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How Chicken Farming, Murder and Eugenics Sparked the Anti-Environmental Revolution

by Mike Freedman

The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in London recently published a series of articles attacking the steady state concept.  The most vocal critic of the steady state is a fellow at the IEA named Kristian Niemietz.  He has misrepresented what a steady state means, and from that position he has leveled a series of bizarre allegations at CASSE and its work.  In his first article he alleged that the steady state movement is populated by misanthropes motivated by a distaste for the poor.  After looking into the background of the IEA, it becomes clear that they are throwing stones in a glass house.

Drawing fire from a widely respected think tank might seem like a bad thing, but in truth it reveals a deep insecurity within the establishment.  Since the financial crisis of 2008, the continued mirage of “recovery” remains forever on the horizon.  The accelerating evaporation of anything resembling a social safety net for the workers of the world makes business-as-usual a less-than-sexy proposition for the majority of us.  The increasingly schizophrenic behavior of our planet’s natural processes doesn’t enhance our calm either.  A growing number of people are discontented with the status quo.  As the calls for a change of strategy and priority for the world’s economy get louder, it makes perfect sense that the most viable and desirable option, a steady state economy, is pilloried with great vitriol.  Methinks the lady doth protest too much, to paraphrase the Bard.

In looking at the invective against environmentalism in general and the steady state in particular, the most recurrent accusation is that of misanthropy.  The line of attack goes something like this: steady staters and environmentalists simply do not like people, are against the self-actualization of the human race and moan about consumption out of a petty jealousy for the spending habits of the better off.  Well hang on a second… some of my best friends are people.  Maybe not economists, but people.

The IEA for which Mr. Niemietz works is a think tank retailing a very strict Austrian School agenda, namely that state regulations are an obstacle to business, that there are no resource limits because the market will solve the problem, that concerns about ecological limits or overpopulation are simply neo-Malthusian hatred of the poor, that a totally unregulated market would function better than the current one, that troublesome hindrances like minimum wage, social welfare and unionized labor should be abolished.  With that in mind, as the sulfuric charge of misanthropy hung heavy in the air, I did a little background reading on the IEA.

The IEA was founded in 1955 by Sir Antony Fisher and Oliver Smedley.  Smedley was a pioneer of British pirate radio, and true to the pirate moniker, he shot and killed a rival pirate radio magnate, Reg Calvert, on June 21, 1966.  He was tried for manslaughter and got off on the grounds of self-defense.

Sir Antony Fisher was quite an entrepreneur.  He set up the first factory-style chicken farm in Britain, and after making himself a millionaire on the back of battery broiler chickens, he took the advice of Friedrich von Hayek and chose to fight “creeping socialism” by founding the IEA think tank.  How did Fisher get into Hayek’s ideas?  He read a summary of one of Hayek’s books in Reader’s Digest.  What a deep understanding of economics he must have had.

Oliver Letwin MP said quite recently that “Without Fisher, no IEA; without the IEA and its clones, no Thatcher and quite possibly no Reagan; without Reagan, no Star Wars; without Star Wars, no economic collapse of the Soviet Union. Quite a chain of consequences for a chicken farmer!”

Fisher had his share of economic failure, particularly when he farmed endangered green sea turtles in the Cayman Islands as “a way to provide massive amounts of cheap high quality protein… to feed a world in danger of overpopulation and starvation” (Source: Randolph Richardson, son of one of Fisher’s closest friends).  Richardson continues by adding that “Sir Antony Fisher was NOT dismissive of environmental concerns, but passionate about them.”  Fisher’s turtle farm was eventually shut down after environmental campaigns to protect the endangered species prevailed.  So not only did the founder of the IEA actually feel very strongly about overpopulation and resource limits, but he went about “helping” by farming an endangered species for food and profit and went broke in the process.  That does not bode well for his concept of economics.

