The contemporary economic religion

It has become an article of faith for many in the media, government and finance that the free market is better at delivering services and offering choice to the public than the public sector. We are asked to believe that private sector organisations can deliver capital projects on time and to budget far better than public bureaucracies. We are assured that the 'invisible hand' of the market is a superior mechanism for meeting human needs, provided that its operation is not contaminated by government and quasi-government interference.
It is accepted as axiomatic by many that the financial markets are a boon of inestimable value to the UK, that 'shareholder value creation' is the best driver of industry and that the least regulation is good. Governments should keep their noses out of financial markets and let them be self regulating.
On a wider screen, the IMF and World Bank force free-market 'disciplines' down the throats of poor countries with disastrous results, despite the fact that rich countries are grossly protectionist if it suits them.
Behind all of this is a deeper set of popular assumptions about market forces that will self-adjust to rectify any unfortunate excesses far more effectively than conscious human intervention.
Deeper still are shadowy models of humankind as self-seeking beings concerned only with maximising their narrow interests, constrained only by the attempts of others to do the same.
Those who question these verities are ignored or if they seem troublesome, subjected to ridicule and sometimes vilification.
Why are the upper reaches of finance, industry, politics and the media so solid in their convictions?
A primary reason of course is basic self-interest. Developed countries, politicians, managers, and financial market operators can enrich themselves by toeing the politically correct 'market forces are good' line. Journalists who are too publicly sceptical will be cut out of the networks that feed them with the stories, angles and tit- bits that they need to survive.
But there is something more - for the story line is almost universally uniform in the United States and more recently the UK. The line is quite simple - the well-being and wealth of the people is best served by individual freedom, choice, free markets, weak regulation, least government intervention and that all of this when allied to a particular model of democracy will serve the needs of mankind far better than any other system.
The fact that each of these axioms and assertions is capable of being seriously challenged by hard experience is drowned out by a chorus of positive news about free enterprise, democracy and market forces and bad-mouthing of alternatives - (Remember TINA?).

And yet........

So why are we so brainwashed by free-market economics?

What follows is the result of rambles through Google that began idly enough, but became more gripping as cross-connections and networks appeared.
It all started with a quote from J.K Galbraith, the eminent economist and social commentator.
This attracted my interest and I looked for more quotes from Galbraith. This led to a website called www.bluepete.com
I was somewhat taken aback by the following diatribe, notable for its confusion between opinions and eternal verities:


John Kenneth Galbraith was a pop star, "fundamentally a one man crusade"; his "theories have never found any acceptance in the academic world --" He promoted the collectivist religion which believed that coercive government action against the individual would be in the best interests of the collective whole, of society. It is a false religion which has a perverse view of the nature of man (to Galbraith and his ilk, men are but like whining sheep). Man is an evolved creature which must, by natural law, proceed to serve his and his own family's best interests. As recent history will readily illustrate, it is when individuals serve their own best interests that the public interests, in so doing, are also best served. Central control by the elite not only wastes precious resources, but splits society into those who have and those who do not. Only in a free market will people be able to lead independently sovereign lives; and only in a free market will people be able to be productive - helping themselves, their families, and their community as a whole. The market is simply another word for freedom. For the maximum good for the most people, we are obliged to proceed on this basis: "Liberty of each, limited by the like liberties of all, is the rule in conformity with which society must be organized."

This was interesting - the Bluepete writer poured scorn on Galbraith and praised Milton Friedman to the skies. He also lives in a strange world where sheep whine!

A quick search unearthed an article in the New York Review of Books, connecting Friedman to other free market thinkers; Von Hayek, Von Mises and the Austrian School of economics. It did not take more than a few moments to register that these institutions are strongly attached to free markets and were against government involvement in the economy.

Von Hayek seemed to be a magnet for free-marketeers. One reference led to the Mont Pelerin Society, which was first convened by von Hayek in 1947:

The group described itself as the Mont Pelerin Society, after the place of the first meeting. It emphasised that it did not intend to create an orthodoxy, to form or align itself with any political party or parties, or to conduct propaganda. Its sole objective was to facilitate an exchange of ideas between like-minded scholars in the hope of strengthening the principles and practice of a free society and to study the workings, virtues, and defects of market-oriented economic systems.

