June 25, 2015 | by Steve Horwitz Print

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By founding institutions like the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Fraser Institute, and Atlas Network, Antony Fisher understood that reclaiming the classical liberal tradition had to start in the realm of ideas. The way in which ideas influenced the broader culture, including politics, was at the forefront of Hayek’s concerns after the rout of classical liberalism in the Great Depression and World War II. His essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism” was his most focused attempt to understand that process. It was encountering Hayek, and presumably hearing a version of that argument, that led Fisher to see the importance of think tanks for changing the world, especially in comparison to partisan politics.

In that essay, Hayek stressed the ways in which the ideas of those who influence public opinion, who he termed the “intellectuals,” were derived from a fairly small number of original thinkers. The intellectuals include “journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction,” and others, as well as scientists and doctors, who, Hayek argued, encounter new ideas all the time and are listened to because of their expert knowledge on their own subjects. The intellectuals are not the creators of knowledge. They convey the knowledge of the true expert. They are “second-hand dealers in ideas,” and as such they have an enormous influence over public opinion. Hayek argued that every country that had adopted some version of socialism had seen socialist ideas adopted by the intellectuals in the decades prior.

The task for classical liberalism was to change the climate of ideas and begin to persuade the intellectuals of liberalism’s virtues and the failures of socialism. Making such a change would require institutions devoted to the production and distribution of liberal ideas. If the intellectuals were to be persuaded, it would have to be by encouraging the development of classical liberal ideas by the true experts and taking them to intellectuals who would then bring them to the masses. This was the intellectual version of the structure of production that Hayek and other Austrian economists used to describe the movement of goods from raw materials to finished consumer products.

But why do it this way? Why not instead work to get politicians elected? After all, Fisher could have thrown his time, energy, and resources into partisan politics.

What Hayek understood, as did Fisher, is that politicians will supply what the public demands. Politicians are vote seekers. They have to get elected to office before they do anything else, and that means they have to respond to what the public wants. What the public wants, of course, is whatever they believe government can and/or should be doing. And what they believe government should be doing comes from the ideas they hear peddled by intellectuals.

Hayek and Fisher also understood that even if you could get “good people” elected, they would face the same structural incentives as all politicians do, and they would find it difficult to enact liberal reforms unless, again, their constituents favored them. The key reforms had to be ones that changed the institutions of politics rather than only policies, and those too could only happen if there was a shift in the world of ideas.

The conclusion from all of this was that real change toward liberalism could only happen when the intellectuals had access to liberal ideas and found them persuasive. At that point, we would see politicians think seriously about liberal reforms, and they might find a public more willing to support such reforms and vote them into office. Retail politics makes no sense until the earlier stages of production of ideas have been sufficiently completed.

The way to bring about those changes in the world of ideas was to exercise entrepreneurship in the creation of institutions that would incubate and distribute classical liberal ideas to the intellectuals. That is exactly what Antony Fisher proceeded to do, and the seeds he spread have blossomed into some of the most successful classical liberal think tanks and educational organizations across the globe.

There is no doubt that his efforts, and the efforts of many others over the last few decades, have slowly shifted the intellectual world in a somewhat more classical liberal direction. Those ideas have also had consequences, because even after the economic backsliding since 2008, classical liberal reforms have been successful in many countries. The lesson now is to remember that we are not yet where we need to be, and that continued investment in the world of ideas should be our priority. Until the public is demanding liberty, we must continue produce new and better classical liberal ideas through think tanks and educational organizations, and we must produce intellectuals capable of effectively spreading those ideas across the globe.

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Steven Horwitz is Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics and department chair at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. Learn More about Steve Horwitz >