Are free-market think tanks run by intelligent space lizards?

In a weird way, I used to enjoy George Monbiot’s columns in The Guardian. There were not many authors who could evoke that mixture of bewilderment, disbelief, amusement and despair.

But not anymore. At some point, Monbiot must have run out of ideas. Nowadays, his articles seem to revolve around the same three points:

  1. My opponents are stupid.

  2. My opponents are evil.

  3. My opponents are liars.

Last autumn and this winter, Monbiot wrote a number of articles effectively saying that there is not really such a thing as a free-market philosophy. Think tanks who call themselves ‘libertarian’ or ‘free-market’ are merely hired PR agencies, who say what their paymasters – big corporations and billionaires – tell them to say (e.g. hereherehere and here). Monbiot seems to believe that if you could hide a bugging device in the office of a free-market think tank, the conversations you would hear behind the scenes would go something like this:

– ‘I just finished my new paper. Complete baloney from the first to the last page of course – we all know that free markets don’t work – but who cares, it’s what the paymasters want to hear.’

– ‘Sure. And I’ve just given a talk pretending I believed in privatisation, can you imagine? Hard to keep a straight face, but I think I managed it.’

According to Monbiot, nobody really believes in libertarianism, not even those obscure paymasters he’s so obsessed with. This is because in his interpretation, libertarianism is not a world view in the conventional sense. It is a character defect, a desire to exploit other people and destroy the planet.

Sure, there are advantages in convincing yourself that your opponents are effectively bribed liars. It absolves you of the need to engage in substantive debates. Why try to rebut what your opponent is saying, when you know for sure that he does not even believe it himself? It is not just convenient, but also irrefutable. Of course Monbiot cannot provide the slightest evidence to back up his accusations, but then, why should he? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. You can sometimes prove that somebody has fudged their arguments (through hacked e-mails, for example), but there is no way you could prove that somebody has not fudged their arguments. That’s what makes good conspiracy theories. Try to prove that the world is not controlled by super-intelligent space lizards.

The space lizard hypothesis and George Monbiot’s corporate mouthpiece hypothesis have two things in common. Firstly, neither is falsifiable. But secondly, while many real-world observations are fully compatible with them, they are equally compatible with much more mundane explanations. For example, rather than the donors determining the contents of think tank publications, the contents of think tank publications could determine the donors. But that would be boring, wouldn’t it?

Once you ignore Monbiot’s have-I-got-a-shocking-revelation-for-you rhetoric for a moment, you will find that he ‘reveals’ nothing at all. According to his ‘research’, Big Government think tanks are more likely to disclose the identity of their donors than Small Government think tanks. So? If true, this could simply indicate that donors are less reluctant to have their identities disclosed if they sponsor politically correct causes, but more reluctant when they sponsor more controversial ones. And quite rationally so, or do you remember the last time a company found its offices vandalised by a group of pro-capitalist activists?

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Editorial Director, and Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

12 thoughts on “Are free-market think tanks run by intelligent space lizards?”

  1. Posted 07/03/2012 at 12:03 | Permalink

    Excellent article, Kristian.

    However, I don’t think you are right to suggest that his is something new to Monbiot. In 2007 John Blundell wrote to the Guardian to criticise Monbiot for exactly this sort of thing, and to point out that ” In over 50 years we have never lobbied and we are independent of all business interests and political parties. George knows this full well.”

    What is so sad is that Monbiot has been writing the same article for at least five years and the Guardian still think he’s worthy of a salary.

    “nobody really believes in libertarianism… It is a character defect”

    To the fanatical collectivist, individualism is a character defect. Why do people not submit to the will of the collective? What is wrong with them, that they cannot see that they are unimportant in the great scheme of things?

  2. Posted 07/03/2012 at 12:34 | Permalink

    The other reason why big-government think-tanks are willing to declare their donors is that so many of them are funded by government which, in any case, will make public their support for the think-tanks. It really is strange that somebody finds it so difficult to believe that people can really believe in liberalism. Of course, this is not a settling argument but my daily life is made so much less stressful by the fact that all my economic transactions are consensual rather than determined by a process of (extremely stressful) bargaining through some kind of deliberative democracy (which is surely the only alternative to a market). I can remember (I would not go as far as saying that they scar me for life but they are not pleasant experiences) when even as long ago as 20 years ago there have been disagreements on committees on which I have sat (eg school governing bodies). The great thing about a market is that resources are allocated by agreement. That is a wonderful thing.