Members who include high government officials, Nobel prize recipients, journalists, economic and financial experts, and legal scholars from all over the world, come regularly together to present the most current analysis of ideas, trends and events.

All of this sounds very respectable - but the list of past members seemed to be dominated by free-marketeers such as Milton Friedman and James Buchanan. (An initiator of the notion that humans were essentially self-serving individuals, who if they were left alone would angle their pursuit of self-interest for the good of all).

The Links page seemed interesting - and there were two UK directors, Linda Whetstone and Eamonn Butler - who were they?


Institute of Economic Affairs, London, UK
Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA
The Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC
American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC
Cato Institute, Washington, DC
Atlas Economic Research Foundation, Fairfax, VA
Political Economy Research Center, Bozeman, MT
Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, Australia
Timbro, Stockholm, Sweden
Ratio, Stockholm, Sweden
Manhattan Institute, New York, NY
International Policy Network, London, UK
Café Hayek Blog
Hayek Scholars' Page
Laissez Faire Books

Linda Whetstone is daughter of Antony Fisher, UK spokesman of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, chairman of the London-based International Policy Network, and board member of Institute of Economic Affairs.

Dr Eamonn Butler is director of the Adam Smith Institute, an influential think-tank which for more than twenty years has designed and promoted practical policies to promote choice and competition in the delivery of essential services. Independent and non-partisan, the Institute was at the intellectual leading edge of the UK debate on privatization, including the sale of state enterprises, the commercialization of government agencies, contracting-out of local services, and the introduction of internal markets in health and education.

It seems as though we're off on an interesting journey through the forests of conservative, free-market thinking.

But, before we start, what about von Mises and the Austrian School, mentioned earlier? Google turns up the Mises Institute. It's based in Alabama, not Vienna and here's its Mission:

In this cause, the Mises Institute works to advance the Austrian School of economics and the Misesian tradition, and, in application, defends the market economy, private property, sound money, and peaceful international relations, while opposing government intervention as economically and socially destructive.

The Mises Institute has 250 faculty members working with it on one or more academic projects. With their help, and thousands of donors in 50 states and 64 foreign countries, the Institute has held more than 500 teaching conferences

What of von Mise's views? Here's a snippet from admirer Murray Rothbard:

Mises concluded that the only viable economic policy for the human race was a policy of unrestricted laissez-faire, of free markets and the unhampered exercise of the right of private property, with government strictly limited to the defense of person and property within its territorial area.

Murray Rothbard was a major patron of the von Mises Institute, a fervent disciple of von Mises and the Austrian School of economics and professor of Economics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His stance can be deduced from the following quote:

"On the free market, everyone earns according to his productive value in satisfying consumer desires. Under statist distribution, everyone earns in proportion to the amount he can plunder from the producers.".

So far, we have discovered two major institutes dedicated to advancing the philosophy of free markets and minimal government involvement.

Let's widen the search.

The Mont Pelerin Society has a board of directors. A sample of them include Greg Lindsay, Director of the Centre for Independent Studies, an Australian neo-liberal, free-market institution espousing conservative social policies, Leonard Liggio, EVP of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, Eamonn Butler, director of the right-wing free-market Adam Smith Institute in the UK.

Another director is Linda Whetstone, daughter of Antony Fisher. (see above).

Several birds with one stone! Who was/is Antony Fisher, what is the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the International Policy Network and the Institute of Economic Affairs?

Sir Antony Fisher (1915 - 1988) was one of the most influential background players in the global rise of libertarian think-tanks during the second half of the twentieth century, founding the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Through Atlas, he helped establish up to 150 other think-tanks worldwide. The most prominent include:

  • Fraser Institute
  • Manhattan Institute
  • Pacific Research Institute
  • National Center for Policy Analysis
  • Centre for Independent Studies
  • Adam Smith Institute

Fisher was a key node in the web of connections. Of his many foundations, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation based in Virginia has a massive reach and is hyperactive in promoting and supporting free-market economics and social conservatism.

