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CHRIS TROTTER: Shrugging-Off The Atlas Network

THE ATLAS NETWORK has been trending lately – in the minds of the New Zealand Left. Devastated by the election result, and further demoralised by recent polling showing the Right increasing its grip on New Zealanders’ political imagination, the Atlas Network has provided the Left with what it most needs – an explanation for its failure.


It is important to state at the very start that the Atlas Network is not the Left’s equivalent of Q-Anon. It is a real organisation, founded in 1981, by Antony Fisher (1915-1988) devotee of the fanatical anti-collectivist, F.A. Hayek (1899-1992) and a tireless proponent of the monetarist and free-market ideas that ultimately found practical political expression in the government of Margaret Thatcher and the administration of Ronald Reagan. 


Fisher’s objective in forming the Atlas Network was to encourage like-minded individuals and groups to do as he had done nearly thirty years earlier: set up “think tanks” dedicated to advancing free-market ideology. His own creation, the Institute of Economic Affairs, was founded in 1955 and played an important role in formulating what would become Thatcher’s economic programme. But, just as Che Guevara wanted “one, two, many Vietnams”, Fisher wanted one, two, many right-wing think tanks. He had witnessed at first-hand what could be achieved by a handful of people “thinking the unthinkable”. The more there were of these ideological handfuls, the faster the “New Right’s” ideas would spread.


None of this information is new, Fisher’s exploits are documented comprehensively in Richard Cockett’s book, “Thinking The Unthinkable: Think-tanks and the Economic Counter-revolution, 1931-83”, published in 1995. 


Paying close attention to who is influencing whom behind the scenes is, however, something activists on the New Zealand Left engage in only intermittently. There was a brief flurry of left-wing journalists twitching back the curtains in the late-1980s. They were motivated, mainly, by the dramatic emergence of the Business Roundtable as the New Zealand free marketeers’ ideological powerhouse. 


The fact that Roger Douglas, father of New Zealand’s neoliberal revolution, was a member of Hayek’s high-altitude think tank, the “Mont Pelerin Society”, prompted even more left-wing interest in the influence of think tanks on New Zealand’s political life.


With the election of the Labour-Alliance coalition government in 1999, however, the power of the Business Roundtable began to wane, leading to a corresponding falling-off of interest in venturing behind-the-scenes by left-wing journalists. This decline was compounded by the death of the Left’s principal keeper-of-tabs on the machinations of the business-backed Right, the editor, author and journalist, Bruce Jesson (1944-1999). 


The death of the Business Roundtable’s indefatigable Executive Director, Roger Kerr (1945-2011) was similarly demoralising for the Right. In 2012, having already merged with the New Zealand Institute, the Business Roundtable became a new, much sunnier, think tank, the New Zealand Initiative. Led by the ebullient Oliver Hartwich, the New Zealand Initiative has carefully avoided acquiring the sinister reputation of its big-business-backed predecessor.


Growing alongside the Business Roundtable for most of the 1990s was what began as the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers (ACT). Founded in 1993 by Roger Douglas, the former National cabinet minister, Derek Quigley, and multi-millionaire, Craig Heatley, ACT was to serve as a vehicle for those classical liberal ideas no longer deemed acceptable by either Labour or National. In 1994, a year after New Zealand’s adoption of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system, ACT became the Act Party. In the first MMP general election (1996) Act (now led by Douglas’ former henchman, Richard Prebble) secured 6.1 percent of the Party Vote.


The question being asked by left-wing journalists in 2024 is whether or not the Act Party has always been associated with right-wing organisations like the Atlas Network. Or, is the Network’s sole link with Act its present leader, David Seymour, who, prior to entering Parliament, was employed by two conservative Canadian think tanks, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the Manning Foundation, both of which were, at one time or another, members of the Atlas Network. 


Neither of these questions make much sense. 


To begin with, the Atlas Network has never made any secret of its existence (even if, after years of left-wing attention, it now keeps its membership list secret). It was not illegal to set up such an organisation in 1981, and it is not illegal now. Think tanks, and organisations dedicated to facilitating the establishment of think tanks, have been a feature of the global political landscape for decades – and that is as true of the Left as it is of the Right.


Indeed, the rise of right-wing think tanks in the 1970s and 80s was a direct response to what their big-business backers (including, entirely unsurprisingly, big oil and big tobacco) saw as the near conquest of their capitalist societies by left-wing ideas and left-leaning institutions. 


The free-market fightback, pioneered by think tanks like Fisher’s Institute of Economic Affairs, represented UK and US capitalists’ last-ditch defence of their profits and power. They had witnessed the trade unions bring down a British government in 1973, and the liberal press force the resignation of an American president in 1974. These unprecedented defeats had struck them as harbingers of doom – their doom.


That the Right was smart enough to realise that the battle for the hearts and minds of voters living in democratic states would be a battle of ideas – ideas that those same voters could believe in and be inspired by – and against which the Left, still mired in the demonstrably inadequate economic doctrines of the past, could offer nothing remotely competitive, was hardly the Right’s fault.


