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Interview: Brad Lips, CEO of Atlas Network

“Any coherent system of morality begins with an appreciation of human dignity and wanting people to have as many choices to take control of their lives as possible.”

On July 28th Merion West‘s Henri Mattila was joined by Brad Lips, the chief executive officer of Atlas Network, an organization that partners with over 500 think tanks across the world to promote individual and economic freedom. The conversation included a discussion on the merits of what Mr. Lips refers to as a “freedom philosophy,” his thoughts on the current state of liberty in the United States and abroad, as well as an exploration of the work Atlas Network is doing in Ukraine amid the war there.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Could you begin by telling me about your background and how you ended up at Atlas Network?

I grew up in the Chicago area, wound up doing high school in Connecticut, and then my undergrad at Princeton. I then quickly went off to get my MBA at Emory University in Atlanta. And I was really fortunate to wind up with a great job on Wall Street for a couple of years in the mid-1990s. I felt like I learned so much in terms of practical skills and just appreciation for how the world works in those two years, while I was working in an equity research department at Smith Barney. But, at the same time, I found that I really cared about the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal, more than the finance page, which is what I was supposed to be studying. And I had a little bit of familiarity with the world of nonprofit think tanks: I had an uncle who exposed me to some of the work that comes out of pro-liberty think tanks. So I decided to consider a career change while I was still young enough to do something irresponsible. I took a massive pay cut to enter the liberty movement from where I’d been on Wall Street, and I really never looked back.

I met the person running Atlas Network, who advised me that there are a lot of people in D.C. that want to be in the op-ed pages, that want to be talking heads on the Sunday shows; and for our cause—if you think of the people that care about individual freedom and free enterprise—where we tend to be weak is in implementing those ideas. So Atlas Network was established to help make sure that we’re not depending on individual scholars to come up with all the insights—and then figure out how to implement them. People like Milton Friedman made great contributions to our understanding of how the world of economics works. But the world of nonprofit think tanks has the potential to keep these ideas in the headlines, make them accessible to policymakers, try to build the relationships so that they become more practical for actual implementation. The person running Atlas said to me, “You bothered to get an MBA, Brad. There aren’t too many of you guys who wander down here to DC. Why don’t you experiment with what it’d be like to work for Atlas?”

And now it’s been 23 years, and I’m still here.

You touched on Atlas Network’s focus. How does Atlas Network differ from other like-minded think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute?

We think of the folks at the American Enterprise Institute as kindred spirits. Atlas Network was founded by a British gentleman who had some luck with his first think tank back in the 1950s. It was called the Institute of Economic Affairs; and, for a number of years, it was viewed as this quixotic, fringy experiment that was full of all sorts of old-fashioned thinking. But after socialism—which was the path that Britain was on in the 1960s and 1970s—it crashed and burned. And people were looking for answers. Margaret Thatcher was elected, and she said these are the ideas that I’m campaigning on: These are the ideas I’m going to implement. It was the folks at the Institute of Economic Affairs that had provided this intellectual ammunition. So people started to realize that think tanks could play a really underappreciated role in changing the intellectual direction of a country, though it certainly takes a lot of patience, and there are no shortcuts.

But for that reason, Anthony Fisher, the founder of that British think tank, decided to create Atlas Network to replicate the experiment. So organizations like AEI, we would consider them as partner organizations, where we would invite them to our trainings and so forth. We have 500 different partners around the world that are all part of our community. So Atlas Network itself is not so much a public policy think tank as it is a service organization for these think tanks that have really robust debates on a lot of issues; but at their core, they would describe themselves as working on behalf of individual rights, limited government, free enterprise, and those classically liberal principles.

I see. So there are lots of different nodes in this international network of think tanks that aren’t completely ideologically uniform, but they still retain the unifying spirit of being what you could call classically liberal-oriented in policy outlook. And Atlas Network is a central node within this network, and it provides services and replicates the best practices from these different organizations that are trying to achieve similar ends in their respective countries.

Exactly. So all these partners of ours are independent. Sometimes they describe themselves as think tanks, sometimes just as educational organizations; but they all share at least elements of the same freedom philosophy. And we think that they get better together. And that’s really what we exist to make happen.

On the point about freedom philosophy, can you explain—of all the reasons to run a mission-oriented organization, such as providing education, healthcare, or building roads—why is promoting individual freedom and other liberties worthy of pursuit?

I think that individual freedom is really the core value that unlocks all these other really important endeavors. When I consider why individual freedom is important to me, I just start thinking that any coherent system of morality begins with an appreciation of human dignity and wanting people to have as many choices to take control of their lives as possible. But even more than a moral end in itself, we’ve seen that societies flourish best when you have high degrees of economic freedom, political freedom—there are clear associations across the world between where you see prosperity and civility and where you don’t.