Oh, I almost forgot my favorite part.  The man who ran the IEA from 1957 to 1987 was named Ralph Harris.  He was a friend of Fisher’s and considered by many to be the driving force, along with Arthur Seldon, behind the IEA in its formative years.  Harris’s deliberately confrontational style of writing formed the IEA’s strategy as it sought to make room for itself in the intellectual circles of swinging London in the 1960s and 1970s.  One of his jazzier titles for a 1971 IEA report was “Down With The Poor!”.

Harris was also a listed member of the British Eugenics Society.  I came across this tidbit online and, not wanting to peddle hearsay, confirmed it with the Galton Institute, which is what the British Eugenics Society changed its name to after World War II.  It is important to remember the role that the closely entwined American and British Eugenics Societies played in the formation of Nazi ideology and also in the drafting of the infamous Nuremberg laws, to say nothing of the barbaric homes for the “unfit” in the UK and the forced sterilizations in California and elsewhere in the U.S.  The writings of the eugenicists E.S. Gosney and Paul Popenoe were cited by the Nazis as the inspiration that proved a national sterilization policy was feasible.  In fact, the last recorded forced sterilization in the U.S. took place in Oregon in 1981.

Ralph Harris was made a life peer with the title of Baron Harris of High Cross after Thatcher came to power in 1979, and when he left the IEA in 1987 (or rather, stepped down as general director but continued as founder/president), he went on to work as a director of Rupert Murdoch’s Times newspaper.  At an IEA dinner that year, Thatcher herself summed up the close relationship between Harris’s work and conservative policy: “What we have achieved could never have been done without the leadership of the IEA.”

Harris was also the chairman and president of FOREST (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco) and wrote a book in 2005 called “Smoking Out The Truth” in which he refuted the idea that passive smoking was bad for people, stating that “hatred of cancer is no excuse for hatred of smokers”.  This paragon of economic wisdom, so greatly admired by the British establishment, was also fond of raising his glass with the following toast: “Down with the public interest!”.  Ironically, at the age of 78, he spoke in favor of public funding to save the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company made famous by Gilbert and Sullivan.  He admitted to the hypocrisy, but in the end I guess he couldn’t stand to let his beloved market kill off his beloved Gilbert and Sullivan.

So the background of the institution that Mr. Niemietz represents is one of murder, ecological irresponsibility, bankruptcy, misanthropy, eugenics, anti-scientific denialism and ultimately hypocrisy.  By the way, for more “Fun with Hypocrites”, check out the articles he’s written against state-provided education despite having received his degree from a state university in Germany.  As a matter of fact, let’s have a look at some of his more edifying titles:

  • “For-profit education is good for the poor”
  • “Howard Flight and the unpleasant facts about welfare dependency”
  • “Work incentives for single parents will worsen – thanks to child poverty targets”
  • “How Much For a Year of Life?”

That last one is my favorite, since it is a document in which Niemietz genuinely puts a price on a year of human life.  But suggesting that economic growth should be balanced against the system-integrity of our planet and the needs of future generations is misanthropic?

The IEA is just a think-tank, right?  What does it matter what these people think or say, where their roots are and what their agenda is?  I’d quote this endorsement of their reach: “The IEA’s influence has not been confined to the United Kingdom. Its publications and the able group of scholars who became associated with it contributed greatly to the change in the intellectual climate of opinion around the world.”  Who said that?  Some guy named Milton Friedman, quoted in the Introduction to Volume 1 of “The Collected Works of Arthur Seldon”, a book by Ralph Harris’s libertarian life partner in the IEA enterprise.

The real secret to the spread of these think tanks is that they are seeded in multiple locations, by the same interests and even the same people, and then use their intellectual cache to reinforce the gravitas of one another’s findings while effectively concealing the fact that they are ultimately identical in purpose, scope and occasionally even ownership.  Take a look at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and then check out how many think tanks they are affiliated with.  How many of those have Fisher’s fingerprints on them?   Eleven out of the twenty-five were either founded directly by Fisher or funded with grants from one of his other think tanks.  One of them, the Venezuela-based Center for the Dissemination of Economic Information, was implicated in the attempted coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002.  I guess the Venezuelans weren’t in the market for a leader like Pedro Carmona, who only took 36 hours to dissolve the Supreme Court and National Assembly as well as repealing a bunch of laws that didn’t favor the markets over the masses.

