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 for Economic Affairs and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Through Atlas, he helped establish up to 150 other think-tanks worldwide. The most promininent include:
- Fraser Institute
- Manhattan Institute
- Pacific Research Institute
- National Center for Policy Analysis
- Centre for Independent Studies
- Adam Smith Institute
[See Earlier history below]
Eton-educated Fisher had always been a strong critic of "statism". In 1945, he read F. A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom which profoundly influenced him. He sought out Hayek that year in London and talked enthusiatically about politics. Hayek, however, convinced him that think-tanks were the best medium for effecting change in society.
After serving in the Air Force during the Second World War, Fisher moved to farming. In 1952, he took a study trip to the United States, where he visited the still-new Foundation for Economic Education. F. A. Harper of the FEE introduced Fisher to former colleagues from the Agriculture Department of Cornell University, who showed him intensive chicken farming techniques with which Fisher was very impressed. Fisher returned home to start England's first battery chicken farm, Buxted Chickens, which eventually made him a millionaire.
Consequently, Fisher used his money to set up the hugely influential Institute of Economic Affairs with Ralph Harris in 1955. Despite losing his fortune in several ill-advised business ventures (including a turtle-farming operation), in 1971 he founded the International Institute for Economic Research, which went on spawn both the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in 1980 and the International Policy Network in 2001.
Through these operations, Fisher provided financial and operational support for a huge number of fledgeling think-tanks, most of which would not exist without his influence.
It was through the Atlas Economic Research Foundation that Fisher was able to extend his beliefs worldwide. By 1984, Fisher was watching over eighteen institutions in eleven countries.  Today, Atlas supports and works with around 150 libertarian think-tanks.
In his book Thinking the unthinkable, Richard Cockett sketched Fisher's role in supporting other emerging think-tanks around the world. "On the strength of his reputation with the IEA, he was invited in 1975 to become co-director of the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, founded by the Canadian businessman Pat Boyle in 1974. Fisher let the young director of the Fraser Institute, Dr Michael Walker, get on with the intellectual output of the Institute (just as he had given free reign to Seldon and Harris at the IEA) while he himself concentrated on the fund-raising side," Cockett wrote.
Cockett explained that after his success at the Fraser Institute, Fisher went to New York where in 1977 he set up the International Center for Economic Policy Studies (ICEPS), later renamed the Manhattan Institute. "The incorporation documents for the ICEPS were signed by prominent attorney Bill Casey, later Director of the Central Intelligence Agency".
Cockett comments that "under the directorship of William Hammett the Manhattan Institute became probably Fishers greatest success after the IEA".
In 1977 Fisher moved to San Francisco "with his second wife Dorian, who he had met through the Mont Pelerin Society, and founded the Pacific Institute for Public Policy in 1979," Cockett wrote. According to Cockett Fisher and Milton Friedman lived in the same apartment block in San Francisco during the 1980's.
"In 1981, to co-ordinate and establish a central focus for these institutes that Fisher found himself start up all over the world, he created the Atlas Economic Research Foundation which in 1987 joined up with the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) founded by the Mont Pelerin member F.A. Harper in 1961) to provide a central institutional structure for what quickly became an ever-expanding number of international free-market think-tanks or research institutes," Cockett wrote.
According to Cokett, as the international think-tanks proliferated "Fisher used the local and international gatherings of the Mont Pelerin Society to find personnel, fund-raisers and donors for many of the Atlas Institutes".
Fisher died in 1988, only four weeks after being knighted.
Fisher's mother was an heir to part of the wealthy Astor family. Antony and his brother Basil (1 year younger) both attended Cambridge University, and they learned to fly through the Cambridge squadron in the years just before the war. After graduating they entered the stock-brokering business. Being rich single young men and the best of friends, they jointly purchased their own monoplane and clocked up numerous hours by flying most weekend across the Channel to France.
When World War II broke out they were among the first to enlist in the RAF. They both had exceptional experience at a time when Britain needed pilots more than planes. Their monoplane experience and ability to navigate across the Channel to France were particularly prized, and they both joined the same Hurricane fighter squadron just before the war. When the first German air raid took place over Britain they were the front-line defence over London. They fought together and shared a 'kill' of one enemy plane.
Not long after, in their second air battle, Basil's plane was shot down in flames. He bailed out, but his parachute was on fire, and Antony watched while he plunged to his death. The shock was catestrophic and Antony was invalided out of the squadron with what we would know now as PTST. He stayed in the RAF as a fighter trainer, and it is said that he developed a gun-sight trainer which was an improvement on the older training aids.