Nor is it fair to blame a young man, inspired by the libertarian and free-market doctrines of the right-wing counter-revolution of the 1980s and 90s, for accepting offers of employment from conservative Canadian think tanks. Where else was he supposed to go looking for a “political” job – the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions? Greenpeace?


It is highly instructive that left-wing politicians with CVs that show them working for “progressive” organisations, NGOs and yes, even left-wing think tanks with links to billionaire donors, are not portrayed as evil-doers by the mainstream media. Having a background in the trade unions, student organisations, environmental groups, etc, is seen as perfectly natural. Where else are left-wingers going to learn their trade? Exxon? British & American Tobacco? Pfizer?


David Seymour’s links to the Atlas Network do not make him a villain. Working for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy is not the same as working for Hamas. Morally speaking, is taking money from oil companies really all that distinguishable from giving money to oil companies every time we fill up our petrol tank? Getting from A to B; winning the battle of ideas; the Devil clips our tickets either way.


The Left’s election defeat is not the work of the Atlas Network. It is not even the work of David Seymour and Act. It is the work of ordinary citizens who liked the Right’s stories better than they liked the Left’s. If the Right’s stories were made more convincing by a sympathetic think tank, then the Left should not be getting mad at their opponent’s effective apparatus, it should be getting mad at itself for not having one of its own.


This piece was first published at the Democracy Project

Chris Trotter blogs at Bowalley Road


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112 Comments


The best understanding of Capitalism seems to still be Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations.

As I interpret this (correct me if mistaken), Capitalism is rooted in the proposal of philosophers of the Enlightenment that Natural Law (superior to human law) entitled everyone to equal Natural Rights to life, liberty, personal property and ownership of their own bodies. With those rights came equal RESPONIBILITIES for the management of our lives, property and bodies and freedoms so that we did not violate the equal rights of other people to do the same. Accordingly ever individual has the equal right to innovate, create and offer goods and services to willing buyers. Capital, earned from the sale of goods and services to willing buyers can then b…

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I recently asked a bank manager "how many of your customers have a significantly positive financial worth". She said "Very few". How much do people really make from buying a house and paying interest for so many years that they conveniently ignore when they sell it. If price is what we pay and value is what we get, why are we paying so much for for things with the same practical value. All because the game is rigged, cards are stacked and the wheel of fortune is tilted in favour of a few at the expense of the many who don't even know there is a game or that they are being "gamed". The game is about providing other people with things they want…

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Hancock
Hancock
Feb 14

Anybody else hear the rumour about Aotearoa Media Collective? Collecting up to a Million dollars funding from the previous Government to essentially fund our own Maori brainwashing team through the likes of Johanne (Mihi) Forbes? Her partner in the business Annabelle Lee Mather is married to the chairman of RNZ Jim Mather rather cosily appointed by Willie you know who.............oh dear now the scales begin to fall from our eyes........

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The New Zealand tradition of nepotism and corruption . I recall the propaganda slogans of the Bolger regime. plastered all around government offices

" Transparency !!!!. Integrity !!! Honesty !!!" Ha Bloody Ha !!!

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zekewulfe
zekewulfe
Feb 13

Food for thought there Colin

Perhaps we should qualify who is rich and who is poor in the new world of a coalition government....

At one time it was a simple process of who was in the red corner and who was in the blue. And the subsequent sparring could be easily anticipated. Poor in the red corner wealthy in the blue.


No wonder Trotter and Co are confused, what with MMP finally in fruition, the rules have changed, as have the colors of allegiance to also go with the increase in corners.


That we now have representatives in our parliament prepared to take on alternative economic structures along with equally variable manifesto's to boot.

All In lieu of the…


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zekewulfe
zekewulfe
Feb 14
Replying to

Quite often it is difficult to ascertain the depth of economic ability within the political spectrum.

They are certainly not as stupid as they are portrayed.... nor are they as stupid as they often pretend.


David Seymour for example ..... to my mind, extremely insightful as well as astute. Do you think he would lay all his cards on the table knowing full well what the press is capable of doing to someone who is not seen to be towing the idiot line of Marxist styled economics .

Softly softly catch the monkey could well be his tactics.. Which within could be the answer to your question as to; naming a single economic initiative from any of the incumbent NZ…


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Chris makes some very interesting points in this article, not the least of which are his observations on the background of Seymour's ties with the Atlas Foundation - right from its beginnings it has suffered from an identity crisis of epic proportions with its link to the Cato institute which was co-founded by Charles Koch and the economist Murray Rothbard who opposed egalitarianism and the civil rights movement. Rothbard was an anarcho-capitalist who believed that all services including those that literally cried out to be provided as public utilities were always going to be more efficiently provided by the private sector - history has proven this patently false. The most disastrous model of all time that sping to my mind is th…

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I am incensed. I don't care what network anyone believes in.

I believe in hard work, getting this tired old bird flying straight again and getting new Zealand back to where it needs to be, built off the back of people like me that have had enough of intellectual knee jerk spastic halfwits telling me how to live and conduct my life. You fuck off, concern yourselves with the tasks we pay you for and don't ever think for one second of one minute youll have us hoodwinked ever again. You

back away, stay away, do what we paid you to do and no more meddling around in our heads.

Do your fucking job or we'll sack your sorry arse.…


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