The places where human freedoms are not appreciated tend to be the worst places in the world. So, I think that if you care about these more specific ends—whether it’s a cleaner environment, or a more robust, innovative economy, or a better education system—one of the common ingredients ought to be looking for ways to harness what I would call the voluntary sectors of society: individuals working together, whether it’s in civil society or through the market. And it would be minimizing the amount of top-down government-led control because I think we see all over the world lots of unintended consequences that have been quite negative, where governments grow their own powers and assert more control over society.

The 2012 book by economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson Why Nations Fail maintained as one of its central conclusions that a respect for private property rights is an essential ingredient for the prosperity of a nation. It’s not necessarily the only ingredient, but it’s the essential one. The way I see it, there are multiple different types of freedoms, from political ones like the right to free speech, and economic liberties, such as property rights. Is there a type of freedom that you hold in the highest regard?

It’s an interesting question. I don’t know whether I’d rank them on a scale. But I’d say the place where Atlas Network has a comparative advantage is with economic freedoms. We do work with people who, for different reasons, will prioritize freedom of speech, and freedom of religion, that they may have other more pressing challenges that they more highly prioritized in their own countries. But one of the common denominators that our community can usually agree on is some of these fundamental economic ideas about the danger of growing the state and the importance, as you say, of property of private property rights, and a predictable rule of law, and so on. So that’s sort of a key focus of that lessons, we found it to be pretty strategic across the board.

Since you deal a lot with various think tanks, I’m sure you’re pretty plugged in on what’s going on around the world in terms of sentiment and overall direction where different countries are headed. Have you found any general trends as to the direction where countries have been heading over the last 10 years or so? Are there cases that give you a case for optimism, and, on the flip side, where you think things are going in the wrong direction?

Yeah, it’s always tough to generalize across the world because it’s a glass half full or glass half empty situation, depending on what you want to look at. But I would say that the trend line over recent years has been more worrisome than in my working lifetime. And I think that was exacerbated by COVID and all of its restrictions, which certainly were prudent to a point; but also served as an opportunity for governments to seize emergency powers, and they don’t relinquish emergency powers very easily. So, all across the world we’re seeing countries trying to restore trust in individual freedom and free markets. And this is also happening in the wake of a populist wave, that has been growing since 2014-2015. First with Modi being elected in India, or perhaps you’d go back to Erdoğan in Turkey before that.

But, with Trump and Brexit we have this phenomenon where one of the new dividing lines of politics has become not so much about social values—which was one of the major separating points for a while—but about much more tribal factors: the elites in the big cities, then the rest of us, typically in rural communities, who feel left out. That dynamic, I think, has really complicated things because I can be very sympathetic to the populist critique of political elites who too often have been very corrupt, and who have really failed in preserving some of the institutions that are important for liberal societies. At the same time, the populists themselves don’t represent a limited government philosophy; so, those of us who consider themselves classical liberal, feel a little bit marginalized in this political moment. But we do find some hope, in the way the pendulum always swings back. And right now the pendulum has swung so far towards near authoritarianism, that there’s reason to believe countries that have been taken by left-wing socialists are feeling the pain of some of those bad policies, and that there could be a restoration of what I would consider more common sense policies that are geared towards individual liberty and economic opportunity.

So, I’m slightly hopeful that a change is coming, and to answer your question about whether there rays of hope, one of the continents where a lot of hope has been extinguished is in Latin America. If Chile, for a long time, was this paragon of economic freedom, it was always complicated to tell that story because it was a dictator, who violated human rights, that had brought in some free-market economists back in the 1970s. So, it’s always tough to explain that we liked the policies, but we didn’t necessarily like how they got there. But Chile had gone from being one of the poorest countries in Latin America to becoming the richest, on a per capita basis.

Now it has reversed, and right now it’s considering a constitution that some of my colleagues say would just wipe out the gains that the country has made over these decades. It’s worrisome when you see trends like that, and you start looking at countries like Uruguay—small examples where they seem to be moving in a real positive direction, and you start to root for these counter-examples where we do see some responsible governance that is skeptical of growing government, skeptical of populist rhetoric—and hope they flourish.

I’m glad you touched on the point about the recent wave of populism in the United States and globally. So it sounds like you have empathy for the people driving this wave, which is mostly a phenomenon of right-wing populism, which is in itself interesting because for a long time, there was this fusion of cultural conservatives with the more free-market-oriented folks, and they allied themselves together under the banner of the Republican Party. But in recent years, we’ve seen a little bit of a shift happen. And as you said, it’s made things more complicated because I don’t know that the conservative base is unified around classical liberal ideas any longer the way they used to be. In fact, words like globalization, which 10 years ago was more or less synonymous with the Republican Party, is now a word of disparagement. Do you have any evidence or examples that make you think that the tide is going to turn?

