A fantasy think-tank history

Norman Abjorensen must have a masochistic streak, because he emailed me with the news that he is a contributor to The Culture Wars: Australian and American Politics in the 21st Century, which was published late last year.

As I expected, some of Norman’s intellectual eccentricities on display in his book on conservatism are also evident in his contribution to Culture Wars. For example, he claims that the emergence of think-tanks like the CIS was ‘signalled a new offensive against liberal democracy and its perceived progressivist excesses’. In making this claim, he reveals part of the CIS’s history that I was not aware of, and indeed a part of the CIS’s history that its founder, Greg Lindsay, was also not aware of.

Apparently, a 1975 report of the Trilateral Commission (in Norman’s words an ‘extremely influential’ but ‘little known’ body) called The Crisis of Democracy popularised the work of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and its ‘immediate influence in Australia was evident in a host of new free market think-tanks, such as the Centre for Independent Studies and the Sydney Institute.’

Just how a ‘little known’ body popularised anything is not made clear, and particularly now how it popularised thinkers who were already famous long before 1975. Hayek became a public figure with The Road to Serfdom in the mid-1940s, and won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974.

Friedman won the Nobel in 1976, but a man whose Capitalism and Freedom had been a constant seller since it was published in 1962, and had been a Newsweek columnist since the mid-1960s, was not exactly obscure (and this is ignoring all the scholarly work, which influenced policymakers). Indeed, by the mid-1970s conspiracy theorists like Naomi Klein regard Friedman as influential enough to share in the blame for the Pinochet regime in Chile on the strength of a brief visit.

Needless to say, the Trilateral Commission report had nothing to do with the founding of the CIS. As he explained in this interview I did with him in 1996, in the first half of the 1970s Greg Lindsay was already well aware of the major classical liberal and libertarian thinkers. Indeed, as the interview suggests, the film critic Bill Collins can claim more credit for the CIS than can the ‘little known’ Trilateral Commission. But perhaps a movie reviewer with big glasses isn’t quite the sinister influence that Norman is looking for.

And Norman seems to have a strange idea of ‘immediate influence’, since the Sydney Institute did not start until 1989, 14 years after the Trilateral Commission’s report. Alas, facts are not Norman’s strong point.

I’ve never read The Crisis of Democracy, but I am aware of arguments about over-loaded government. This was not just an argument from the right, and it was not an argument against democracy, but a concern that the credibilty of democratic institutions was being undermined by the state’s failure to deal with social and economic problems in the 1970s. In claiming that those calling for less government are engaged in an ‘offensive against liberal democracy’, Norman engages in the rhetorical trick of antonym substitution. For most people, the antonym of liberal democracy is authoritarianism, when of course the think-tanks were supporting individual choice and freedom, not dictatorship.

A PhD student came to interview me during the week, for his thesis on the ideas of ‘neoliberal’ think-tanks. As most of the people writing about think-tanks are, like Norman, fantasists reporting on their own wild imaginations, not reality, he has an excellent opportunity to provide the scholarship so lacking from Australian academics.

13 thoughts on “A fantasy think-tank history

  1. In my experience as a scarred internet veteran of 13 years, “Trilateral Commission” is a code for “I’m a kooky conspiracy theorist”. In some variants it means “Teh Damn Joos!”


  2. Some hard data on the non-left think tanks would be most welcome. There has been a lot of talk about the millions that private enterprise poured into think tanks but that will be news to the people who were involved with them. In the mid-1980s the only place with a million per annum would have been the IPA (not a new or radical organisation), the CIS did not have a million dollar budget and employed half a dozen fulltime people, John Hyde’s outfit in Perth had about two or three fulltime people, the shortlived Centre 2000 in Sydney had a couple of fulltime people, the IPA had an office in Sydney with one person in it (it then turned into the Sydney Inst with a couple of staff). That list may be incomplete, but compare those resources with the number of leftwing academics and the resources of the trade union movement…!


