Many tributes have been paid to Baroness Thatcher’s intelligence, fortitude, and statesmanship. And, while these encomia are thoroughly deserved, her successes were not hers alone.
Thatcher’s success in changing Britain were in part due to changes in public opinion that preceded her election and may be credited, in part, to Sir Antony Fisher, the remarkable philanthropist who set about to change Britain by changing the views of those we would today call opinion-leaders.
Fisher did not set out to be a philanthropist. Serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II, he became a firm opponent of totalitarianism. Persuaded by economist F. A. Hayek’s argument that British socialism tended to totalitarianism, Fisher visited Hayek to ask for advice about how best to check British socialism.
Fisher first proposed that he would enter politics and run for parliament. Hayek, however, convinced him that the best way to fight socialism was to inform opinion leaders about its dangers. Hayek was convinced that opinion leaders -- Hayek called them “intellectuals” -- had tremendous sway over policy. As Hayek wrote during this period about the influence of intellectuals over policy and their attraction to socialism:
[Intellectuals] have probably never exercised so great an influence as they do today in those countries. This power they wield by shaping public opinion. . . .
The term “intellectuals,” however, does not at once convey a true picture of the large class to which we refer, and the fact that we have no better name by which to describe what we have called the secondhand dealers in ideas is not the least of the reasons why their power is not understood. Even persons who use the word “intellectual” mainly as a term of abuse are still inclined to withhold it from many who undoubtedly perform that characteristic function. This is neither that of the original thinker nor that of the scholar or expert in a particular field of thought. . . .
The class does not consist of only journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction, cartoonists, and artists all of whom may be masters of the technique of conveying ideas but are usually amateurs so far as the substance of what they convey is concerned. The class also includes many professional men and technicians, such as scientists and doctors, who through their habitual intercourse with the printed word become carriers of new ideas outside their own fields and who, because of their expert knowledge of their own subjects, are listened with respect on most others. . . .
Who does not know the practical man who in his own field denounces socialism as “pernicious rot” but, when he steps outside his subject, spouts socialism like any left journalist? . . . A proper understanding of the reasons which tend to incline so many of the intellectuals toward socialism is thus most important. . . .
Speculations about the possible entire reconstruction of society give the intellectual a fare much more to his taste than the more practical and short-run considerations of those who aim at a piecemeal improvement of the existing order. In particular, socialist thought owes its appeal to the young largely to its visionary character; the very courage to indulge in Utopian thought is in this respect a source of strength to the socialists which traditional liberalism sadly lacks…This fact that the tastes of the intellectual were better satisfied by the speculations of the socialists proved fatal to the influence of the liberal tradition.
Thus, Hayek argued, intellectuals are persuaded to adopt socialist views because they conform more to other opinions than does classical liberalism -- and through their positions as journalists, teachers, and community leaders are able to promote socialism almost without being aware of doing so.
Fisher was persuaded by Hayek that trying to bring about a change in the “climate of opinion” among the educated classes who set the tone for debate was far more promising than running for parliament.
So, after a few years as a businessman, Fisher founded the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) in London, one of the world’s first think tanks, in 1955. Margaret Thatcher collaborated with the IEA from the 1960s, and it was essential to forming her views -- and to informing the views of the British electorate and thus pave the way for her selection as Conservative Party leader in 1975 and for the election of the Conservative Party in 1979. Shortly after Thatcher became Prime Minister, Hayek wrote to Fisher to commend Fisher for his accomplishments through the IEA in influencing Britain’s intellectuals.
Fisher went on to participate in the founding think tanks to promote classical liberalism and free-market economics around the globe: the Manhattan Institute in New York (first established under the name International Center for Economic Policy Studies); the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Washington, D.C.; the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco; and the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, Canada, among others.
Philanthropists like Fisher who support ideas with the hope of influencing policy must be patient: almost a quarter-century separated the establishment of the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1955 and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative victory in 1979. Bringing about policy change through changing minds takes time. In this country, we have seen a similarly patient approach taken by John M. Olin and other like-minded conservative philanthropists who have funded scholars and their students with the idea of gradually changing the intellectual climate. Changing a climate of ideas requires playing a long game.
But, as Antony Fisher -- and Margaret Thatcher -- showed, it can be done.