  3. Posted 07/03/2012 at 14:17 | Permalink

    People are different. Of course, that’s what makes possible market exchanges which are normally expected to benefit both parties to a deal (because their subjective valuations of what is being exchanged are not the same). But Monbiot and the Guardian are very different. A few years ago Monbiot in the Guardian made a completely untrue assertion about the IEA being a business lobby group. As chairman of the IEA I wrote rebutting this assertion, and providing an estimate of the (very small) percentage of our donations that year coming from businesses. Did Monbiot or the Guardian retract? No. Did they apologise for their error? No. Private Eye has it right in referring to the paper as the Grauniad. What they say — on almost any subject — is very likely to be inaccurate.

  4. Posted 07/03/2012 at 16:26 | Permalink

    Here’s my take on Curious George’s latest hopeless polemic attacking Ayn Rand:

  5. Posted 07/03/2012 at 22:42 | Permalink

    Kristian, you’re correct, of course. But where have you been? Half the Guardian opinion articles have been like this for years. They are merely pandering to the prejudices of their (shrinking) readership.

  6. Posted 08/03/2012 at 10:47 | Permalink

    The Guardian was a great newspaper. It still has some OK features – Larry Elliott, the Literary section on Saturdays, the Sports pages. But too much space is given to Mr Monbiot, Ms Toynbee and all that lot. They should offer more open Op-Ed slots like the TImes – and like they used to in the 80s, when I wrote quite a few for them. HJ is right I suspect that they are these days pandering to their audiesnce. The bile in their letters column (and even more behind the anonymity of their website) has to be seen to be believed sometimes.
    Nevertheless, they should be replied to again. The pieces which Kristian links to contain several statements about the IEA which are damaging. If the Labour Party (who the IEA should talk to more) took on board Mr Monbiot’s demand that the Institute should be stripped of charitable status we would be in trouble.

  7. Posted 08/03/2012 at 12:09 | Permalink

    Didn’t The Manchester Guardian have a slogan that ran something like “Supporting Britain on Mondays and Free Trade the rest of the week”? Or am I making that up/totally confused?

    I don’t think that Labour would take on Monbiot’s proposal. It couldn’t strip charitable status from one think tank and not others, and I don’t think it would want to be seen to directly target those opinion formers that ask difficult questions. We’re not exactly “the free press” but there is a wider freedom of expression issue here.

    And anyway, we’re clearly a charity: we have no shareholders; turn no profit; and devote our energies to educational publications and outreach. It would never survive judicial review.

  8. Posted 08/03/2012 at 13:25 | Permalink

    The irony, of course, is that The Guardian is owned by the Scott Trust whose stated aim is to “to safeguard the journalistic freedom and liberal values of the Guardian”. Yet it is full of polemic from ‘journalists’ who are directly opposed to liberal values and it attacks the IEA which promotes liberal values.

  9. Posted 08/03/2012 at 20:06 | Permalink

    Monbiot’s position is quite clear – no one should be allowed to argue in favour of capitalism, let alone its ‘free market’ variety. If you argue for socialism or eco-fascism (as he does) then by definition you are ‘good’ while anyone who believes in or advocates market liberalism is by definition bad. This is a ludicrous, teenage level of argumentation (sorry that is harsh on teenagers), but nonetheless, as Len says, it has to be replied to – and Kristian is doing a splendid job in that regard.

  10. Posted 09/03/2012 at 06:37 | Permalink

    What is your article about? Complaining that some people start realising that there can be no discussion of arguments with stupid, evil liars? Maybe you should understand that not necesserily all three qualities should be present in one person at the same time. In order to be an evil liar you should be very very smart, otherwise nobody would believe you. But you don’t need many evil liars, masses of stupid and ignorant people will follow cunning liars fanatically. In nazi Germany not all Germans were evil liars, but they followed their evil leaders fanatically to their graves in Soviet Union.

  11. Posted 09/03/2012 at 15:37 | Permalink

    “What is your article about?” -Space lizards.

    “not necesserily all three qualities should be present in one person at the same time.” -No, the Monbiot argument is that the wealthy are evil, the people in think tanks are (opportunistic) liars, and the people who vote non-left parties are stupid.

    “masses of stupid and ignorant people will follow cunning liars fanatically.” -And the connection with the above post being…?

  12. Posted 10/03/2012 at 00:36 | Permalink

    I think it all comes down to self interest, not that wealthy are evil and poor are good. Both are greedy, some among both are liars, some are stupid. Wealth is not in abundance for all, but one thing for sure is – stupidity. The big problem is that a wealthy guy can often get away abusing the system and making a big gain at the expense of poor folks. Thus, back to Christian justice, we need not fight to take away what wealthy already have, but to make sure that we all play by the same rules and can exchange our goods under fair terms for both/all parties. And the last quote was just to remind of danger cunning liars pose to the ignorant society, especially if we assume that wealthy and think tanks make a combination of evil liars and society is stupid and ignorant. However, I am not convinced in that line of reasoning.

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