Ideas are America’s best product

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Heritage News Forum – Edwin Feulner

America exports thousands of things, from ballpoint pens to Boeing 747s. But the most important thing we export isn’t a product or service. It’s our ideas.

“I’ve seen freedom work right here in our own country,” President Bush said during a recent news conference. “And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom.”

He’s right, and one way Americans are spreading freedom is by helping other countries create freedom-oriented think tanks.

Though relatively rare abroad, public policy research institutes – commonly called think tanks- have a long and distinguished history here. The first, the Brookings Institution, was founded back in 1916. By the 1970s, though, most of the “idea factories” working in D.C. were producing the some type of policy recommendations, all firmly rooted at the liberal end of the political spectrum.

To introduce long-overdue diversity into the marketplace of ideas, The Heritage Foundation was founded more than 30 years ago. Our mission then, as now: to promote free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense. And we’ve made remarkable progress.

Here at home, Heritage helped convince our government to cut taxes, launch a missile defense program and reform the welfare system. Around the world, Heritage research highlighted the evils of communism, helping keep pressure on the Soviet Union until it collapsed and took the Iron Curtain down with it. At the same time, we helped persuade other governments, including the United Kingdom and Estonia, to privatize state-owned industries, thus increasing private property and economic freedom.

But there’s strength in numbers, which is why Heritage is happy to work directly with hundreds of conservative think tanks and other organizations, active at the federal, state and local levels – as well as internationally. And one of those groups, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, is working especially hard to increase the flow of conservative ideas overseas.

Atlas serves as a mentor and networking hub for about 200 global think tanks. All of them are working to promote private property rights, limited government, a clear rule of law and free-market economics. And many are doing so in countries that are only just beginning to enjoy the fruits of freedom.

This year, Atlas presented 15 Templeton award grants (named for Sir John Templeton, a strong proponent of international economic growth through freedom and investment) to deserving foreign think tanks. Among the winners were institutions based in Lithuania, the Slovak Republic and Chile.

It’s no coincidence that those countries have made big strides recently in the “Index of Economic Freedom,” published each year by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal. In the 10 years we’ve been publishing the Index, it’s become clear that economic freedom makes economic growth possible.

Lithuania’s economy is now ranked “mostly free,” and it’s become one to the economic leaders among the post-Soviet countries. In the Slovak Republic, since 1998 a reform-minded government has lifted price controls, cut taxes, accelerated privatization, and begun restructuring its banking sector. Its economy is now also “mostly free.”

Meanwhile, Chile has been a paragon of economic reform since the beginning of the1980s and remains a “free” economy, ranked number 13 overall in our Index. Still, there’s been some backsliding recently, with ill-advised government “reforms” that have raised the cost of investment and cast doubt on whether Chile will remain a model of reform for the rest of Latin America.

That’s why a think tank such as the Instituto Liberatad y Desarrollo in Santiago has such an important role to play. It must keep banging the drum for economic freedom, so Chile can continue to enjoy the success it has had in recent years.

No, you won’t find our most important export – ideas – listed on the New York Stock Exchange. But thanks to a burgeoning think tank network, freedom-based ideas are spreading far and wide, and making the world a better place.

EDWIN FEULNER is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based, public policy research institute.