A reply to the British Medical Journal
Last month, the BMJ published an article by the freelance journalist Jonathan Gornall which names various politicians who have “demonstrated various degrees of involvement with the IEA or empathy with its views”. According to Gornall, “several Tory leadership contenders [are] sympathetic to [the IEA’s] ideology” and “the IEA may now hold the key to No 10”. This, apparently, is bad news for BMJ readers, and it gets worse. Gornall says that these politicians’ penchant for freedom “might not be quite so worrying” if it were not for the fact that “the IEA is or has been funded by some of the very industries that stand to gain commercially from its attacks on public health initiatives”. His article “reveals” that British American Tobacco (BAT) is one of the IEA’s donors and that we have received money from the alcohol, food and gambling sectors in the past.
BAT’s support of the IEA has been common knowledge for many years. Gornall got his scoop by simply asking the company if they donate to us. They confirmed that they do, just as they did several years ago when asked the same question. I have discussed this matter several times on the radio and there is a whole section dedicated to it on the IEA’s Wikipedia page. As “secretive” funding goes, the secret does not seem to be well guarded.
Gornall correctly notes that the IEA does not publish a list of everybody who donates to us. This is true (and is true of most charities) but we have never enforced the code of omertà on our supporters. We would be perfectly happy if all our donors chose to publicise their support. Many of them do, but some prefer the traditional approach of making charitable donations privately. Our policy of donor confidentiality is not principally for our benefit, but for them.
There are many reasons why a donor to a free-market think tank would want to keep their contribution private. The IEA publishes a broad range of views on a wide range of topics. Some of those views are controversial and it would be understandable if individual donors did not want to be associated with them all. Nor do all of our donors wish to have their names in the public domain for them to be approached by fundraisers from other organisations or maliciously targeted by people who strongly disagree with some of the IEA’s positions. You can imagine, for example, why someone who works for the NHS or Public Health England – or, heaven forfend, the British Medical Journal – might not want to be listed as an IEA donor.
Nevertheless, many individuals and organisations who work with, or donate to, the IEA are happy to do so publicly and it is not difficult to find their names, as Gornall’s article shows. What his article does not show, however, is why it is more “worrying” for a “free-market ideologue” to have links to a think tank that accepts donations from a company such as BAT than a think tank that does not. From the BMJ’s perspective, it is surely their (and our) “free-market fundamentalism” that is the problem, rather than the perceived motivations of a few corporate donors?
The article does not make the chain of events explicit, perhaps because it would risk libel, but the implication seems to be that IEA donors control what the IEA says. Moreover, it seems to imply that the IEA uses money to buy off politicians. Both suggestions are wholly untrue.
We have refuted the first claim many times, including in 2014 when Mr Gornall first started attacking free-market think tanks. The IEA has systems in place to ensure that our academic research is independent of donors. Unlike many think tanks, we do not carry out commissioned research and donors are not permitted to see IEA publications until they are published. Our donors give us money because they support our position, not because they want us to change our position.
Gornall claims that the IEA “has a longstanding commitment to dismissing public health initiatives as ‘nanny state’ interventions”. In fact, the IEA says nothing about most public health initiatives because they are beyond our purview. We only comment when a policy has implications for consumer choice and wellbeing. Unfortunately, that has become increasingly common in recent years as the “public health” lobby has dropped the carrot and taken up the stick. It is now a more or less openly anti-capitalist enterprise with a seemingly endless list of taxes, bans and regulations which it seeks to impose on the public by force. If “public health” pressure groups did not demand radical new restrictions on freedom on an almost daily basis, we would not be asked to comment. As it is, lifestyle economics has become a small but important part of our work.
The reasons are simple. There is an irreconcilable conflict between the modern “public health” lobby and supporters of free-market economics. Economists are interested in maximising public wellbeing whereas “public health” groups are interested in maximising a single component of wellbeing: health (or, more often, longevity). Health is obviously important, but so too is pleasure, freedom, prosperity and many other facets of life which are not necessarily maximised by government paternalism.
There is nothing unusual or extreme about the IEA position. We subscribe to the orthodox economic assumption that individuals are best placed to make trade-offs in their own lives. As John Cawley writes in the Oxford Handbook of The Social Science of Obesity:
“In the absence of market failures, the operation of free markets maximises social welfare. Thus, if there are no market failures, government intervention can only decrease social welfare.”
As this quote indicates, economists do not believe that there is no role for government in educating and regulating, but that such interventions are only likely to be beneficial if there is a market failure. There is a legitimate debate about what constitutes a market failure and the IEA has published a lot of work in this area. Suffice it to say that the mere existence of smoking, obesity and “excessive” drinking in society is not, in itself, evidence of a market failure. The use of state coercion to deter people from engaging in potentially risky activities because the costs outweigh the benefits in the opinion of “public health” campaigners is likely to lower societal wellbeing.
This profound ethical question rarely gets a mention in the BMJ, but it explains why organisations such as the IEA are frequently at loggerheads with campaigners who want to disrupt functioning markets in order to make it more difficult for people to consume the products that they enjoy. The important point is that the principle objection is derived from basic economics, not from the presumed motivations of IEA donors. As with Banks and Farage, the money follows the views, not the other way round.
