When future scholars and historians look back at today’s world and determine why some countries advanced politically and economically
by Alejandro Chafuen
When future scholars and historians look back at today’s world and determine why some countries advanced politically and economically, while others stagnated or regressed, they will likely find a strong correlation between progress in a country and its tolerance of Western ideas. The polemicists are right: Ideas do have consequences.
It has been nearly 60 years since Richard M. Weaver’s landmark book, “Ideas Have Consequences,” was published, long enough for the title to become a cliche. Yet, from Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” to Adam Smith’s “Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” from the old and New Testament Bibles to the Koran, from the Great Society offerings of the Brookings Institution to the Reagan-era papers of the Heritage Foundation, ideas have shaped history — for better or worse.
Today’s world clearly reflects that. Throughout the developing world, where liberty is often tenuous at best, freedom in most cases has made its greatest gains in countries where Western ideas are allowed to flourish and compete. Conversely, freedom has made the fewest gains as a general rule in countries that are hostile to such ideas as private property rights, rule of law, free press, freedom of association and religion and other “radical” notions that serve as the basis of Western law, tradition and intellectual thought.
In short, wherever we find thriving organizations capable of producing the intellectual DNA necessary for positive change — the types of organizations Americans call think tanks — freedom has a strong chance of taking hold. Without such organizations, freedom is a long shot.
Although think tanks have existed in the United States for a century or so, and have existed in some developing countries for decades, there were relatively few such institutions globally until the 1990s. Today, our organization, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, works with some five dozen Western-style think tanks in the Asia-Pacific region, more than seven dozen in Russia and Eastern and Central Europe, and more than 100 in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Where think tanks exist and, better yet, thrive, there is clear evidence of progress. Where such institutions are harassed or forbidden, we see far less progress. The data confirm this.
We recently compared civil liberties and economic and political freedoms in countries with independent think tanks and those without such institutions. We used three widely respected global indices for the comparisons: the Freedom House “Global Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties,” the “Economic Freedom of the World” survey published by the Fraser Institute, Vancouver, Canada, and the “Index of Economic Freedom,” co-published by the Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation.
The findings clearly illustrate the power of ideas.
For example, the two regions with the worst scores on all three indices, Africa and Middle East, also the have the fewest ideas institutions. Just seven of 42 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and seven of 19 countries in North Africa, the Middle East and Persian Gulf boast such organizations. The vast majority of the countries in the two regions have none.
By comparison, 20 of 26 Latin American countries, 19 of 30 Asian countries, and 19 former Soviet Bloc countries in Central and Eastern Europe (including Russia) boast Western-style think tanks.
When we compared the country rankings on the Freedom House survey of political rights and civil liberties with the Atlas think tank matrix, we found the countries with the worst records also, as a general rule, had the fewest organizations supporting Western ideas.
Thirty-three of the 45 countries with the lowest rating on the 2006 Freedom House “Global Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties” had no independent think tanks, we found. Among the worst of the worst, the eight countries scoring at the bottom in both civil liberties and political freedom — Burma, Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — none had freely operating think tanks.
Countries that obstruct economic freedom also appear hostile to such institutions. Our survey similarly found 33 of the 45 countries with the lowest ratings on the 2006 “Index of Economic Freedom” also had no independent policy organizations. Among the 12 countries with the worst scores on the “Index” — Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Haiti, Iran, Laos, Libya, Nigeria, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe — only three (Belarus, Haiti and Venezuela) had Western-style think tanks. Similarly, just 19 of the 42 countries with the worst scores on the Fraser Institute survey had such organizations.
While repressive countries may permit think tanks and policy organizations to exist, many of them harass, intimidate and even threaten the leaders of these organizations. In Belarus, the executive director of the Mises Scientific Research Center, Jaroslav Romanchuk, has repeatedly had his computer confiscated by the government and now operates mostly “under the radar” for fear of possible reprisals. In Venezuela, travel visas for long-time think tank executives — such as Aurelio Concheso, president of the Center for the Dissemination of Economic Knowledge (CEDICE) in Caracas — routinely arrive at the last minute or are denied, making it almost impossible for him to leave the country.
If there is good news, it is that independent thinking and Western ideals continue to take root despite the hardships their advocates often face. There are many more intellectual freedom-fighters around the world today than there were a decade ago. And, we hope, there will be many more still a decade from now.
In China, for example, intellectual entrepreneurs have established at least six independent think tanks and are vigorously promoting economic and political liberalization. In Argentina, the country of my birth, there are 30 freedom-oriented think tanks. There are eight in the Czech Republic and six in Serbia and Montenegro. Even in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, where anti-American sentiments run high, there are five — albeit struggling — institutions trying to keep the flame of liberty alive.
Throughout history, ideas have usually come first; political action has followed. If the United States and the West want to encourage freedom, they must support and encourage the free flow of ideas and the institutions that make it possible.