our world.