Review: 'Antony Fisher'

By RALPH HARRIS  |  Nov. 11, 2002 at 2:07 PM
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(Reviewed by Ralph Harris, who was elevated to the British peerage as Lord Harris of High Cross.)

What might you expect of a tall, slim, handsome, well turned-out man who had a famous admiral and a bishop among his forbears, went to Eton, owned his own airplane at Cambridge, joined the Royal Air Force, went into the city before taking up farming in Sussex, complete with a uniformed chauffeur and Rolls Royce? A patrician playboy, perhaps?

Certainly he was sociable, self-assured, charming and a generous host. But how was that reconciled with a life-long devotion to Christian Science which extended to shunning drinking, smoking, swearing and strictly observing daily religious devotions?

A clue is provided by his wide friendships which ranged from the rollicking Douglas Bader to the austere Enoch Powell. The clue is that, like them, Fisher was first and foremost an English patriot. He believed the war, which had cost the life of his younger brother and many friends in the Battle of Britain, was fought to preserve personal freedom.

In 1945 that freedom was threatened by the rise of a malignant communism in the East and, at home, by a doctrinaire socialism led by such self-willed intellectuals as Harold Laski and Stafford Cripps.

These anxieties came to a head when he read a shortened version of Friedrich Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" in the Reader's Digest.

This academic polemic was dedicated "To socialists of all parties" and argued that creeping collectivism threatened the eventual extinction of both economic and political freedom. Fisher at once sought out the author at none other than the London School of Economics and asked what a private individual without political connections could do to halt or reverse this progression.

The great man's advice can be inferred from his classic essay, "Intellectuals and Socialism," which on this single issue agreed with his antagonist Keynes that it was ideas not vested interests that rule the world. It followed that non-socialists should scrupulously avoid party politics which always leads to compromise, ending at best in what Hayek -- with a nudge at Macmillan¹s Middle Way -- liked to mock as "the muddle of the middle." Instead, followers in the centuries-long liberal tradition from Adam Smith through to Lionel (later Lord) Robbins, should search out and support independent scholars prepared to refine and spread the true market doctrine through debate and publications accessible to students, journalists and serious laymen.

The centerpiece of Gerald Frost's highly readable -- and commendably short -- study brings to life Fisher's fulfillment of Hayek's dream by setting up the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1957. As its first general director, in close harness for 30 years with Arthur Seldon as the visionary editorial director, I must plead guilty of partisanship.

Indeed, throughout our association, I never ceased looking on our patron with an admiration little short of wonderment. After all, he was rich enough to indulge a life of travel, reading, painting, snorkeling, entertaining and developing his estate, which extended to a large lake, as an exciting playground for his four children. Instead, he appeared to devote his main attention to pioneering what would today be called the "agri-business" of Buxted Chickens, which by halving its price converted chicken from an occasional luxury to an everyday convenience food for all.

In the process he made an independent fortune from which he financed the fledgling IEA through its early years.

Frost faithfully reports how Fisher never missed a meeting of Trustees, of which he remained chairman for a quarter of a century. During that period the IEA achieved ever wider acceptance as the first of a new breed of "think-tanks," publishing authoritative studies on every aspect of the free market economy, written by leading British and overseas scholars, including Hayek and Friedman among half a dozen economists on their way to becoming Nobel Laureates. Always at hand with encouragement and occasional caution, Fisher never once interfered with our work nor questioned our more controversial choice of topics and authors.

His restless entrepreneurship then took him to the Cayman Islands in 1968 where he developed Mariculture as another agri-business to breed green turtles as a source of food and ornamentation. He saw the project as saving this threatened species from extinction by its natural predators on land, by collecting the eggs and hatching them safely in tanks. But it was too much for the militant "greens." They could not bear such commercial opportunism, especially when it promised to be highly profitable, and in 1975 had it closed down, totally illogically, by having the turtles declared first a "threatened" and finally an "endangered" species.

Having invited friends to invest in Mariculture, Frost confirms that Fisher regretted their losses far more that the almost complete sacrifice of his own fortune.

It was now, just when he was at his lowest ebb, that his career providentially took a turn which was to give him a new lease of creative life. We read how in 1975 a small group of liberal businessmen in Canada, impressed by the growing reputation of the IEA as a "think-tank," sought Fisher's guidance on how to duplicate its success with the newly established Fraser Institute in Vancouver. Fisher as always readily obliged, even serving for a short period as acting director. The success of Fraser encouraged Fisher to embark on his final ambition which was to clone the IEA modus operandi overseas, starting in the United States where he was now living.

In 1977 he had remarried to an attractive, intelligent and rich American widow named Dorian Crocker who wholeheartedly shared his enthusiasm for spreading the free market message far and wide. The same year, a promising start was made in New York with a Center that developed into the impressive Manhattan Institute, which promptly discovered an unemployed social scientist, Charles Murray, who leapt to international fame with "Losing Ground," a powerful principled and empirical critique of escalating state welfare as a breeding ground of the underclass. In 1979 came the Pacific Instituted, followed through the 1980s by dozens more, including the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas, which since 1983 has emerged a leading authority on all aspects of the health care market.

A strong impetus to this proliferation was created in 1981 when Antony and Dorian together established the Atlas Foundation based in San Francisco where they now lived in a luxurious flat overlooking the Golden Gate. The name was based on one of Fisher's favorite classical quotations, recited by Frost: "Give me a lever and I will move the world." For him "the lever was the IEA and the fulcrum nothing less than market forces."

The full story is recounted in the penultimate chapter entitled Exporting the Revolution. A third of the book is taken up by an appendix briefly describing each of some hundred Fisher institutes, all operationally independent of the Atlas Foundation, which our hero played some part in setting-up, nurturing and financing to encourage propagation of the IEA method, not only in North and South America, but also in Africa, Australia and Hong Kong.

After his death, that work has continued into Turkey, India and beyond, helped by his energetic daughter Linda Whetstone. Frost conveys an accurate and lively picture of the downs as well as the ups in Fisher's private and business life. Only those close to him knew the full extent of his unceasing efforts and eventual achievements.

Wider, official recognition came almost too late. But just in time, his contribution to the rehabilitation of free market economics was recognized by Margaret Thatcher. In 1988, only a few weeks before his death at 73, she recommended him for a knighthood. When I telephoned the news to him in California, I quoted the citation which read "For public and political services." Although already gravely ill, he summoned a chuckle when I recalled Hayek's teaching that all such institutes should steer absolutely clear of party politics, and suggested it should have read: "For private and anti-political services."

Drawing on the words of journalists, businessmen and academics, including Hayek himself, Frost has no difficulty presenting the success of Fisher's seminal enterprise in founding the IEA. Perhaps the most impressive tribute came from one who is famed for saying in public only what she inwardly believes, namely Thatcher herself.

Speaking as prime minister at a spectacular Grosvenor House dinner in 1987 to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of the IEA, she said of Fisher and the founding directors: "They were the few. They were right. And they saved Britain."

Referring to the record of her government, she added: "What we have achieved could never have been done without the leadership of the IEA." For his first foray into biography, Frost turns out to have chosen an unexpectedly exciting and complex subject. For my money, he has made an exceedingly fine job of bringing my gentle, modest but stalwart friend back to vivid life.

("Antony Fisher: Champion of Liberty," by Gerald Frost, Profile Books, 260 pages, $32)

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