Think tanks’ call for ‘freedom’ really promises authoritarianism

Nov 13, 2021
Centre for Independent Studies think tank Mike Pompeo
Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses a forum hosted by The Centre For Independent Studies in Sydney in 2019. (Image: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Ideological think tanks campaigning for ‘freedom’ are really pushing us further into a competitive authoritarianism regime.

Australians are hearing the clarion call to “freedom” in the face of pandemic health orders. It is critical to understand that this is part of an American farce that promises, ironically, authoritarianism rather than liberty.

Australia is on the trajectory to becoming a “competitive authoritarian” regime. This is not because of state governments imposing curfews, lockdowns and closing borders. It is, rather, the by-blow of politicians, pundits and academics who espouse a form of libertarianism.

The call for freedom from government intervention in markets and life cannot be understood if taken from the historical moments that spawned the pleas.

The fight against the masses

The birth of mid-20th century neoliberalism was substantially the result of the establishment’s fear of the power of the populace. Those with influence had seen the fresh surge of revolutions, the stripping of property and even the executions of the rich and powerful, and dreaded the masses.

Universal suffrage was an expanding experiment that unsettled many of the liberal economic thinkers of the early decades of the 20th century. When 39 ultimately gathered at Friedrich Hayek’s Mont Pelerin society inaugural meeting in Switzerland in 1947 this suspicion of democracy remained one of the themes.

Hayek wanted his new society to be an army of fighters for freedom. This was, however, a particular kind of freedom, as much from democracy as for it.

The tension became part of the Cold War struggle for preeminence between the Free World and those behind the Iron Curtain.

Government programs were disparaged as akin to totalitarian regimes. Unions, in this defensive mindset, were seen as a socialist pathway to robbing the owner of his wealth while empowering the human cogs in his machine. Allowing the worker the freedom to associate was dangerous.

While the early neoliberals, as these Mont Pelerin economists came to be called, believed in a third way between utterly free markets and a micromanaging state, the term has gradually come to signify “negative liberty.” This is the demand that nothing comes between the successful man and his own desires. Taxes, regulations, worker protections: all are impositions from which they must have freedom.

The “positive liberty” demanded by workers, by black and brown people, by women, by the LGBTQI community over the second half of the 20th century were affronts to these reactionary souls. It seemed only state intervention would enable these overlapping groups to have access to the world controlled by the old guard. Their freedoms to vote, and function in the same worldly spheres so long controlled by the hegemonic figures was never easily won.

Democracy in decline: Australia’s slide into ‘competitive authoritarianism’

Even now culture wars against “cancel culture” or “wokeness” are attempts to silence the newly equal who demand their right to be heard. The old guard is not giving up its preeminence gracefully.

The disempowereds’ demands constituted a threat for those who wanted to be free to make and enjoy their money — and to say what they like freely as they always did — untrammelled by a wider definition of human rights (or manners).

Whether negative and positive liberty are incompatible in essence, this appears to be the state achieved in 2021. For the moneyed to have their negative liberty, the hubris of the underclasses needs restraining.

Many of the architects of this trajectory have centred around ultra free market “think tanks” that work more as propaganda machines than actual research organisations. Initially emerging from Britain, these imposters found their home in the USA.

The concept as discussed by Hayek and his follower Anthony Fisher was to construct a replicating group of think tanks and affiliated organisations to fill the public discourse with the ideas of the early neoliberals. These would found schools in universities, think tanks and outreach organisations. Many of them function as charities, so they campaign for the lowest possible taxes for their patrons with plentiful tax-deductible donations.

It took commitment over the decades to bring the libertarians from the fringes of a culture that accepted interventionist government to the heart of government in the US, UK and Australia. It was, however, a well-funded project.

These ultra free market organisations are often networked. The State Policy Network (SPN), largely in America, connects 162 groups supporting the most radical policies.

They also connect International right wing activists. One of Anthony Fisher’s early organisations has developed into the American Atlas Network, which now functions as a web that pervades almost 100 countries around the world, with 500 member organisations. There are seven “partner organisations” in Australia and New Zealand. The best known are probably the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) and the Australian Taxpayers’ Association (ATA).

Around the world, these groups, many founded with money from Atlas, spread the negative liberty truisms and marshal opposition to unions and government policies or programs that would obstruct the ultimate freedom of the established rich to do as they will.

They see themselves as the Johnny Appleseed of libertarianism, uniting and empowering small government voices against the states that ostensibly overpower them.

Australia’s libertarian putsch

The IPA was founded in 1943 as a moderate organisation. Its role was to support business in the face of the growing threat of the labour movement and socialism. Australia’s international reputation as one of the most socialist places in the world in the early 20th century, and wartime programs, needed obstruction.

The body published a pamphlet in 1944 that was instrumental to Robert Menzies’ design for his Liberal Party. The two organisations have been closely connected ever since.

