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THE FREE-MARKET AL-QAEDA: Neoliberal Think Tanks and the Harm They Do

by Richard W. Behan

The ‘neoliberal’ conviction is held so strongly by twelve right-wing philanthropic foundations that starting in the 1960s they set out in concert to overturn a century’s accumulation of progressive public policy.
The things we hold and share in common—our culture and public knowledge; public services; public spaces; public lands—are the things that define us as the American people.

Slowly, silently, but deliberately, they are becoming private assets and services, private spaces, and proprietary knowledge, to be turned not to public benefit but to corporate profit. Much that was once public and free has been captured and commercialized, turning the vibrant body politic increasingly into a mundane body economic.

This is not happening by chance. It results from a small group of “free-market” ideologues who consciously set out 40 years ago to achieve precisely this state of affairs, investing hundreds of millions of dollars to advance their ideology.

Known today as “neoliberalism,” it is now global in its reach, assaulting in like manner societies around the world. We have on our hands a worldly, Free-Market Al-Qaeda, indulging in violence that is neither physical nor as spectacular as that of its fanatically religious counterpart, but it may be far more consequential.

Dating at least to the publication of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom in 1962, a messianic conviction has taken hold in some quarters that governments suppress individual freedom and markets maximize it. The idea dates from the late 1800s, and that’s why the movement to advance it is known as neoliberalism—but the referent word here is “liberty” (as in “libertarian”). Neoliberalism has nothing to do with progressive political thinking: it is archconservative to the core.

The conviction is held so strongly by 12 right-wing philanthropic foundations that they set out in the 1960’s and in concert to overturn a century’s accumulation of progressive public policy. Convinced the nation was drifting into socialism, they sought wherever possible to replace government mechanisms of “command and control” with “market solutions.”

The foundations are the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Carthage Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, the Charles G. Koch, David H. Koch and Claude R. Lambe charitable foundations, the Phillip M. McKenna Foundation, the JM Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Henry Salvatori Foundation, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.*

In a beautifully orchestrated program, these foundations—we could call them the Diligent Dozen—spent hundreds of millions of dollars to advance the neoliberal agenda, creating what has been called a “hegemony of market theology.”

By the logic of the Political Economy Research Center, public libraries ‘lose money,’ too—and so for that matter does the Department of Defense.

How successful have they been? The most conspicuous and powerful beneficiaries of this effort are the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute, all in the nation’s capital, and all funded by the Diligent Dozen—since 1985 alone, with more than $88 million. These three think tanks have crafted or influenced virtually the entire programs of both domestic and foreign policy for the George W. Bush administration.

President Bush’s brother, Jeb, serves on the Board of Trustees of the Heritage Foundation. Vice President Cheney’s wife, Dr. Lynn Cheney, is a senior staffer at the American Enterprise Institute, and twenty other AEI staffers now serve in the Bush administration. The Cato Institute, the champion of privatizing Social Security, was proud to include on its board of directors Mr. Kenneth Lay, the personal and corporate patron of Governor and President Bush, and the sometime CEO of Enron.

Across the country are hundreds of other neoliberal organizations, a comprehensive interlocking network, funded by the Diligent Dozen. They focus on a wide range of policy matters, including the federal lands.

The American Recreation Coalition, apparently, provided the lobbying muscle for the controversial Recreation Fee Demonstration Program in 1996, but the ideology and a continued trumpeting of support come straight out of the Diligent Dozen—and in particular, two organizations in its neoliberal network far from Washington DC.

One of these, The Thoreau Institute, directed by Mr. Randal O’Toole, has received more than $200,000 from three of the foundations since 1997. For years Mr. O’Toole has been preaching the theology of the market, sermonizing rhapsodically about the virtue of recreation user fees on the federal lands.

The other organization, funded by nine of the Diligent Dozen, is the Political Economy Research Center of Bozeman, Montana. It has been granted, since 1985, more than $4 million. The champion of “free market environmentalism,” this is the group that aggressively advocates privatizing the federal lands—for the bizarre and absurd reason that they “lose money.”

The various receipts collected do indeed fall short of annual appropriations, as PERC claims. However, that can be seen as “losing money” only by assigning a profit objective for the federal lands, and then doing some Arthur Anderson bookkeeping. (In this case, failing to account for externalized benefits.)