  3. What Jacques said — when you saw that one pop up on usenet, it was code for ‘run away, fast’, because it usually meant you were dealing with a real conspiracy theorist.

    What is it with these people and conspiracies?


  4. Has anybody done a (balanced and academically robust) study of the work and influence of think tanks in the US and UK, where, I think it is fair to say, they have been around for longer and there are more of them? Would be interesting to see what such a study concluded if one existed. My hunch is that “neoliberal” think tanks are not really vehicles for the furtherance of business interests, I think most of the people involved with them tend to have an interest in ideas and research rather than furthering business interests (especially considering that most people working for CIS have an academic and research background). To back that up I actually think that alot of the ideas pursued by such think tanks say in the 70s and 80s went against the interests of many entrenched business interests (dismantling trade protection, increased competition etc). I think alot of these theories about think tanks are flawed in the same way as theories which attribute “left-wing academics” with some extraordinary amount of power to shift the policy debate…


  5. Yes, Krystian, go back 20 years and you find some really florid and hysterical abuse of economic rationalism and the New Right coming from the business community. Not as bad as the left but a bit that way!


  6. I think John Hyde’s think tank in the west was called the Australian Institute of Public Policy (Andew can correct me if this is wrong, don’t have time to check) but that name has been taken over by an ALP inititiative in Melbourne.

    This looks like a trace of the original AIPP, 1984-1990. They would have suffered from the rudimentary state of the net which nowadays would give them a cheap platform to spread their good works and communicate with their membership. There is no doubt more about it in the book that John Hyde (the older John Hyde) wrote about the dry movement in Australia.


  7. Kyrstian – There is a good scholarly study of UK free market think-tanks, Richard Cockett’s Thinking the Unthinkable, though it only goes to 1983. Diane Stone has also written scholarly material on think-tanks (though more broadly, not just free market think-tanks), eg Capturing the Political Imagination: Think Tanks and the Policy Process. I haven’t read it, but Donald Abelson’s Do Think Tanks Matter also looks scholarly, complete with tables of media mentions. I expect there are more, I would not claim to have a comprehensive library on this topic.

    Of these books, only Stone’s mentions the Trilateral Commission, but not as an influence on think-tanks. It is mentioned in a few pages on conspiracy theories (though she is too polite to describe them in that way), that focus on the how the elites coordinate their control/hegemony (she dismisses these theories). Interestingly, the Trilateral Commission seems to more a focus of the nutter right than the nutter left.


  8. Rafe – Do you know of any sources of information or publications about business opposition to economic rationalism and the New Right in the 70s and 80s? It’s a topic that really interests me.
    Andrew – I will check out those studies/books at the library, it’s an fascinating topic! I think approaching an issue like this requires the person to really step back and leave behind any preconceptions, because given the idealogical origins of many of these think tanks I think it is really easy to get mixed up with these silly conspiracy theories.


  9. Krystian, get in touch at rchampATbigpondDOTnet.au and we can do this off line.
    This issue created huge tensions in the Coalition through the ’80s, and it still persists in all the talk about the right vs the moderates. If only there could be more talk about the content and consequences of policies which would mean referring to the work of the think tanks but the left don’t want to know and the media prefer to go on about the leadership of the opposition.


  10. Some observers seem to start with the assumption that bodies like the CIS habitually act in “bad faith”; that is, that the research they produce can never be taken at face value and is no more than a highly elaborate and sophisticated form of political rhetorical crafted to advance certain interests in society — interests that are assumed to desire a more hierarchical, unequal society, in which everyone else is subservient to themselves. For someone in the grip of this assumption, the CIS doesn’t have to actually say anything that is explicitly anti-democratic in order to be a threat to democracy; all it has to do is exist.


  11. I am a law student in the US doing research for two scholars and am impressed by your blog and those who make comments. We are currently putting together a list of bloggers in Australia in attempts to survey them. If any of you are interested in participating please email me your email address @ Michael.Murphy@law.nyls.edu


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