In the US, since the 1980s right-wing think tanks have become notorious for their work to spread denial of climate science, oppose environmental regulation and convince Americans to stop worrying and love fossil fuels, all in the name of protecting the “free” market.
But a British think tank that was behind the Thatcherite revolution in the late 1970s may have gotten the whole thing started on both sides of the pond. And now, this same pro-corporate outfit has set its sights on one of the most promising concepts to come out of the sustainability movement today: steady-state economics.
The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in London recently published a series of articles attacking the steady state concept. The most vocal critic of the steady state is a fellow at the IEA named Kristian Niemietz. He’s misrepresented what a steady state means, and from that has leveled a series of bizarre allegations at Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy and its work.
In his first article, Niemietz alleged that the steady state movement is populated by misanthropes motivated by a distaste for the poor. After looking into the background of the IEA, it becomes clear they’re throwing stones in a glass house.
No such thing as bad publicity
Drawing fire from a widely respected think tank might seem like a bad thing, but in truth it reveals a deep insecurity within the establishment.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, the continued mirage of “recovery” remains forever on the horizon. The accelerating evaporation of anything resembling a social safety net for the workers of the world makes business-as-usual a less-than-sexy proposition for the majority.
The increasingly schizophrenic behavior of our planet’s natural processes doesn’t enhance our calm either. A growing number of people are discontent with the status quo. As the calls for a change of strategy and priority for the world’s economy get louder, it makes perfect sense that the most viable and desirable option, a steady state economy, is pilloried with great vitriol. Methinks the lady doth protest too much, to paraphrase the Bard.
Grumpy old men
In looking at the invective against environmentalism in general and steady-state economics in particular, the most recurrent accusation is that of misanthropy. The line of attack goes something like this: steady staters and environmentalists simply don’t like people, they are against the self-actualization of the human race and they moan about consumption out of a petty jealousy for the spending habits of the better off.
Well hang on a second…some of my best friends are people. Maybe not economists, but people.
The IEA for which Niemietz works is a think tank retailing a very strict Austrian School agenda, namely that state regulations are an obstacle to business, that there are no resource limits because the market will solve any problem by finding a substitute for any resource that is running low, that concerns about ecological limits or overpopulation are simply neo-Malthusian hatred of the poor, that a totally unregulated market would function better than the current one, that troublesome hindrances like minimum wage, social welfare and unionized labor should be abolished. With that in mind, as the sulfuric charge of misanthropy hung heavy in the air, I did a little background reading on the IEA.
The bad seed(s)
The IEA was founded in 1955 by Sir Antony Fisher and Oliver Smedley. Smedley was a pioneer of British pirate radio, and true to the pirate moniker, he shot and killed a rival pirate radio magnate, Reg Calvert, on June 21, 1966. He was tried for manslaughter and got off on the grounds of self-defense.
Sir Antony Fisher was quite an entrepreneur. He set up the first factory-style chicken farm in Britain, and after making himself a millionaire on the back of battery broiler chickens, he took the advice of Friedrich von Hayek and chose to fight “creeping socialism” by founding the IEA think tank. How did Fisher get into Hayek’s ideas? He read a summary of one of Hayek’s books in Reader’s Digest.
What a deep understanding of economics he must have had.
Oliver Letwin MP said recently that “Without Fisher, no IEA; without the IEA and its clones, no Thatcher and quite possibly no Reagan; without Reagan, no Star Wars; without Star Wars, no economic collapse of the Soviet Union. Quite a chain of consequences for a chicken farmer!”
According to Randolph Richardson, Fisher had his share of economic failure, particularly when he farmed endangered green sea turtles in the Cayman Islands as “a way to provide massive amounts of cheap high quality protein…to feed a world in danger of overpopulation and starvation.” Richardson continues by adding that “Sir Antony Fisher was not dismissive of environmental concerns, but passionate about them.” Fisher’s turtle farm was eventually shut down after environmental campaigns to protect the endangered species prevailed. So not only did the founder of the IEA actually feel very strongly about overpopulation and resource limits, but he went about “helping” by farming an endangered species for food and profit and went broke in the process.
That does not bode well for his concept of economics.
Peppered with a little racism
Oh, I almost forgot my favorite part. The man who ran the IEA from 1957 to 1987 was Ralph Harris. He was a friend of Fisher’s and considered by many to be the driving force, along with Arthur Seldon, behind the IEA in its early years. Harris’s deliberately confrontational style of writing formed the IEA’s strategy as it sought to make room for itself in the intellectual circles of swinging London in the 1960s and 1970s. One of his jazzier titles for a 1971 IEA report was “Down With The Poor!”
Harris was also a listed member of the British Eugenics Society. I came across this tidbit online and, not wanting to peddle hearsay, confirmed it with the Galton Institute, which is what the British Eugenics Society changed its name to after World War II.
It’s important to remember the role that the closely entwined American and British Eugenics Societies played in the formation of Nazi ideology and also in the drafting of the infamous Nuremberg laws, to say nothing of the barbaric homes for the “unfit” in the UK and the forced sterilizations in California and elsewhere in the U.S. The writings of the eugenicists E.S. Gosney and Paul Popenoe were cited by the Nazis as the inspiration that proved a national sterilization policy was feasible. In fact, the last recorded forced sterilization in the U.S. took place in Oregon in 1981.