The Atlas Economic Research Foundation was founded in 1981 by Antony Fisher. After having founded the Institute of Economic Affairs in London in 1955, Fisher had helped in the establishment of the Fraser Institute, the Manhattan Institute and the Pacific Research Institute in the 1970s. Fisher conceived of Atlas as a means of institutionalizing his work to replicate the "independent think tank" model all over the world.

Today, it convenes workshops, runs prize programs, and provides advisory services in order to continue growing and strengthening an informal network of more than 250 think tanks that exist in 70 different countries.

Atlas uses grants from institutions such as the Templeton Foundation and its own money through awards and prizes to promote the work of like-minded individuals across the world. It also supports free-market libertarian think tanks across the world, producing 'Think Tank FAQ/Toolkit for those wishing to set up a 'freedom' Think Tank. The toolkit includes reading lists for members of the Freedom Movement.

Despite its claim that it is independently open-minded in its stance, it is easy to detect a strong neo-liberal, free-market, limited government, US-style democracy angle in most of its work and in its contacts.

It also produces a directory of more than 500 think tanks across the world that are "Sympathetic to the values of a free society". Browsing this list and a sample of its members is a fascinating experience. Then performing the opposite and browsing links from its members generally leads back to the usual suspects - libertarian, free-market institutions. It also produces a directory of right-minded think tanks and institutes.

Visit its website and browse the extensive facilities for establishing and maintaining free-market institutions world wide.

Fisher was a prolific founder of free-market institutions. Another of these is the International Policy Network. Its mission is clearly propagandising:

IPN pursues its mission of informing the public by sponsoring and co-ordinating conferences, workshops and seminars; working with experts to produce books, monographs and print articles and assisting with their syndication internationally; participating in key international conferences; engaging with broadcast media; partnering with individuals and think-tanks with similar missions, around the world; and supporting partners with websites and IT support, making small grants, giving advice and assisting with development of materials.

IPN also maintains a program to encourage dissemination of ideas based on the institutions of a free society specifically through print media throughout the world.

A cursory browse of its network will soon pick up on such topics as global warming denial and promoting the role of pharmaceutical companies in alleviating the ills of the poor.

It sponsors the $15,000 Bastiat Prize:

The prize was developed to encourage and reward writers whose published works eloquently and wittily elucidate the institutions of a free society: limited government, rule of law brokered by an independent judiciary, protection of private property, free markets, free speech, and sound science.

Alas! Not much room here for writers who are open minded! Only those who believe in TINA need apply.

Returning to earth, let's have a look at the Institute of Economic Affairs, another of Fisher's foundations:

The IEA is the UK's original free-market think-tank, founded in 1955. The IEA's goal is to explain free-market ideas to the public, including politicians, students, journalists, businessmen, academics and anyone interested in public policy.

The IEA has a massive listing of Links, most, but not all of which are institutions dedicated to promoting free-market policies. Its Trustees include some well-known institutional or academic free-marketeers, such as Linda Whetstone, Prof Patrick Minford, adviser to Margaret Thatcher, and Prof Martin Ricketts of Buckingham University. But its reach is also into industry and finance through Sir Peter Walters, ex chair of BP, the eponymous Malcolm McAlpine, Kevin Bell, ex-adviser to Margaret Thatcher and PR consultant and Michael Hintze, A City investor.

Taking an institution from the IEA's list of links, because we had heard of it before, we clicked and find ourselves looking at the Home Page of the (American) Heritage Foundation's site:

The Heritage Foundation is committed to building an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity and civil society flourish.

This is another neo-liberal, free market institution.

It's listing of experts, who appear to be generally like-minded academics across the world, runs to more than 100. Its Patron is our very own Margaret Thatcher.

The Heritage Foundation runs the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, following a donation from the Margaret Thatcher Institution.