Then again, Ralph Harris himself was quoted as saying “I am very critical of democracy.  Politics has meant unlimited democracy and unlimited claims on the national income.”  Which probably explains why he was one of the key fundraisers in a lawsuit against the BBC for an unflattering Panorama program called “Maggie’s Militant Tendency” which highlighted worrying crossovers between far-right organizations in the UK and the Conservative Party.  The suit was won by Hamilton after the BBC chief, Alasdair Milne, was ordered to concede by his bosses.  The reported payout of around £1 million came from the public purse.  I guess Ralph Harris overcame his antipathy towards public money when it came from a lawsuit against the Fourth Estate’s right to free speech.

The focal point of the suit, Neil Hamilton MP, was later caught taking money from Mohammed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods, in exchange for asking questions in Parliament on his behalf.  This was the notorious “Cash for Questions” scandal that helped sink the Conservative Party in the run-up to the 1997 general election.  Who was Hamilton’s chief fundraiser during the scandal?  Ralph Harris.  I suppose that he was simply supporting a free market democracy, in which rich people can buy access to democracy directly without the annoying cost of lobbyists.

It’s telling that the people railing about how we don’t need government regulations because the market will look after itself always seem, through their actions, to give the most compelling evidence that government regulation is essential.  When those people are not on a box at Speaker’s Corner but rather in a corner office in the City of London or Fleet Street, let alone Downing Street itself, we have a serious problem.

This world that we have been led into by the nose is one where a corporation can slash 6,000 jobs, post a quarterly profit and be considered a “wealth creator”.  It is a world in which statistics and averages help to mask the gross inequity and predatory policy of the governing system.  It is a world where well-paid people who work for eugenicists, murderers and cynical politicians can accuse others of scheming against the poor and general misanthropy with no sense of irony.

I read a great quote somewhere, that “if an economist was in a room with 39,999 unemployed people and Bill Gates, he would say ‘I see a room full of millionaires!’”.

The rhetoric against the steady state concept exemplified by the IEA is a clamor of privilege and obfuscation, hoping against hope that all those “millionaires” will be happy with the free coffee and stay the hell away from the microphone, let alone the fuse box.

For further reading, I recommend “The Rise and Fall of Neoliberalism” by Birch and Mykhnenko.

Mike Freedman is a writer and filmmaker based in London, England.  For the past year, he has been researching, writing and filming a documentary, “Critical Mass”, about the impact of human population growth and consumption on the planet and on human psychology.  He has conducted over fifty interviews with the world’s leading authors, researchers, activists, experts and academics on the subjects of population, psychology, demography, ecology, water depletion, peak oil, climate change, agriculture and energy.  The website for his film, http://www.criticalmassfilm.com, has clips from his interviews in addition to podcasts that he has recorded on the various topics of the documentary.

15 Responses to “How Chicken Farming, Murder and Eugenics Sparked the Anti-Environmental Revolution”

  1. wendy says:

    Spiked online has many similar rants on the misanthropic-green-miserabilist theme.

    http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/10282/

    Who funds and runs spiked I wonder ?

    Conversely.some leading economists are showing signs of common sense and decency

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/apr/13/robin-hood-tax-economists-letter

  2. wendy says:

    http://www.herinst.org/sbeder/Books/missionaries.html

    Another critique of free market fundamentalism by an Australian expert.

  3. vera says:

    Well, alright… a nice hatchet job. But I would be more interested in what other arguments they make against the steady state idea, and how you all would respond. Do they make any valid points? Do they make points you think are not valid, but seem to be sound on the face of it?