Ralph Harris was made a life peer with the title of Baron Harris of High Cross after Thatcher came to power in 1979, and when he left the IEA in 1987 (or rather, stepped down as general director but continued as founder and president), he went on to work as a director of Rupert Murdoch’s The Times newspaper. At an IEA dinner that year, Thatcher herself summed up the close relationship between Harris’s work and conservative policy: “What we have achieved could never have been done without the leadership of the IEA.”
Puff on this
Harris was also the chairman and president of FOREST (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco) and wrote a book in 2005 called “Smoking Out The Truth” in which he refuted the idea that passive smoking was bad for people, stating that “hatred of cancer is no excuse for hatred of smokers.” Maybe people should try vaping instead, its less likely to damage your lungs and you can purchase great flavours along with it, like the ones from Gourmet E Liquid. This website offers hundreds of different flavours as well as a DIY kit, and many accessories. This paragon of economic wisdom, so greatly admired by the British establishment, was also fond of raising his glass with the following toast: “Down with the public interest!”
Ironically, at the age of 78, he spoke in favor of public funding to save the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company made famous by Gilbert and Sullivan. He admitted to the hypocrisy, but in the end I guess he couldn’t stand to let his beloved market kill off his beloved Gilbert and Sullivan.
So the background of the institution that Niemietz represents is one of murder, ecological irresponsibility, bankruptcy, misanthropy, eugenics, anti-scientific denialism and ultimately hypocrisy. By the way, for more “Fun with Hypocrites,” check out the articles he’s written against state-provided education despite having received his degree from a state university in Germany. As a matter of fact, let’s have a look at some of his more edifying titles:
- “For-profit education is good for the poor”
- “Howard Flight and the unpleasant facts about welfare dependency”
- “Work incentives for single parents will worsen – thanks to child poverty targets”
- “How Much For a Year of Life?”
That last one is my favorite of mine, since it is a document in which Niemietz genuinely puts a price on a year of human life.
Yet, suggesting that economic growth should be balanced against the system-integrity of our planet and the needs of future generations is misanthropic?
More sinister than simply pondering their navels
The IEA is just a think-tank, right? What does it matter what these people think or say, where their roots are and what their agenda is?
I’d quote this endorsement of their reach: “The IEA’s influence has not been confined to the United Kingdom. Its publications and the able group of scholars who became associated with it contributed greatly to the change in the intellectual climate of opinion around the world.” Who said that? Some guy named Milton Friedman, quoted in the Introduction to Volume 1 of The Collected Works of Arthur Seldon, a book by Ralph Harris’s libertarian life partner in the IEA enterprise.
The real secret to the spread of these think tanks is that they are seeded in multiple locations, by the same interests and even the same people, and then use their intellectual cachet to reinforce the gravitas of one another’s findings while effectively concealing the fact that they are ultimately identical in purpose, scope and occasionally even ownership.
Take a look at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and then check out how many think tanks they’re affiliated with. How many of those have Fisher’s fingerprints on them? Eleven out of the twenty-five were either founded directly by Fisher or funded with grants from one of his other think tanks. One of them, the Venezuela-based Center for the Dissemination of Economic Information, was implicated in the attempted coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002. I guess the Venezuelans weren’t in the market for a leader like Pedro Carmona, who only took 36 hours to dissolve the Supreme Court and National Assembly while repealing a bunch of laws that didn’t favor the markets over the masses.
Then again, Ralph Harris himself was quoted as saying “I am very critical of democracy. Politics has meant unlimited democracy and unlimited claims on the national income.” This probably explains why he was one of the key fundraisers in a lawsuit against the BBC for an unflattering Panorama program called “Maggie’s Militant Tendency,” which highlighted worrying crossovers between far-right organizations in the UK and the Conservative Party. The suit was won by Hamilton after the BBC chief, Alasdair Milne, was ordered to concede by his bosses. The reported payout of around £1 million came from the public purse. I guess Ralph Harris overcame his antipathy towards public money when it came from a lawsuit against the Fourth Estate’s right to free speech.
The focal point of the suit, Neil Hamilton MP, was later caught taking money from Mohammed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods, in exchange for asking questions in Parliament on his behalf. This was the notorious “Cash for Questions” scandal that helped sink the Conservative Party in the run-up to the 1997 general election. Who was Hamilton’s chief fundraiser during the scandal? Ralph Harris. I suppose that he was simply supporting a free market democracy, in which rich people can buy access to democracy directly without the annoying cost of lobbyists.
It’s telling that the people railing about how we don’t need government regulations because the market will look after itself always seem, through their actions, to give the most compelling evidence that government regulation is essential. When those people are not on a box at Speaker’s Corner but rather in a corner office in the City of London or Fleet Street, let alone Downing Street itself, we have a serious problem.
When down is up
This world that we have been led into by the nose is one where a corporation can slash 6,000 jobs, post a quarterly profit and be considered a “wealth creator.” It’s a world in which statistics and averages help to mask the gross inequity and predatory policy of the governing system. It’s a world where well-paid people who work for eugenicists, murderers and cynical politicians can accuse others of scheming against the poor and general misanthropy with no sense of irony. A classic case of projection.
I read a great quote somewhere, that “if an economist was in a room with 39,999 unemployed people and Bill Gates, he would say ‘I see a room full of millionaires!’”
The rhetoric against the steady-state concept exemplified by the IEA is a clamor of privilege and obfuscation, hoping against hope that all those “millionaires” will be happy with the free coffee and stay the hell away from the microphone, let alone the fuse box.
For further reading, I recommend The Rise and Fall of Neoliberalism: The Collapse of an Economic Order? by Kean Birch and Vlad Mykhnenko.
— Mike Freedman, Transition Voice