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Think tanks spread free-market ideas worldwide

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed that ``the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.'' In the economic realm, a group of vocal young think tanks is making sure that free-market ``thoughts'' rise to that test. These organizations -- the Manhattan Institute in New York, the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) in Dallas, and the Pacific Institute in San Francisco, to name a few -- are steadily thrusting such ideas as ``privatization'' of social services into the intellectual marketplace.

What all these think tanks have in common -- other than a fervor for free-market economics -- is their debt to the San Francisco-based Atlas Economic Research Foundation and its founder, British-born millionaire Antony Fisher.

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Mr. Fisher has spent much of the last quarter century foraging for funds that can help fledgling free-enterprise think tanks get off the ground.

He emphasizes that while the institutes are aided by an initial grant from the roughly $500,000 that Atlas raises each year, they are on their own once the organization -- typically a board of directors, a research director, and a small administrative staff -- is in place.

``Worldwide, it's about 7 millionish [dollars] being raised by what I believe is 27 institutes in 17 countries -- and I've just been given the names of three more, and I'm talking to five or six others,'' says Fisher. ``The purpose of government is to maximize choice,'' he says, with the firmness of a schoolmaster stating a rule of grammar.

His words reverberate in many of the policy proposals made by the think tanks he has helped establish -- for example, medical IRAs (individual retirement accounts) to replace federal medicare, an idea put forth by the NCPA.

The research institutes set up in the last decade with Atlas's help fit into a larger phenomemon -- a kind of sea change in US economic thinking noted by many commentators.

``The economic profession is becoming more conservative. You see it if you go to meetings of the American Economics Association,'' notes Paul A. Samuelson, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Barry Bosworth of the Brookings Institution agrees, but adds that such philosophical currents ``tend to run in cycles'' and will eventually swing back the other way.

Neither of these prominent economists had heard of Antony Fisher or the family of think tanks he has spawned -- something that's not too surprising when you consider Fisher's conscious effort to work behind the scenes, as well as the regional nature of many of his institutes.

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Economist Milton J. Friedman, on the other hand, has known Mr. Fisher for more than 20 years. Dr. Friedman, one of the patriarchs of conservative economics, terms the work done by the Atlas Foundation ``remarkable,'' but cautions that not every new think tank will have the success of, say, a Manhattan Institute, which boasts such widely discussed authors as George Gilder and Charles Murray.

``Antony Fisher is unquestionably a leading developer of these things,'' says Friedman, ``but you have to remember that the actual success of the institute depends on the people who run the thing. If it gets somebody who isn't very good, nothing happens.''

At the think tanks nurtured by Atlas, being good has a lot to do with knowing how to use the media. ``We feel like we're sort of out front in applying business techniques of marketing to the world of ideas,'' says Dr. John Goodman of the NCPA. ``We measure success by media coverage and by what important people say about our work. Of 15 studies, we've had 14 wire-service stories.''

Some observers, however, view the media know-how of conservative think tanks with something bordering on alarm.

Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, has extensively criticized Charles Murray's book ``Losing Ground,'' which asserts that the federal War on Poverty initiated in the '60s exacerbated the problem it was designed to remedy. According to Dr. Greenstein, the Manhattan Institute's efforts to promote the book amounted to a well-orchestrated, well-financed ``media blitz.''

His concern springs from what he sees as the marriage of sophisticated promotion with questionable research. He charges, for instance, that Murray's analysis excludes such crucial data as a doubling of the unemployment rate between 1968 and 1980 -- a fact that in itself helps account for a rise in poverty, he argues.

For his part, Murray has countered that his research was intended to spur a fresh look at poverty in the United States, and that specific criticisms miss the bigger picture he's trying to present.

As this kind of public debate rages, Antony Fisher busily pursues his work of helping to set up free-enterprise think tanks wherever there's a desire for them. His network of academic and business acquaintances, he says, spans the globe: ``I could go to India and I believe I'd have an institute going in Calcutta and another one in Pakistan probably quite quickly through my connections. I just don't have the time,'' he laments.

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