The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) promoted a laissez-fair libertarian view, keeping economic fundamentalism ‘alive when academic opinion had pronounced it brain-dead’.
IEA set out to gain wide acceptance for the ‘philosophy of the market economy’ through communications directed at the opinion leaders such as intellectuals, politicians, business people and journalists. It started as a one person operation and at its height in the 1980s reached fifteen full time employees with a half-million pound budget provided mainly by about 250 companies, including large transnational companies.
The IEA began by producing pamphlets based on Friedrich von Hayek (pictured) and Milton Friedman's ideas, as well as analyses of various policies in the light of those ideas. It promoted Friedman's monetarism by producing summaries of his ideas, inviting him to speak at conferences, and introducing him to leading politicians, including Margaret Thatcher before she was Prime Minister: ‘The IEA effectively networked Friedman in the UK’. The IEA also published articles by public choice theorists such as Buchanan.
During the 1970s the IEA managed to enrol several academics and influential journalists to promote economic fundamentalism, as well as some prominent MPs, most notably Margaret Thatcher. It trained young economists at the IEA early in their careers which helped provide personnel for the free-market think tanks established in the 1970s and 80s.
When elected as Prime Minister in 1979, Thatcher nominated Ralph Harris, head of the IEA (pictured), for the House of Lords and wrote to thank him and two of his colleagues: ‘It was primarily your foundation work which enabled us to rebuild the philosophy upon which our Party succeeded in the past. The debt we owe you is immense and I am very grateful.’
Perhaps its biggest influence has been IEA's role as a model for similar think tanks around the world. It claims to be part of "a world-wide network of over one hundred institutions in eighty countries" with the mission as the IEA, that is promoting 'free-market' solutions to social and economic problems. John Blundell, when president of the IEA, boasted:
Starting in the mid-'70s the IEA model began to be copied around the world, and Antony [Fisher, founder of IEA] found himself in great demand as a consultant to such fledgling groups. By the late '70s his mailbag was so large that he incorporated the Atlas Economic Research Foundation to be a focal point for intellectual entrepreneurs wishing to establish independent, public policy institutes.
According to its website:
The IEA's main activity is a programme of researching and publishing books (up to 20 a year) and a quarterly journal on various public policy issues. The IEA usually commissions outside authors to do the work, though some is done 'in-house' by IEA staff. The IEA also holds an extensive series of conferences, seminars, lectures and working lunches to discuss its themes (100-150 events a year). There is also a student outreach programme.