He was a war hero, a business and intellectual entrepreneur, and he helped end the Cold War — but he was so unassuming that you’ve probably never heard of him. The late Sir Antony Fisher, who was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth just a year before his death in 1988 for his work in spreading the message of freedom across the planet, was born 100 years ago on June 28, 1915. His remarkable story shows how one person with a vision can change history.
A World War II pilot, Fisher defended his country in the Battle of Britain, a conflict that claimed the life of his brother and two cousins. But after the war, he grew despondent that the freedoms his family had died for were being thrown away. The radical 1945 Labor government nationalized all the main industries — coal, steel, electricity, railroads — and created a welfare state with socialized health care, public housing, and “cradle to grave” social benefits.
Fisher thought about going into politics. But then he read a condensed version of The Road to Serfdom, a wartime book that exposed how socialism had taken Europe down a path that led to the evils of Hitler’s Nazism. So he sought out the book’s author, economist and political scientist Friedrich A. Hayek, in London.
“Forget politics,” Hayek told him. “Politicians just follow prevailing opinions. If you want to change events, you must change ideas.”
Fisher went on to import deep litter farming from the United States, making chicken no longer a luxury but a staple food in war-damaged Britain. With his early profits, he set about following Hayek’s advice. In 1955, he created an ideas factory, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which pumped out hundreds of books and articles that demonstrated the practicality and benefits of personal and economic freedom over state control. IEA grew into a powerful intellectual force. When Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, she devoured its ideas. She famously forced aides to read Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, telling them, “This is what we believe!”
IEA provided a deep intellectual foundation for Thatcher’s gut belief in freedom. When she became U.K. prime minister in 1979, she was not just a politician but a formidable champion of freedom. She helped give that same depth to her political soul mate Ronald Reagan, when he became president in 1980. Thatcher saw the Soviet Union as not just evil but as intellectually bankrupt, and the two of them determined to face it down. Between them, they succeeded.
Fisher did not stop there. He wanted to create new IEA-style think tanks across the world. He helped establish some: the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, the Manhattan Institute in New York, the Pacific Research Institute in California, and more. Fisher was a modest man, however, and did not want to run everything himself — only to be the catalyst to help others do great things. So he set up the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, today known as Atlas Network, to provide that support. By 1988 there were already 35 partner think tanks in the Atlas Network family. Today there are more than 450, in every continent outside Antarctica.
Together, they are changing the world. Land reforms in Peru, privatization in Britain, public debt control and energy-market reform in Pakistan, property rights in Ethiopia, low-cost private education in India — all have been advanced through the efforts of think tanks supported by Atlas Network.
The ideas of liberty are being spread even in the most unlikely places. From Morocco through Turkey to Yemen, the Istanbul Network for Liberty is holding events, in Arabic, exploring how the Muslim world can benefit from the values of a free society. In Kazakhstan, the Institute for Development and Economic Affairs is explaining how economic freedom and entrepreneurship promote growth and prosperity — and government does not. In Africa, activists in the Atlas Network family in Mali and the Ivory Coast have defied the authorities to promote democratic ideas among the young. Student groups supported by Atlas Network are disseminating books on the free society in Senegal, and holding ideas competitions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Antony Fisher inspired world leaders and helped change history. His impact continues to ripple out, spreading pro-freedom ideas and policies all over the world. As Oliver Letwin, now a senior minister in the British government, put it in the London Times in May 1994, that is “quite a chain of consequences for a chicken farmer.” Yes indeed.