He was still unable to cope with normal life at the end of the way, and he used his inheritance to begin a dairy farm. He was breeding high-quality cows able to deliver more milk than normal, and most of the money left to Antony (and Basil's share also) went into the farm. However an epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease wiped him out.
It was fortunate that the Labor Party had won power in the UK at the end of the war, because the Atlee government provided a very substantial payout for farmers devastated by this epidemic through a national compensation scheme, so he didn't lose his farm. However he decided against rebuilding his dairy farm, and during a trip to the USA he discovered the value of American chicken breeds. British poultry had been bred for eggs, while American poultry had been bred primarily for meat. They virtually had twice the meat of a British chicken, which were killed for meat when older, after their egg-laying period.
Even more important, the Americans birds grew fatter and faster and they made better use of the food supply. They could survive well with much exercise, which suited battery-farming operations.
The only problem was that the Americans had some highly virulent poultry diseases that could be carried by meat and eggs (these were the foot-and-mouth equivalent of poultry). These diseases hadn't reached the UK because the importation of birds or eggs was strictly prohibited. Fisher's hatred of government regulations appears to have developed at this time when all efforts to import these new breeds came up against the obstinacy of the British bureaucracy.
However Antony could see the potential and he persisted. Eventually he smuggled some fertile eggs back in his suitcase and set up a breeding program. Before long he was running the Busted Chicken operation, which was one of the first battery chicken farms in Europe, raising eating poultry -- and supplying the roasted chicken shops in British high streets. Before long the English were eating chicken meat on a regular basis, and Fisher was making a fortune. Before long he was one of the richest men in Britain, and he befriended both Milton Friedman and Frederick von Hayek, and became deeply involved in the politics of the progressive branch of the Tory party -- based on the more extreme form of the Libertarian ideology.
He decided to enter politics himself, but von Hayek realised that he wouldn't be suited and suggested to Antony Fisher that he might like to financially support a series of policy institutes which would promote their ideals of small-government, reduced welfare payments, less regulation of business. With a minor economist named Ralph Harris as the CEO, Fisher then set up the Institute of Economic Affairs which became the policy-formation economics advisor behind Margaret Thatcher as she was coming to power.
To cut a long story short. After his marriage failed, Fisher and his second wife sold out Busteds and shifted to North America, where he became a full-time promoter of Libertarian think-tanks. The Fraser Institute in Canada had already begun to promote itself as an advocacy institute/policy designer, but it was financially failing until Fisher became involved and propped it up. He wasn't the only financial supporter; he persuaded associates in some of the major companies that these institutes were worth supporting because they could be used as lobby-shops for corporate interests. The tobacco industry was only one of the businesses with environmental and health problems that found Libertarian think-tanks to provide cover for their operations.
This proved to be a mutually-successful ploy, and Fisher is generally credited in the Libertarian movement with being directly responsible for organising the funding of up to 120 think-tanks around the world. His main think-tanks, created subsidiary operations themselves, and there were hundreds interlinked by the time he died. These advocacy organisations generally operated independently, but they often shared staff and funding sources -- and they were able to hand projects between themselves because there was now a so-called 'independent' corporate-friendly network on a global scale.
One of the keys was to give these organisations names that never indicated that they were part of a global network operation. The Institute of Humane Studies in the USA became a key organisational node for some time. The Pacific Research Institute (California) seems to have been the controlling node promoting the scientific angle. Eventually all became coordinated by the Atlas Foundation and the Atlas network. [Named in honour of 'Atlas Shrugged' the ultra-Libertarian novel by Ayn Rand.]
This network is quite distinct from the network of elected politicians created by Sir Keith Joseph for Margaret Thatcher. It was based on the European Democratic Union (EDU), extended to the Pacific Democratic Network (PDU), etc. which is little more than a talk-fest for conservative politicians with libertarian commercial views.
- John Blundell, "[Hayek, Fisher and The Road to Serfdom] in Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom: the condensed version of the Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek as it appeared in the April 1945 edition of Readers Digest, Institute of Economic Affairs, 1999.
- Richard Cockett,Thinking the unthinkable: think-tanks and the economic counter-revolution, 1931-1983, Fontana Press, 1995, ISBN 0006375863
- John Blundell, Waging the War of Ideas, speech to the Heritage Foundation, January 1990
- Gerald Frost, Antony Fisher, Champion of Liberty, Profile Books, Great Britain, 2002.