    Nice point about the think tanks being incestuous. Will remember that… that strategy ought to have a catchy name…

  4. @Vera – if you check out the original IEA article, you’ll see for yourself the level of critique that CASSE is subjected to. There is very little in the way of actual thinking and responding from them, but rather a kneejerk distaste for anything that calls economic growth, unbridled consumption and market liberalisation into question. The fact that in the article CASSE is compared to Karl Marx and Saddam Hussein should give you an idea of why a response in kind seems pointless. As for a hatchet job, I’d point out that everything I wrote in the article is sourced and true to the best of my knowledge. Granted, I don’t particularly like these guys, but surely a hatchet job implies an element of malice? I’m just stating facts. As for whether or not what they say is sound or not, I’d say that many of the ideas of the Austrian school, such as greater individual freedom and less state interference, are superficially appealing. Once you dig into the meat of the matter, however, it quickly becomes clear that the sweeping away of all hindrances to market-uber-alles is more about freeing the corporate bottom line from concerns like minimum wage, pensions and environmental damage than it is about really improving the individual freedom and agency of citizens. Many of von Mises’ and Rothbard’s criticisms of the current money creation system are spot on, but it is the solution proposed and the manner in which it is to be carried out that begin to raise big questions.

    @Wendy – Spiked Online is part of another incestuous cabal that has roots in the Orwellian-monikered Revolutionary Communist Party of the UK, which published a magazine called Living Marxism, later known as LM, before splintering into a group of supposedly independent but deeply connected (sometimes by family or marriage) organisations. This article has a good run down on Spiked et al – http://www.lobbywatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=78. I filmed at an Institute of Ideas debate (The IoI is part of this facade) and I can tell you first hand that not a single person given the time of day on the stage or in the programme came from outside their inner circle. The modus operandi is exactly the same as the IEA – multiple fronts, one ideology. I can only think to call this kind of approach “cynical intellectualism”; using a veneer of academic respectability to shill for whoever you can court to sponsor you. Very low indeed.

    Thank you for reading and for your excellent comments.

  5. And just because I can’t resist, check this link out – http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Centre_for_Policy_Studies. Frank Furedi, one of the leaders of the RCP/LM/Spiked crowd, actually wrote for the Centre for Policy Studies, which is an IEA fellow traveller. Writers from the IEA have also been published by Spiked Online.

    And the band played on…

  6. Piyush says:

    Excellent post!
    Suggestion: Send an invitation to IEA to have a publicly televised debate between CASSE and them. This is a good way to get exposure and put a dent into the religion of conventional economics. The obvious stupidities will get a chance to be exposed and start to puncture the bubble of dogma. One debate can implant the seeds in the minds of many viewers (even if CASSE loses in a before-after poll typical of some debates) and trigger more debates and at least start to make some people to think. If they reject the offer, make it public that they are not willing to debate inspite of writing attack articles.

  7. gerald spezio says:

    Mike Freedman, What a lesson!

  8. vera says:

    Mike Friedman, I appreciate your coming back to discuss. Not the common thing hereabouts (cough, cough). Maybe a hatchet job does imply malice, but your taking them apart was so well done that I had to use it. I for one did not imply malice by it, just effective use of the ol’ samurai sword. :)

    Dunno, maybe a response would not be pointless. There are many people besides them who take that attitude… honing your argument might be just the thing. Good enemies are valuable.

    Btw, I think it was Povourow who recently had an article criticizing CASSE for for wanting a steady state while we are in “three planet” overshoot. I would love to see a reply to that here.

  9. vera says:

    That was Poyourow, and she actually claims we are at 5-planet level of consumption.

    http://energybulletin.net/stories/2011-04-11/economy-possible-scenarios-future-1

  10. Mark R. says:

    Mike Friedman, thanks for your pulling back the curtain on the IEA in such detail. It´s certainly refreshing to have some of the vivid details of the way entrepreneurial success has had unpalatable influences, whether in advertising propaganda, think tanks, and other diverse manifestations.
    I had done some extensive research for a journal submission during my masters, and eventually found Paul Krugman´s book on the Liberal perspective, with its historical examination of US right wing ideology, not to mention another book called Growth, whose author escapes me at the moment. Growth traces the history of economic ideology in US politics especially, and is referenced in Daly and Farley´s text on Eco Economics.

