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What the Adam Smith Institute did

Successful people are often born into a world that is not, so to speak, theirs. The world in which they get dealt their first cards is what it is and where it is, but their real world, the world they were meant for, is something and somewhere else. They are born the son of a coal miner or of a provincial shopkeeper, yet their natural place in the world is to be a classical musician or a weather forecaster in a big city or a diplomat or a music hall comedian or a technology billionaire. The mega-successes are those who know, early, not so much what they want or want to do, as where they need to be – where, for them, the action is – and who shift heaven and earth to get to that sweet spot in the world just as soon as possible, often taking truly hair-raising risks to get there. They identify where they want to be, calculate the price of getting there, and pay that price. And then, having got to where they need to be, they are happy! The inconveniences and disappointments – even the humiliations – that they then encounter do not depress them, because everything that happens, however bad, is evidence that they are exactly where they want to be and where they should be.

In the early pages of Think Tank, subtitled “The Story of the Adam Smith Institute”, we are told exactly such a story, of a group of young pro-free-market guns knowing where they need to be, and doing whatever they have to do to get to that exact place, namely within ten minutes walk of the House of Commons, in the centre of London. They juggle finances, scrounge furniture off aunts in faraway places, put money down on a London office lease well before they know how they are going to meet the payments, buy and sell cottages in Scotland, earn extra money by teaching, and generally bet their farms on their new farm being just what they want. (By the way if you want a shorter review of this book than this posting is, try the three short reviews at the other end of the above link. All three are very positive, but also very informative.)

To help me think about this posting, I asked a respected friend what he thought of the Adam Smith Institute. I expected some sort of rumination on what they had achieved and what they might yet achieve, on what they have got right and what wrong. Instead my friend simply said that he liked Madsen Pirie. This is a significant fact about the ASI, I think. Simply, they are nice people, fun and interesting to be with. Following Madsen Pirie’s lead, they exude a gleeful camaraderie that my friend and I, and surely many others of a like mind, find very appealing. Madsen Pirie’s Think Tank radiates a similarly good humoured and companionable atmosphere. When reading it, I kept hearing that Madsen Pirie voice, with its big grin and its self-mockingly over-precise diction.

Cards on the table. I liked and admired this book a lot, just as I have long liked and admired its author. I was given a free copy of it by its author, who had very good reason to hope that I would say nice things about it, and I will. I recommend this book as an entertaining and informative way to acquaint yourself with the Adam Smith Institute and with those who founded and still lead it.

The early pages in this book, the ones with the early financial juggling and the furniture scrounging, concern the only period in its history when I myself did not know of the ASI’s existence. Everything else in the book concerns activities that I already, very approximately speaking, know a bit about. The fact that I particularly enjoyed these early pages suggests to me that someone who only recently became aware of the ASI might enjoy this book even more than I did, which was a lot. If you have only recently arrived on the libertarian-stroke-pro-free-market scene, and the only thing you know about the Adam Smith Institute is that they are there, alive and kicking, blogging and publishing, arranging public meetings and not so public meetings, generally advancing the libertarian economic and political agenda wherever they can, in London and everywhere else on earth that beckons, and that everyone else you admire thinks they’re terrific people, then this could be just the book for you. It will tell you how they got where they are, and what they did for the next three decades. And it does this in the style of a man who is not, as he freely admits, always accomplishing all that he wants to accomplish, but who is nevertheless engaged in the exact struggle that he wants to be in, and who is therefore fundamentally happy. The style is long on entertaining and often quite self-critical anecdotage, less burdened with much in the way of earnest tactical or strategic theorising.

This may actually make this book rather more useful to researchers than a different book, shorter on anecdote but longer on abstract theorising, might have been. People wanting to learn about Think Tanks can and will surely want to do their own theorising. What they need is lots of vivid little cock-ups-and-all vignettes of what actually happened over the years to an actual Think Tank, and a pretty significant one at that. This book will be read by people way beyond the ASI’s mere fan base.

