The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) is a Westminster-based think tank that has long boasted an ‘E’ rating from WhoFundsYou and zero stars out of five from Transparify for funding transparency. Their incredibly dim reputation precedes them, and therefore it was no huge shock to see an uncover sting from the Guardian and Greenpeace Unearthed published in July clearly show its director Mark Littlewood offering ministerial access to US businesses through his ‘charity’.
Right-wing think tanks are exposed as corrupt ghouls every day; the problem in this case is that absolutely nothing has changed to the elevated status of the IEA in society since the Guardian investigation. They still retain their charitable status, their publications are still apparently newsworthy and the young American ‘free-market enthusiast’ Kate Andrews continues to advocate the Americanisation of our healthcare system on all manner of BBC political programming.
The application of ‘market forces’ to British healthcare is the stated goal of Andrews and the IEA. No empirical evidence supports the idea that the NHS would function better with profit being skimmed off the top; all the example countries Andrews highlights have more competent systems than the NHS because they are much better funded – Germany spends £1000 per person each year more than the UK. The tactic at play here was summed up beautifully by an actual American academic, Noam Chomsky, who described ‘the standard technique of privatisation: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.’
Rather than fruitlessly trawling the non-evidence they offer, their commitment to market healthcare is better explained by looking at the web of medical profiteers that litter the murky structures that operate above and beneath them.
The IEA operates under a franchise of hard-right think tanks called the State Policy Network. As an associate member of this network they receive money from GlaxoSmithKline and the Seale Freedom Trust, which is now funded by Pfizer. Needless to say, these corporations take a dim view of State Healthcare; the Seale Freedom Trust correspondingly flaunt their aim to ‘reduce public sector services in healthcare’, including repealing Medicare in the US.
The IEA is closely affiliated with the Atlas Network, another creation of the ‘father of British libertarianism’ Anthony Fisher, which is funded by the Koch brothers and American oil giant ExxonMobil and primarily concerned with discrediting the ‘global warming myth’ and deregulating a host of other industries in which the Koch brothers have a vested interest. It also spawned the International Policy Network, which was called out in a House of Commons debate in 2005 over its shameless push of climate science denialism on behalf of fossil fuel giants. Norman Baker MP told the house ‘we may be able to deduce from the comments of Julian Morris that there is an ulterior motive behind his denial of climate change’. It thankfully shut down in 2014.
Possessing the kind of rap sheet that would embarrass the murkiest Westminster lobbyist, it’s pretty obscene that these ‘think tanks’ remain tax-exempt charities. In the eyes of the law, the IEA’s work pushing a campaign to highlight tobacco’s ability to ‘enhance the immune system and reduce stress’ and collecting a sack of cash on the way home is exactly equal to Oxfam’s aid to Indonesians made homeless by the recent tsunami. Not to mention that this surely amounts to the kind of lefty state handout which supposedly makes Kate Andrews and her ilk nauseous?
To exhaustively list out their sponsors portrays the Institute of Economic Affairs as a pretty drab group of lobbyists, which is true to an extent but ultimately flatters them. They have a principled ideological base, one that is extremely reactionary and regressive going back to its inception. In the book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, author Nancy MacLean paints a vivid picture of James Buchanan, the IEA Honorary Fellow who envisaged an existential conflict between ‘economic freedom and political liberty’. According to MacLean, Buchanan envisaged a ‘conspiratorial secrecy’ in pursuit of ‘a hidden programme for suppressing democracy on behalf of the very rich‘ – one that I’d argue is realised through the IEA and its web of associates.
Another IEA regular speaker who needs no introduction, Milton Friedman, managed to meet and profoundly influence Margaret Thatcher through the think tank. His legacy is a Chicago School of Economics-inspired and CIA-enforced wave of brutal anti-democratic golpes del estado in South America that left each respective nation open to plunder by US corporations, ultimately culminating in Augusto Pinochet torturing 30,000 people in his attempt to consolidate power and implement market-friendly reforms to the country of Chile, which he had seized militarily from the popular and fairly-elected Salvador Allende.
Chilean economist Orlando Letelier asserted that Pinochet’s dictatorship resorted to oppression because of popular opposition to Chicago School policies in Chile. Friedman’s neoliberal ideas, not for the first time nor the last, were implemented through the bullet rather than the ballot box.
Back in its 1980s heyday the Friedman said that ‘the U-turn in British policy executed by Margaret Thatcher owes more to [IEA founder Anthony Fisher] than any other individual’. It may not exercise this same immense power in 2018, but it remains considerable. In the post-Brexit Wild West they have managed to position themselves as the academic consuls of hard-brexiteers: Jacob Rees-Mogg described their publication on a ‘Canada plus trade deal’ as the ‘most exciting contribution’ to the Brexit negotiations in months.
Motivated ideologically or out of pure greed, there is no denying that IEA members have no place on the BBC breakfast TV circuit: the kind of state-funded institution that they supposedly abhor. I’m sure the invisible hand will carve out another route to serve their patrons.