    I´ll have to refresh my memory, but a Washington Post article revealed how one of the Mellon heirs propelled the start of the US´s Heritage Foundation, one of the pioneers in 1974 of organized US conservative ideology.

    The Adam Smith Institute is another institute in the UK with a similar approach to the IEA. My article online is called The Real Price of Coffee by Marcos Rego-Monteiro, and examines the economic roots of the Rwandan Genocide and Fair Trade´s sprouting efforts there. In it, I refer to several points by an ASI paper on FT, which has all the trademarks Mike F. describes about the IEA arguments about CASSE and the steady state approach.

  11. Philip says:

    I think the silliness of this post is revealed by three things:

    1. You say that the IEA retails a strict Austrian agenda and insert a link to 13 subject headings only one of which is “Austrian economics”. Then you quote Milton Friedman praising the IEA who, being from Chicago, was definitely not an Austrian-school economist.
    2. The bizarre suggestion is them made that Austrians/IEA argue that there are no resource limits because the market will solve the problem. Classical liberalism does not argue that at all, it simply argues that property rights in environmental goods (take fish as an example) are the best way to ensure conservation and the most valuable use of natural resources rather than state regulation.
    3. You put “murder” in the title of the post, say that Smedley was tried for manslaughter and then say he was found not guilty due to self defence. Which of the three is the accurate description – murder, manslaughter and killing in self defence are three entirely different acts?

    There seems to be no sign that any of the “steady staters” wish to take on any classical liberal arguments at all (just straw men) never mind take the trouble to take the arguments on where they are at their strongest.

    I had no idea of Ralph Harris’ interest in eugenices but why not put as part of your post that the current Editorial Director is as anti-eugenics as they come – is that not as relevant to the argument? And why should Ralph Harris not help fund somebody who was a friend of his and who wished to take a court action (which he lost, of course) – do you not believe that people should be allowed to take court actions whether they are innocent or guilty? I am struggling to find any part of this post which even begins to say anything that is relevant.

  12. Kris says:

    >>The line of attack goes something like this: steady staters and environmentalists
    >>simply do not like people, are against the self-actualization of the human race

    Strange, isn’t it? I quote from the SSE conference report:

    “For the vast majority of human history, the size of the economy was small compared
    to the size of the biosphere. But over the past century or so, the economy has grown massively, and the balance has shifted. Between 1900 and 2005, world economic
    output increased by a factor of 24, from $2 trillion to $47 trillion.
    This incredible increase in economic activity has resulted in an equally incredible
    increase in the use of resources and energy. Humanity now uses eleven times as
    much energy, and eight times the weight of material resources every year as it did
    only a century ago. The appropriation of materials, energy, and land for human
    activity has profoundly impacted ecosystems”

    One could have summarised the same period by saying something like:

    “For the vast majority of human history, the lot of the masses was a life of misery, drudgery, hunger, cold, pain, desease and early death. But over the past century or so, the economy has grown massively, and the balance has shifted. In countries that enjoyed economic development, life expectancy has skyrocketed, infant mortality plummeted, illiteracy largely disappeared, annual working hours dropped, and our geographical and spiritual horizons have expanded. This incredible increase in economic activity has led to an incredible improvement in material comfort, life chances and the quality of life. We enjoy better health, better education, more leisure-time and more recreational opportunities than any previous generation in history.”

    But no, what is the first thing that comes to a Steady Stater’s mind? We are using more energy and produce more waste! Goodness, how dare we!

    Getting a slight inkling why certain authors keep saying that Steady Staters simply don’t like people, and that SSE was just a pseudo-rationalisation for misanthropy?

  13. vera says:

    Kris, you do make a point, but along with the goods brought by modernity, there are plenty of bads. Which you should list, no? And one of the bads is… ongoing plunder of the biosphere eventually runs into a wall. Viz phosphorus.

    But I grant that the paragraph you quote of the steady staters is as unbalanced and unfair as yours is… partial truths are often worse ‘n lies.

    Also, I think it would be fair to mention that the steady staters’ impulse comes from worrying what will happen to humans when that wall is hit full on. Which does not smell like misanthropy to me. What do you say?