Since Yellowstone National Park was created 131 years ago, the statutory objectives for the federal lands have been exactly otherwise than profit, and for appropriations to be unmatched by income is fully anticipated in any public enterprise. By the logic of the Political Economy Research Center, public libraries “lose money,” too—and so for that matter does the Department of Defense.

Assets enjoyed in common are the essence of community, whether we speak of a public library, a state university, a community theater group, or the national parks. When such things are privatized, corporate commerce gains and community is diminished.

Mr. Terry Anderson, PERC’s director and co-author of its privatization report, “How and Why to Privatize the Federal Lands,” seems unable to comprehend federal lands as anything but commercial enterprises that should turn a profit. This is not simple myopia, and it is not peculiar to Mr. Anderson.

Mr. Anderson has offered on public lands to members of the Bush Administration, where his urge to privatize the parks is warmly appreciated. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton reads from the same neoliberal page as Mr. Anderson. She has undertaken what appears to be an incremental privatization of the National Park Service, beginning with its personnel. She proposes to eliminate almost three-fourths of the full-time positions in the Park Service, shifting them to the private sector.

Neoliberalism either doesn’t see or doesn’t care that “marketizing” and privatizing means corporatizing. Common property becomes not just private, but corporate property. And deregulation favors corporate interests by definition. So the policy tools of neoliberalism encourage and expand the corporate domination of markets, and there is no better example of the result than the social disaster created by Enron.

The fundamental premise of neoliberalism is that free markets ensure efficiency in resource allocation and management. But the “free market” so cherished by neoliberals and so conceptualized by Adam Smith 200 years ago has long since vanished. Markets are no longer driven by the free bargaining of willing participants, but by policy: frequently by public policy achieved through corporate lobbying, and always by corporate policy, if only in administered prices. Only the truly devout or the tragically deluded will deny the reality of corporate-dominated markets—which have themselves become mechanisms of “command and control.”

Neoliberalism is the positivist force pushing the market into every sphere of public agency and concern. And by no means is it limited to the United States. Susan George’s A Short History of Neoliberalism describes how neoliberalism has in fact become global[2], so to characterize it as a secular Al-Qaeda is not to exaggerate.

Neoliberalism either doesn’t see or doesn’t care that marketizing’ and privatizing means corporatizing. Common property becomes not just private, but corporate property.

Al-Qaeda is an international sect of religious fanatics bringing ‘enlightenment’ to the infidels, and doing violence routinely in the name of righteous ideology.

Neoliberalism encompasses an international sect of ideological fanatics, too. The success of the 12 US foundations was matched in the United Kingdom by the Adam Smith Institute, and privatization, deregulation, and the manic stimulation of global “free trade” are pursued, thanks in large part to strongarming from the IMF and World Bank, in neoliberal governments around the world. Arundhati Roy describes, in her graceful book, Power and Politics, the socially disastrous results in India.

Neoliberalism, too, does routine violence in the name of righteous ideology, but not to buildings, ships, or airplanes. Neoliberalism does violence to public life, to “publicness.”

Publicness takes many forms. Community is one. Assets enjoyed in common are the essence of community, whether we speak of a public library, a state university, a community theater group, or the national parks. When such things are privatized, corporate commerce gains and community is diminished.

Democracy is another, perhaps ultimate, form of publicness. As the empowerment of people to govern themselves freely, as they and they alone see fit, it should be sacrosanct. It is not.

Much has been written about the corporate purchase of the U.S. government with campaign contributions. Democracy is under corporate assault, and everywhere the attack draws strength from neoliberal dogma and initiatives.

These initiatives—marketizing, privatizing, deregulating—are not as sudden, dramatic, and terrifying as airplanes crashing into buildings, but over time the violence they do is far greater—to the commons, to community, to democracy.

* See Covington, Sally, “How Conservative Philanthropies and Think Tanks Transform US Policy,” Covert Action Quarterly, Issue #63, Winter, 1998. See also the website of Mediatransparency:

This essay, published here with permission of the author, was prepared for the 2003 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference, University of Oregon School of Law, March 6-9, 2003. Richard W. Behan’s current book is Plundered Promise: Capitalism, Politics, and the Fate of the Federal Lands (Island Press, 2001). His forthcoming book is Degenerate Democracy: A Primer on the Corporate Seizure of America’s Agenda.

Richard Behan holds a Ph.D. in Wildland Resource Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and for 12 years taught natural resource policy at the University of Montana.

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This story was published on June 4, 2003.
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