From its website, it appears to be internationally hyperactive in putting across a neo-liberal and conservative view of economic society. One of its activities is the production of an Index of Economic Freedom, which rates countries according to laissez faire principles such as labour freedom, freedom from government and freedom from taxation.

This is not the only free-market index - the Canadian Fraser Institute produces a grandly named Economic Freedom of the World Index.

Moving on, a branch trail led to the Young Briton's Foundation; patron Frederick Forsyth. The YBF has been accused of trying to infiltrate and control the Young Conservatives.

The YBF central creeds are conservative, pro free market and pro-American:

Our training programmes are based in part on the experience of the Republicans in the United States of America, and the role of think-tanks such as The Leadership Institute, Young America's Foundation, The Collegiate Network and The Heritage Foundation in helping to successfully reconnect the centre-right with the American electorate during the late Nineties. Their core aim has been to train conservative-inclined activists to ensure that they are ready to lead the next generation of politicians, with an articulate and modern centre-right alternative.

Another link is to the American Enterprise Institute:

AEI's purposes are to defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism--limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility, vigilant and effective defense and foreign policies, political accountability, and open debate. Its work is addressed to government officials and legislators, teachers and students, business executives, professionals, journalists, and all citizens interested in a serious understanding of government policy, the economy, and important social and political developments

AEI has emerged as one of the leading architects of the second Bush administration's public policy. More than twenty AEI alumni and current visiting scholars and fellows have served either in a Bush administration policy post or on one of the government's many panels and commissions.

A significant funder of the AEI is the rather secretive Earhart Foundation:

The foundation supports free-market scholars through a network of 50 "Earhart professors" across the United States:

"We find promising young men and women that we think would be ideal, not only from an intellectual but also from a character point of view, to be teachers and academic leaders in the future. And when we so identify them, we recommend them to the Earhart Foundation. They provide grants, and we continue to mentor these students as they go through graduate school."

The Foundation has assets of more than $95 million.

Key People

A list of neo-liberal free-market economists would be very long, but readers could start with Von Hayek, Von Mises, Antony Fisher, James Buchanan and Milton Friedman as movers and shakers.

Second order people include Murray Rothbard, John Jewkes, Margaret Thatcher's adviser Patrick Minford, Pierre F Goodrich of the Liberty Fund, Harry B Earhart who used profits from his White Star to set up the eponymous Foundation which extensively funds free-market promotion. Earhart supported Von Hayek to publish and spread his views. Margaret Thatcher also appears as a player.

Innocent amusement can be had by following a trail that leads from Prof Ralph Raico, a senior fellow at the Von Mises Institute, who helped to set up the Property and Freedom Society because he and others felt the Mont Pelerin Society was too moderate. The new society features the thinking of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, whose ideas are a treat to read. Raico also wrote a review of biographies of John Maynard Keynes for the Von Mises Institute entitled "Keynes and the Reds" which rivals the rhetoric of Senator Joe McCarthy.

Left-Inclined and Social Market Institutions

The list that we could identify is dwarfed by the neo-liberal free market equivalents.

First, we looked for institutions based on the thinking of J.M Keynes and J.K Galbraith and could find none. Any links on Google seemed to be to neo-liberal institutions which sought to denigrate the two great social and economic commentators.

Then, we searched for centrist, social market and leftist, socialist institutions.

Here's what we found:


The centre-left agenda is researched and promoted by a tiny fraction of the number of institutions pushing a neo-liberal conservative line.

Also, and most significant, their missions and convictions are far wider and more diffuse than their conservative counterparts. Thus, they do not appear to be pursuing linked or coordinated campaigns. By and large, centre-left institutions are most concerned with social justice, aligning markets with the good of society and environmentalism, few of which issues seem to be central concerns for the neo-liberals.


  1. There are huge networks of institutes, research foundations and promotional bodies dedicated to promoting free-market dogmas, linking economic freedom with democracy. Their hypotheses are that individuals will do better exercising unfettered freedom to pursue their own economic interests, that free markets will serve mankind's interests best, that governments are essentially self-interested and malign and that free markets represent the democratic will of the people.