The ASI was inspired by, among other things, that other famously pro-free-market acronym, the IEA, aka Institute of Economic Affairs. I recall a time not that long ago when hardly an introduction to a new IEA publication seemed to go by without reference being made to the wise advice that Anthony Fisher got from Friedrich Hayek about concentrating on ideas rather than mere policies. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the ASI was always, from the moment it pitched its tents in central London in the late 1970s, different. The ASI wanted, and still wants, more immediate political and policy impact. Its focus is on what can be said right now, derived from the fundamental ideas but translated into the language of here and now, that might move and shake the world’s movers and shakers in the desired direction, and hence also excite the next generation of free marketeers. When you attend some ASI event, what your ear tends to get bent by is not the distant past but the immediate future. What Madsen Pirie talks about is not what he did ten or twenty years ago, but what he is doing now and hopes to do even more of in the next few days and weeks. When I met up with Pirie a few months back, he told me that he just wanted to do … more. Of everything. Next year. So, a book of autobiographical history by him is something of a change of his regular tone. And because I am not used to hearing him reminisce at length, I found this all the more welcome.

Telephones seem to loom rather large in this story, both as things that an ambitious Think Tank has to have in abundance, and as things that the government, in former times, use to screw up (pp. 13-14):

We needed a telephone and a photo-copier. We were told by the Post Office, which ran the state monopoly telephone service, that there was a fourteen-month wait to have a line and phone installed. We somehow bargained them into doing it within six weeks by pointing out that our predecessors in the building had used a switchboard with four separate telephone numbers, one for each of the companies that had used the place, and all we wanted to do was to re-activate one line. Until the GPO engineers came, we had to conduct all the new Institute’s business from the public call box on the corner, and we ensured we kept a ready supply of coins for the purpose.

The Post Office would not let us buy a phone; we had to rent one from them. This was their standard practice. The instrument they graciously allowed us to rent was a black, Bakelite instrument with a rotary dial, designed in the 1930s. For this magnificent piece of equipment we had to pay a quarterly rental of £14.65, or just under £60 a year. We overcame the problem by rewiring the place ourselves with extensions, and buying US phones on our visits there, complete with conversion sockets. This was contrary to all the Post Office rules, but it worked. And it meant that we were among the first in Britain to use such gadgets as recall dialling, wireless remotes and one-button dialling of our most-used numbers.

Others were messing with the phones in other ways (pp. 8-9):

One of our friends, telephoning family in South Africa, was surprised when a telephone engineer entered the conversation to say that because the call did not sound urgent, he was disconnecting it. The union had ‘blacked’ non-urgent calls to South Africa, and its members monitored private calls to enforce it.

Pirie continues:

More sinisterly, there were trade unionists and intellectuals who would rather have seen Britain as part of communist Eastern Europe rather than Western Europe, and there was genuine doubt at the time as to whether they might succeed. Both Stuart and I wished to keep our lifeline to the US. We said that if American helicopters came in to rescue their people ahead of the collapse, we wanted to be on them. We were joking, but only just.

I remember that atmosphere well.

With hindsight, which always makes things so much easier to understand, I think we can say that the ASI’s activities were intended to provide statists with a dignified retreat, in the form of regulated capitalism rather than full state ownership and state control. The ASI attitude, as I remember it, was that it was okay to have a bunch of new regulations (and more portentously, new regulators), provided you got firms into private hands, or got the state doing something more like business, or competing, or in general doing anything in a more genuinely market-like way. In due course, the regulated businesses would agitate against these regulations, or would at least be amenable to the regulations being done away with, and fully fledged freedom would reign. Or at least might.

But since that time, the regulations have multiplied. Regulations were at first a retreat from full-blooded government ownership and control, but they also served as a means of for the government to reassert control, of everything. A while ago now, I did a flurry of postings about health and safety signs. That was only a rather thin wedge during the times described in this book. It has got a lot thicker in the years since the 1980s and 1990s, when the ASI had its first and so far only period of substantial policy influence.

I do recall one ASI initiative that struck me as odd even at the time, namely the so-called Citizen’s Charter, which seemed like a mere announcement, by the government, that everyone should have the right to demand that the government will do a good job, will do everything that it promises to do, etc. But only those who believe such things to be routinely possible would want to make that a right. In other words, I recall thinking something like this:

Public services can be made to copy some of the practices of private businesses, but only for a time. Without the pressures and incentives that lead private firms to behave as they do, the very different pressures that work on the public sector will reassert themselves.

However, those words appear in this book, on page 203, following an admission that maybe the Citizen’s Charter was asking a bit much.