Roger Neave, the late 1970s head of the IPA depicts it as a force for “economic rationalism” in his era, an Australian term for neoliberal economics. More moderate than later neoliberals, it accepted checks and balances were necessary and had a sense of “noblesse oblige”, an “obligation of the rich and powerful to look after the underprivileged”.

In 1979, however, he was pushed out by those who wished the organisation to become more radical. After the 1975 visit of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, Australian libertarians were galvanised. They wished to remake the Australian political economy in the Chicago School mode. There must be little to no government intervention in the market. Regulations were an impediment rather than a protection. Tax had to be stripped back to the bare minimum. Unions had to be crushed.

The transition’s end point can be seen in the IPA’s ultra free market Wishlist published as a challenge to Tony Abbott in 2012. Much of this Chicago School spirit was transformed into Joe Hockey’s disastrous 2014 budget. He had signalled his intent in 2013 in his London speech “The end of the age of entitlement” to Anthony Fisher’s first think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The intermingling of conservative politicians and the internationally-connected “think tanks” has shifted Australia’s right along the path of the American right.

Former Liberal Party politician Cory Bernardi for example, visited the Leadership Institute in Washington 2009. Its modus is to train politicians from student days onwards in how to fight tooth and nail for ultra free market policy. It works with frightening far right figures internationally. Bernardi’s climate denial politics developed in tandem with the Atlas partnered Heartland Institute.

More industry lobbyist than think tank

The dark money that drives these purported think tanks makes them not merely a force for low tax and against unions. It also makes them powerful lobbing forces for the industry sectors that fund them so generously. Tobacco was the forerunner, delaying limits on the business for decades.

Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute, a child of the IPA, accepted money from Big Tobacco and published a number of interventions aiming to confuse the debate on government restrictions of the industry, a classic tactic from the “think tank” models in America. Currently it copies that strategy with the contributions of Dr Jennifer Marohasy, a self-declared “climate sceptic.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) is a partly government-funded think tank that receives contracts from the federal government for “management advisory services” on defence matters. It is currently promoting a hawkish position on China. It is also funded by giants of the arms industry such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.

The United States Studies Centre at Sydney University was a project devised in concert with the American Australian Association, which has representatives from companies such as JP Morgan and Merck & Co. A student publication suggested influence operations were more apparent in side programs than in its teaching.

The healthcare industry shows how these carefully named “think tanks” offer politicians advice masquerading as “the view from nowhere” all the while pushing industry policy. As a result half a million Americans are bankrupted every year by ill health while a massive profit is made by the private sector. The American government pays the most in the world for this polarised health service, despite the number left untreated or inadequately treated. In the UK and Australia, our healthcare sectors are increasingly being Americanised as a result of lobbying by the industry.

Australia has proved fertile ground for US anti-intellectual propaganda

Roughly 70 per cent of Americans want a public health insurance option despite scare campaigns. The fact that even progressive states are gridlocked on the issue because of donations from the sector leads to frustration and cynicism about government.

America has been far more successful than Australian libertarians at savaging unions. The result is the ironically named “Right to Work” legislation (designed and marketed by SNP-affiliate the American Legislative Exchange Council) that has given labourers in the states that enact these Bills poor working conditions. Little wonder they turn to a demagogue.

In Australia, the frustration is over climate action. The Lowy Institute found 78 per cent of Australians wanted stronger carbon goals in May this year. The problem is, however, that we have a federal government captured in personnel and money by the fossil fuel sector. The fact that the fossil fuel companies make much more in taxpayer subsidies than they donate is just part of the voter frustration.

As a result we have seen Australia used by the fossil fuel sector as a spoiler at COP26 with a Santos-bedecked pavilion and fossil-fuel spruiking contribution.

As the debate about reaching net zero took place within the Coalition, the IPA paid for Facebook ads targeted at key seats actively “fear mongering” on the basis of distorted information. The ads made claims including that one in four jobs in the relevant electorate would be lost based on faulty presumptions that, for example, all 306,000 jobs in Australian agriculture would disappear if net zero policy was adopted. It is hardly surprising that an IPA podcast is named after the Heartland Institute, that famed wrecker of the climate debate.

(At what point should “think tanks” that act to distort the public debate be redefined as political or propaganda bodies, losing their tax deductible status?)

Governments that are uninterested or unable to provide the policy demanded by the electoral majority find themselves prone to losing elections, so other strategies such as culture war distractions are required. Australia, with compulsory voting making it harder to disengage despairing voters, provides different challenges. The Coalition has, as it tends to doborrowed the “think tank” promotion of voter fraud as a path to challenging the integrity of unfavourable elections.

The ultra free market warriors have pushed us towards a government that doesn’t believe in government. It aims to cripple programs that might illustrate that government programs can work. It stonewalls on the policies large majorities support. Instead this government increases surveillance, blocks transparency and supports laws that obstruct peaceful protest.

Can ideology that aims for ultimate freedom for the most powerful at the expense of the populace actually lead to freedom for every human? The authoritarian trajectory hemming in democracies around the world right now would suggest no. It is time we saw the battle cry for “freedom” for what it really means.

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