    Behind all of the contemporary pressures for free-market democracy is a notion of the United States as the ideal model - hence close connections between current neo-conservative thinking and many of the research institutes.
  2. A search for an equivalent range of interests pushing social market and social democratic models reveals no connected body of institutions dedicated to pushing a single message. Hence alternative ideas and models receive far less public attention and tend to get drowned out by the quantity and volume of free-market propaganda.
  3. The pedigree of most of the 'research' institutes is very questionable, especially if one regards research as an open-minded search for facts and evidence. Most of the free-market institutes world wide seem to start with a remarkably similar set of axioms which they promote with dedication. In other words, they start with the answer. Any notions of open-minded research seem to have ceased with Von Hayek and his contemporaries. Even Milton Friedman seems to have stopped exploring economic ideas and started pushing a particular philosophy fairly early.

    So a proposition that neo-liberal free-market economics is research-based is rather dubious.

    We are more likely seeing a networked world-wide movement pushing a narrowly defined set of dogmas about 'good' economics and a 'good' society. The movement is essentially US-based with UK branch offices.
  4. The tone and intensity of much of the rhetoric about freedom, free markets and the evils of government have a quasi-religious flavour to them - as does the vehemence of attacks on alternative ideas. So somewhere in the background seems to be a religious fundamentalism which maybe derives from the US 'Christian' right wing, well-known for its abusive rhetoric. It seems a little unfair to accuse JK Galbraith of regarding people as 'being like whining sheep', Keynes as a commie or George Soros as 'An extreme left-winger' (John Bolton)!!
  5. The rather cursory search performed by the author has revealed a massive engine pushing free-market economics. More serious investigation would reveal much more. It must be emphasised that we have not discovered a conspiracy - the people and institutions behind neo-liberal economics are openly and noisily aiming to influence world opinion.

But.... We have only seen the public faces of the free-market movement - it would be really interesting to have some insights to the invisible lobbying and arm-twisting that must be going on behind the scenes to foster the movement and its ideas. Even more intriguing, although the neo-liberal free market movement originated in Europe, it is now a thoroughly American phenomenon - for example, the Mises Foundation, founded by Austrian Von Mises, is now located in Alabama. Similarly, the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and the Atlas Foundation for Economic Research, founded by Briton Antony Fisher, are based in America. It would not be at all surprising if some of the largesse that supports the US-based 'freedom' movement originates from government or quasi-government sources.


The world has fairly recently emerged from a titanic struggle between two universalist socio-economic theories. One derived from the thinking of Karl Marx - even if the application of his ideas through the Soviet Russian and Chinese systems resulted in a perversion of Marx's philosophy. The other came from 18th and 19th century liberal philosophies which were given a 'spin' by thinkers such as Von Hayek in the immediate post World War Two period. But the whole freedom and free-market system was supercharged by the Cold War and the ideological struggle fought for the soul of the world by the United States and the USSR.

When the USSR collapsed, it was rightly seen that totalitarian centralised socio-economic systems didn't work. But the 'victory' of capitalism was carried further by such as Milton Friedman and Francis Fukuyama, whose book 'The End of History' celebrated the victory of American-model democratic capitalism for ever.

The networks that we have uncovered can be seen as a post Cold War phenomenon. They have been created to cement the triumph of the West over Communism and to push an essentially American vision of the future.

The more it becomes apparent that neo-liberal economic globalisation no more fulfils all the needs of humanity than Soviet centrism, the more we can expect the pro-market volume to increase.

It is crucial that objective evidence and considered open research is allowed to have a place in determining future socio-economic strategy, especially as it is quite clear that the American model in the American century is causing considerable difficulties in America, not to speak of the rest of the world.

The fact is, there are other models that work and that 'one-size-fits-all' theories have little place in a complex and diverse world. We need to think in a much more contingent and intelligent fashion.

Francis Fukuyama, whilst holding to his neo-liberal beliefs, no longer believes that the victory of the US in the Cold War signified the triumph of a perfect system and the 'end of history'.

Nor should we.

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