Antony Fisher: Champion of Liberty
by Gerald Frost
Profile Books, 2002
288 pp., £20
Antony Fisher (1915-88) is among the most obscure of the twentieth century’s great philanthropists. A self-effacing man who left few written documents and whose personal wealth never exceeded £2 million, Fisher nonetheless exerted as great an influence on British and American societies as men who exceeded his giving twenty-fold.
Fisher’s more modest grants had punch because he used his money to establish free-market think tanks-most notably Britain’s Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and America’s Manhattan Institute. Today, Fisher’s model of giving to support ideas has become commonplace. In America, there is perhaps no better example of this than the proliferation of state-based think tanks that emerged in the 1990s.
Before he became convinced of the power of ideas and the need to support them, however, Fisher worked hard to succeed as an entrepreneur. After he was graduated from Eton and Cambridge University, he co-founded at age 20 a car manufacturer. Then he helped to create one of the first car rental companies. When World War II began, Fisher briefly served as a pilot but spent most of the war teaching RAF recruits how to gun down Nazi fighters and bombers.
In 1950, Fisher enjoyed his greatest entrepreneurial success. He was the first person in Britain to successfully raise chickens in giant farms. His company, Buxted Chickens, helped turn chicken dinners in Britain from a Sunday treat to something everyone could afford—and made Fisher rich in the process.
While building his company, Fisher continued his study of economics begun during his university days. In 1945, after reading F.A. Hayek’s famous warning against creeping socialism The Road to Serfdom, Fisher visited the future Nobel economist. According to Fisher, Hayek told him that “I should join with others in forming a scholarly research organization to supply intellectuals in universities, schools, journalism, and broadcasting with authoritative studies” of free-market ideas.
Hayek apparently gave this advice to nearly everyone he met at the time, but only Fisher acted on the suggestion. In 1955, along with free-market activists Arthur Seldon and Ralph Harris, Fisher founded the Institute of Economic Affairs. For years, IEA was small; its annual budget between 1955 and 1960 was £5,000, of which Fisher donated £1,000 each year. But the IEA was gaining influence. It published papers on deregulation that were controversial but persuasive, and it held regular lunches that described the free-market ideas of Hayek and others to such young British journalists as Paul Johnson and John O’Sullivan. (The former went on to write numerous influential books, including Modern Times and A History of the American People, while the latter became editor of National Review.)
Fisher moved to San Francisco, where in 1975 he started the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which works to create free-market think tanks around the world. Fisher was not a significant financial donor because he had been damaged by a substantial business failure. Instead, he was a persuasive fundraiser who found like-minded givers to bankroll the new organization.
Fisher’s greatest American creation, however, was the Manhattan Institute. In 1975, Fisher began working with prominent New York lawyer William Casey (who later became director of the CIA under Reagan) to establish an IEA-style think tank in New York City. After two years of fundraising, the International Center for Economic Policy Studies opened its doors. Two presidents of the center quickly came and left; then, in 1978, William Hammett was named the center’s third leader. Hammett changed the center’s name to the Manhattan Institute and adopted a more aggressive approach to promoting scholarship. By the mid-1980s, the Manhattan Institute, which sponsored such important books as George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty and Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, was a major force in the world of ideas.
At about the same time the Manhattan Institute was ascending in the United States, IEA was coming into full bloom in Britain. Margaret Thatcher—named leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 and Prime Minister in 1979—along with her chief lieutenant, Sir Keith Joseph, drew heavily upon IEA scholars and books to mold her economic reform program, which included selling public housing, privatizing government-controlled industries, and curbing trade union power. Nobel economist Milton Friedman believes the IEA’s intellectual influence was so strong that “the U-turn in British policy executed by Margaret Thatcher owes more to him (i.e., Fisher) than any other individual.”
Author Gerald Frost’s job as Fisher’s biographer was greatly complicated because Fisher left behind so little writing. But Antony Fisher: Champion of Liberty does a great job with what little survives. The book, short out of necessity, deals more with the organizations Fisher created than with the life he led. Readers are poorer for not knowing more about the man, but the record Frost gives us of the free-market think tank world that Fisher helped build makes the book exciting and worthwhile.
Contributing editor Martin Morse Wooster is the author of The Foundation Builders: Brief Biographies of Twelve Great Philanthropists, published by The Philanthropy Roundtable.