Fighting the war of ideas

The only problem with free-marketers, according to Leon M. Louw, is that they are lousy at marketing.

“The one thing socialists always do better than capitalists is sell themselves and their ideas,” said Mr. Louw, who runs the Free Market Foundation of Southern Africa in Sandton, South Africa. “The ivory-tower left, the antiglobalization crowd has always been better at networking, at promising big results, even when they never deliver.”

Networking was the order of the day when Mr. Louw and representatives from more than a dozen pro-market, pro-liberty think tanks from around the globe gathered in Washington last month.

All had been the recipients of awards and “action grants” from the Fairfax-based Atlas Economic Research Foundation, founded in 1981 to promote the work of fledgling global think tanks supporting private-property rights, limited government, the rule of law, and market economics.

Winners of the four major Templeton Freedom Prizes for Excellence in Promoting Liberty — for market-oriented poverty programs; for ethics and values; for social entrepreneurship; and for student outreach — received $10,000 awards, and second-place winners in each category received $5,000.

Among those honored this year: a pro-market think tank in Lithuania; an Ontario, Canada, institute promoting school-choice programs; a Mexican think tank that studies the economic costs of corruption; and a private research group in China that tracks deregulatory reforms adopted by the country’s provincial governments.

Alejandro A. Chafuen, president and chief executive officer at Atlas, noted that “more people have been lifted out of poverty in the last two decades in China and India than at any time in human history.”

“And it was the free market — not any government program — that was directly responsible,” he said.

Atlas works with about 300 think tanks in 67 countries, providing financial and administrative support to many of the research groups in their struggling early years.

A foundation established by British mutual-fund pioneer John Templeton helps fund the annual awards. Using private contributions and a matching grant from the foundation, the program plans to hand out about $1.25 million in grants and prizes from now to 2007.

Martin Chren, founder of the F.A. Hayek Foundation in Bratislava, Slovakia, said the recognition and the contacts he obtained through the Atlas program were invaluable as his institute pushed free-market policies in the years after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Mr. Chren worked not only with U.S. and Western European scholars, but also with new research institutes in other newly independent Eastern European countries.

“When we started in 1991, even the concept of private property was suspect for a lot of Slovakians,” Mr. Chren said. “It was a battle just to get people to even consider our ideas.”

Pro-market ideas — spurred in part by a visit from U.S. antitax crusader and publisher Steve Forbes — have triumphed spectacularly in Slovakia.

A reformist government has passed measures that American economic conservatives still only dream about, including a low, single tax rate; Chilean-style personal pension accounts in which workers can invest; and the complete elimination of estate taxes, gift taxes, and the double taxation of corporate dividends.

Low taxes and lower labor costs have made Slovakia a magnet for foreign investment in the region, Mr. Chren said.

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