Tax Freedom Day, on the other hand was and is a notion that most free marketeers can enthusiastically get behind. The chapter about that begins thus:

The ASI did not invent Tax Freedom Day.

Which is typical of this generous book, full of acknowledgements to allies and collaborators, full of credit being shared around rather than irritatingly monopolised. Sadly Tax Freedom Day 2013 is still many months in the future. (Imagine living in a world in which TFD2013 had already been and gone!)

And however much things may now still be regulated, and more regulated by the year, at least our telephones are better. I am even now pondering the purchase of a new smart phone, of a sort massively more powerful than my first desktop computer, and about half a ton more portable. I wonder what the state of Britain’s phones might now be, if some evil fairy waved a magic wand and retro-abolished the ASI. Maybe not now that different, but this is a risk I wouldn’t want to take.

I was particularly interested in what might be thought of as some of the big omissions in this book, namely the lack of much discussion of Big Issues, like Europe, the Environment, and more recently the Financial Crisis. Instead of such discussions, we are told about such things as how Sir James Goldsmith wrote out cheques. (Quickly – p. 50.) Or about an amazing function at Number 10 Downing Street. (Complicated, by Neil Hamilton being involved, just when the press were baying for his blood in the matter of cash for questions, and by Downing Street being preoccupied by some Euro-crisis – pp. 199-20. But the ASI people had a good time.)

It’s not that the ASI never has anything to say about Big Issues. But I think the point here is that the ASI is not in the business of bundling issues together and having a great big set-piece battle about them, all our guys against all their guys. For a movement that is not strong on sheer weight of numbers, this was, they reasoned, a losing strategy. What the ASI did was unbundle Big Issues into lots of much smaller issues, with the result that people who might have been antagonised by a big battle approach, instead become quiet supporters of this or that incremental measure, often against their ideological instincts. I recall many times being told by Madsen, and his fellow Two-Man-Teamer Eamonn Butler, that the ASI often used to get at least as much mileage out of so-called Wets as they did out of Thatcherite true believers. John Major is not now held in very high esteem by free marketeers, but the ASI always had a very good relationship with him and his government. The ASI was always searching for policies that would work, not just in their results, but politically, in the sense of being enactable in the first place. And the same goes for politicians like John Major.

When the ASI got started, its aim was to change the climate of opinion within which British policy was made, but I sensed while reading this book that their focus may have changed, as a consequence of what, looking back now, they can say they did and did not achieve.

I remember someone saying to Chris Tame and me, back in the 1980s, that what we Alternative Bookshop libertarians were doing (and by the way that little enterprise also gets a mention in this book – p. 39) was using students to get to the Conservative Party. We replied that we were using the Conservative Party to get to students. Spreading the ideas was what mattered to us, not playing party politics.

Something a bit similar now seems to me to apply to the ASI. Originally, they were aiming to change the thinking of about 650 key political movers and shakers (see p. 32), and as a result British economic policy, and to some extent, especially in the short run, this is what they accomplished. They communed with academics and students because academics and students could help them get to those 650 key people, by writing stuff and by doing stints in the ASI office, and by then keeping in touch as supporters during their subsequent careers. But more and more, I suspect that the long-term impact of the Adam Smith Institute will be seen as them having taken the libertarian agenda and bounced it off, so to speak, those movers and shakers, using them as an amplifier and glamoriser of the basic message. During the 1980s and 1990s, those movers and shakers seemed to be paying quite a bit of attention to at any rate the economic aspects of the libertarian agenda, but now these people are back to their bad old tricks and habits, themselves apparently quite unmoved and unshaken.

Yet throughout this time, the ASI has probably done more to spread libertarian and free market ideas among students than anyone else, and I don’t just mean among students in Britain. By connecting the freedom message to the world of politics, and I do mean the world, they have kept the basic message interesting, fresh, newsworthy, relevant. This in its turn caused students to try to get their heads around the fundamental ideas, often with the help of the many books published by or in collaboration with the ASI, not a few of them written about these ideas by Madsen Pirie and Eamonn Butler. Many a curious teenager must have started this kind of intellectual journey by hearing about “privatisation” on or in the news, and wondering what that was about. Is that even possible? And if possible, is it really desirable? Would not unleashing the free market bring chaos and disaster? And if not, what do I say to people who think it would? They looked for answers, not least from the ASI whose politicking first got their attention, and they found them.