  14. Mark R. says:

    As for kris´s post, I agree with vera that acknowledging the range of goods of modernity is worthwhile. However, I disagree that kris´s quote of SSE is an exaggerated and extremist declaration. I see it clearly as a concise review of economic history, not close to “misanthropy.”

    As for Philip´s post, he seems to have some training in economics, while Mike Freedman´s background is not in the discipline. I have some training as well, mine being political economics on top of biology and professional work experiences, which makes me conscious of one of Mike´s strengths- he probes into issues of real world accountability, which is not a strong point for most economists. Most orthodox economists are operating less out of theoretical strengths than inflated by an asymmetric economic structure, I submit. See William Dugger´s Corporate Hegemony for one, Ralph Nader´s work for another, and my paper in New York University´s Anamesa journal for another, with search criteria cited in the previous post.

    Thus, while the reference to the “Austrian School” is not a clear description, I am confident there are important similarities between them and Friedman´s “Chicago School.” I believe the Chicago school developed out of the Austrian school.

    Does classical economic liberalism not argue that there are no resource limits because market acitivity will solve the problem? Many have argued that logic, and the Hartwick Rule asserts that substitutabitlity between natural capital and manufactured capital is a reliable premise. Factories will always be able to produce what a forest cannot, many have reasoned. Georgescu-Roegen made an interesting discussion about this in his 1975 paper in the Southern Econ Journal, and Prof Daly has discussed it in various works, such as 1996 and 2003. Jonathan Harris of Tufts wrote a nice paper also in 2000 with the issue in it. All this besides the original journal works by the orthodox theorists, such as Hartwick.

    As for environmental property rights arguments, they exist on a fundamental premise mostly poorly understood by classical economists. Enforcement of property rights obligations is a fundamental part of state regulation. As for the fish example, the knowledge base of ecological biology is fundamental and essential to understanding the needs and consequences of competitive fishing activity. These concerns are usually given low priority by “liberal” orthodox doctrine. Attempts at structuring “quotas” follow property rights thought, and have involved the essential creation of regulatory bodies.

    Moreover, Elinor Ostrom recently shared the Riksbank “Nobel” in economics, for her practical work on community ownership practices and environmental conservation. She is a member of the Intl Ecological Econ Society. She is in fact a political scientist practicing economic academia, and I don´t believe she follows an anti-regulatory doctrine.

    As for the legal issue, legal categories and deliberations involve diverse possiblities. Someone tried for manslaughter might have a lawyer who makes a self-defence argument. The famous case of OJ Simpson involved his trial for a double homicide, for which sloppy investigative work and persistent and alert defense arguments resulted in a jury verdict of innocent, despite strong evidence to the contrary. It´s a bit of a complex issue to raise here.

    As for steady stater´s taking on classical ideas where they are strongest, you are not well-informed, I think. While I would recommend Herman Daly´s 2004 work and J Harris´s 2000 works, Ken Christensen wrote a great piece back in 1991 that I would be glad to reference. As a practical example, consider “externalities.” These represent essential costs of real world functioning that are excluded from conventional doctrines, and have had to be reconsidered in a way that is still only indirect. Externalities? They are the reason UNEP, the IPCC, the 2005 Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, and the WWF´s Living Planet report are even more serious than Al Gore´s Inconvenient Truth suggests. But conventional economics still calls such concerns mere “externalities.”

    The UK´s Stern Report of 2006 represents a strong step in the right direction by the conventionally minded. The UK, thankfully, has overcome some of its other trends and embraced a Feed-In Tariff, a state regulatory incentive for residential renewable energy.
    That´s not a good sign for the doctrinaire orthodox thinkers, I submit to you.

  15. Philip says:

    @MarkR – some very thoughtful points there but I think one fundamental confusion is perhaps illustrated by the fact that Elinor Ostrom will be giving the IEA’s Hayek Memorial lecture in 2012. There are lots of debates to be had regarding the role of government in defining and enforcing property rights and where transactions costs might lead to there being limits to that approach but that is not the debate SSE proponents are engaging in.