The second claim – or rather implication – in Gornall’s article is even more scurrilous. It should go without saying that the IEA is not in the business of bribing politicians. Gornall finds three examples in the last ten years of MPs declaring “direct funding” (as he calls it) from the IEA. All three of them were remuneration for expenses incurred while working with the IEA; one from speaking at a conference in Slovenia, the other two from attending a meeting with the IEA and another free-market think tank in the USA.
It is perfectly normal for organisations to pay travel expenses, especially when they ask people to travel overseas. It is neither illegal nor immoral. IEA spokespeople occasionally have their expenses covered by the BBC when they are required to travel long distances (to record Question Time, for example), but it would be silly to claim that the IEA is “funded” by the BBC.
Gornall accepts that the sums of money involved are “insignificant” but insists that “the significance lies in the ideological relations the payments highlight”. This is guilt by association. BMJ readers are being invited to be outraged by the idea of anyone sharing a platform or taxi with a free marketeer.
Dominic Raab has no financial relationship with the IEA nor with its chairman or trustees, but Gornall nevertheless singles him out as a threat to “public health” because he spoke at the IEA’s 60th anniversary party and was involved in the launch of our Richard Koch Breakthrough Prize (on social mobility). Owen Paterson is drawn into the web thanks to an £84 expenses bill paid by the IEA and a 2016 report published by his own think tank that was written by an IEA researcher.
This is weak stuff. How many politicians have had their expenses covered to speak at events organised by groups who support paternalistic lifestyle policies or a more dirigiste economy in the last ten years? Gornall does not tell us because he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t know because he is not interested. From his perspective, the scandal is not that think tanks and pressure groups have an influence on politicians, but that the wrong type of think tanks and pressure groups have an influence on politicians.
Although the IEA categorically does not fund politicians, its donors and trustees are free to do so. Gornall lists donations to various MPs from our chairman, Neil Record, and one of our trustees, Sir Michael Hintze. Both men are noted philanthropists and supporters of the free-market movement. They give their time to the IEA without payment, as trustees of charities generally do. Gornall acknowledges that their donations to politicians are made “in a personal capacity” and yet a graphic accompanying his article which illustrates these donations is titled “IOU, IEA”, clearly implying that the money comes from the IEA and is not given unconditionally.
This is a disgraceful slur. Gornall does not explicitly make this allegation in the article and, if pushed, would probably insist that that it is not what he meant, but if that is not the implication, what point is he trying to make? All he has really shown is that people who hold broadly similar views sometimes work together and that free-market advocates who have the resources and inclination to donate to politicians tend to favour the Conservative Party over the Labour Party. One hardly needs an “exclusive investigation” to work that out.
Gornall constructs his conspiracy theory – for that is essentially what it is – by focusing on examples of MPs being on the same side of the argument as the IEA. He implies that Matt Hancock is opposed to minimum pricing for alcohol and state-funding for political activists because the IEA has criticised both of these in the past. He admits that Mr Hancock “does not have direct links” to the IEA but implies some modest donations (of up to £4,000 a year) from Neil Record to Mr Hancock have been instrumental in forming his opinions. In fact, opposition to minimum pricing has been the de facto position of the British government for many years and whilst it is true that Matt Hancock took action on state-funded lobbying when he was at the Cabinet Office, he took the toughest possible action against fixed-odds betting terminals when he was at DCMS, contrary to the conclusions of an IEA paper. He also supports various interventions in the food supply, including the sugar tax, which the IEA has opposed.
Similarly, Dominic Raab voted for plain packaging for tobacco and is quoted in Gornall’s article supporting the smoking ban. Both policies were opposed by free-market think tanks. I am not aware of Owen Paterson making any comment on “nanny state” issues, but Gornall would surely have quoted him if Paterson was a vocal opponent. As Gornall doesn’t, I have to assume that Paterson is not particularly bothered. So why drag him into it?
The picture Gornall paints of the British government is an appealing one to those of us who work at the IEA. The idea that policy is made by a cabal of libertarians and that Theresa May is about to be replaced by an “IEA fellow traveller and free market ideologue” gladdens the heart. It would be wonderful for the country if it were true. Alas, I see little sign of it. The chances are that the vast, state-funded nanny state industry will maintain its stranglehold on politicians of every party. Gornall’s claim that “no progress is likely on any public health initiatives” in the near future ignores the fact that Public Health England’s food reformulation is proceeding at full throttle and public consultations on a range of interventions in the food market are currently underway. Wales is expected to introduce minimum pricing in the autumn and menthol cigarettes will be banned next year.
The fact that the British Medical Journal has dedicated nine pages to attacking a handful of MPs for making some vaguely libertarian comments serves to underline the hegemony of the nanny state mentality. For Gornall, it is not enough to be winning the cultural and political battle. Any dissent must be crushed and anyone who breathes a word against the prevailing orthodoxy must be smeared, maligned and – ideally – silenced.