In answer to the charge that the ASI has had, looking back on it, rather little effect on Britain, I would respond by pointing out that their impact has absolutely not been confined to Britain. Their effect on Eastern Europe, to name a particularly important case, has been just as profound, and for the time being anyway, part of one of the world’s great economic success stories. Remember when doom-mongers prophesied doom for Eastern Europe?

The education gene is deeply embedded into the ASI. It is telling that a lot of the ASI leaders’ early income came from part-time teaching jobs of various kinds. Equally tellingly, Madsen Pirie now has a continuing connection with Pembroke College, Cambridge. I have not myself attended many of the big ASI student jamborees, but I have actually addressed one such gathering. It was one hell of a crowd to be talking to, let me tell you. The number of such students who have been thus addressed over the years, by the great and the good, and me, must now add up to a huge number.

I also had the feeling, while reading this book, that Madsen Pirie was mentally organising himself, prior to the next and more active phase in the ongoing struggle, and the next few chapters in the ASI story. I have called this posting “What the Adam Smith Institute did” because that implies a later posting, to be done about a decade hence, entitled “What that Adam Smith Institute did next”. Definitely something, is my bet.

I attended the launch of this book on February 15th, and would love to be able to say that I was as quick off the mark in writing this posting about it as that suggests. Sadly, the February 15th in question was in 2012, but at least I did some kind of posting about that event, right after it happened. As for this, about the book itself, well, better very late than never, or so I hope.

That Madsen Pirie himself is still, as of now, pushing this book suggests that I may yet be contributing something to its still-in-progress sales campaign. As I say, I hope so.

7 comments to What the Adam Smith Institute did

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    This comment is more like a book than anything else! Just the first two paragraphs need to be displayed, I would have thought!

  • Brian writes, on 17th February:

    Imagine living in a world in which TFD2013 had already been and gone!

    Being a man with a strict reign on my imagination (particularly concerning numbers, also economics and politics), I see this would indicate government expenditure of just over 13% of GDP.

    I would like to see tax freedom day around the end of April. This is no more down to “the art of the possible” than it is to having a self-constrained imagination: it is down to what would be best for the people.

    If government expenditure were thus limited, to around half of the economic activity of the non-government sector, that (in the modern world in which shared infrastructure and some shared process is rather important) might well be the right level of support: this as an overriding policy that limits all the others.

    We in the UK are close to government expenditure being equal to all non-government economic activity; that is a disaster. All we are left with (one interpretation, my interpretation) from all our economic activity is what the government has done: all the rest being spent on paying for that.

    Oh, and I really do like the ASI: Madsen Pirie and the others. I emphasise the link to Madsen’s personal website here, which lightens my every day.

    Best regards

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Nick Gray

    I agree about the length of this posting, and about how most of it should be hidden for display purposes to all but those who choose it. But, I do not know how to contrive this (here on New Samizdata) without risking something worse, like scrubbing rather than merely hiding it, or completely destroying it, or worse.

    Perhaps one of those with overall editorial control might be able to sort this?

  • bradley13

    “The world they were meant for”: an interesting premise, however, there are problems:

    – Some people have that place they want to be, however, they are utterly unqualified to be there. I see this in my students in university: about half of the entering students each year have simply chosen wrong. They sometimes believe with all their hearts that they want and deserve to be in a particular degree program, but simply lack the necessary ability.

    – Even if you have the right ambition, you have to at least be in the same neighborhood in order to reach your goal. A brilliant physicist may arise from the slums of London, because schools are, in fact, available; this is unlikely to happen from deepest Africa, for a woman in the Islamic world, or for a poverty stricken child in much of Asia.

    – Finally, reality intervenes. I think here in particular of the arts, where commercial success has far more to do with luck than with ability. A look at casting shows reveals an astounding number of genuinely talented musicians, but there simply is not enough need for that many musicians; most will have to settle for music as a hobby, while they earn their livings some other way.

  • Alex

    Great review, Brian. I bought a copy of the book and read it around this time last year and found it extremely interesting. Like you I found the earlier chapters the most interesting, particularly for the insights into how the institute began.