It’s certainly a difficult one, and I hate making prognostications that I feel half-hearted about. I do take some consolation in really believing that the Tea Party movement of twelve years ago was, at its core, a limited government cause, and I believe it was really unfairly maligned. That was a tragedy—that people didn’t take its intentions on its face. The fact that it was questioning the policies of our first African American president, made it very easy to tar as racist, something that was not, in any way, racist. That said, I think it’s clear that Donald Trump’s genius was to recognize there was this anger still in the ranks of many American conservatives. They’d felt let down by the Republican Party, and they would rally to someone who would just try to punch the other guys in the face, basically.

That explained a lot of the popularity that he gained, and, all the sudden, people that had been in favor of limited government were willing to ally with someone who was an economic nationalist—the opposite of what many of us in the classical liberal movement believe—simply because he could play the media dynamics better than others in the Republican Party. I think that’s left the Republican Party in an interesting spot, a crossroads about where it goes from here. There’s a part of me that believes that it’s still in the DNA of the country, that there’s a lot of sympathy for the limited government philosophy. But it’s really unclear where the political leadership is going to come from that will tap into that because it’s been pretty absent over the last six or seven years.

As much as I love talking about domestic policy, let me take a step back away from America and turn to Europe. What kind of work is Atlas Network doing in Ukraine in light of the war?

This is, in my mind, really interesting because in Ukraine, eight years ago, we really had no partners. Today, we have about ten, all of whom we are quite proud of, and believe they’ve made some important strides in the direction of economic liberty. One of the big accomplishments of recent years was a policy success that restored private property rights to Ukrainian farmers that had been denied them since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They had the property rights in name, but they were forbidden from actually selling that property. So, it was hallowing out what it means to be a property owner if you can’t actually liquidate your investment. That was an example of one of the things that our Ukrainian partners worked long and hard to achieve, and, of course, that’s the kind of thing that Atlas Network is geared to try to support and, and help build momentum towards.

Obviously, priorities have changed a lot over the last few months, as the war has been brought to Ukraine by Putin. When the war started, we convened a webinar with some of our partners, an audience of Atlas Network donors, and other sympathetic people; and there was immediate interest in trying to create a fund so that these organizations could persist after the war—whenever that happens—with the hope that as the Ukrainian people have come to identify more with freedom, there would be an opportunity to build back a freer, less corrupt Ukraine than existed in the past. The thing that’s been interesting, though, is that a lot of our partners have pivoted during the war to address humanitarian needs that they see in their backyards. And we’ve been able to use a good portion of the funds that we’ve raised to do humanitarian work in a way that was never anticipated at our founding.

To me, it’s interesting that a network that was built for a totally different purpose has now been able to repurpose itself for the delivery of surgical humanitarian needs. We’re obviously not the Red Cross, they can do things at scale for millions of refugees on the borders. But we’re doing things that other humanitarian organizations can’t do at scale, which is learn what specific drugs are missing at specific hospitals deep in Ukraine. It’s really through our networks of friends inside Ukraine, and out, that we’ve been able to source and buy things that are needed, then get them transported across borders inside Ukraine. It’s been wonderful to feel like we’re working with Atlas Network donors to follow the direction of our partners on the ground, whom we trust, to address really specific needs that can save lives. So, that’s been an interesting feature of 2022, to discover how the loose bonds of friendship that have built up through years of working together on policy reform topics, can be repurposed during an emergency to do something that feels really special.

I’ll have to take back my original comment which insinuated that Atlas Network only deals in abstract concepts like freedom and not material problems. Are the groups sending resources directly to Atlas Network to distribute or are they sending them directly to the Ukrainian government?

In some cases, they’re doing that on their own, and in other cases, they’re working with us to procure the goods that are needed and to do the transportation into Ukraine. My colleague, Tom Palmer, set up shop for a couple of months in Warsaw, to really get this operation going. And Tom personally went back and forth across the border, eight or nine times to transport medical goods and satellite phones that couldn’t be interrupted when the cell networks went out and so on. So, we were trying to do some of the coordination there, which involves the think tanks themselves, and relying on the funding of some of our donors—mostly in the U.S., but also in parts of Europe—that trusted us to be responsible stewards of those funds, and make sure they’re used effectively.

I would not have guessed that you’re doing this type of work, but it’s great to hear. It was a pleasure to speak with you today, and maybe we can do this again sometime.

Likewise, and thank you for having me.

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