Adam Smith Institute

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Not to be confused with the Smith Institute
Adam Smith Institute
Adam Smith Institute logo.png
Abbreviation ASI
Formation 1977
Type Free market public policy think tank
Headquarters 23 Great Smith Street, London, United Kingdom
Coordinates 51°29′52″N 0°07′46″W / 51.4979°N 0.1294°W / 51.4979; -0.1294Coordinates: 51°29′52″N 0°07′46″W / 51.4979°N 0.1294°W / 51.4979; -0.1294
Madsen Pirie
Eamonn Butler

The Adam Smith Institute, abbreviated to ASI, is a right-wing[1] public policy think tank based in the United Kingdom, named after the Scottish moral philosopher and classical economist Adam Smith. It advocates free market and classical liberal ideas, primarily via the formation of radical policy options with regard to Public Choice theory, which political decision makers seek to develop upon. The President of the ASI, Madsen Pirie, has sought to describe the activity of the organisation as "We propose things which people regard as being on the edge of lunacy. The next thing you know, they're on the edge of policy".[2]

The ASI formed the primary intellectual force behind privatisation of state-owned assets during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher,[3] and alongside the Centre for Policy Studies and Institute of Economic Affairs, advanced a Neoliberal approach toward public policy on privatisation, taxation, education, and healthcare.[4] A number of the policies presented by organisation were adopted by the administrations of John Major and Tony Blair, and members of the ASI have also advised non-UK governments.[5][6]

Beyond policy development, the organisation advocates free market ideas through the publication and distribution of literature, the promotion of UK Tax Freedom Day, the hosting of speaker events for students and young people, media appearances and blogging.



Madsen Pirie, President of the ASI, has been described as the leading architect of Margaret Thatcher's privatisation program.[7]

Dr. Madsen Pirie, and brothers Eamonn and Stuart Butler were students together at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.[8] Pirie left in 1974 to work for the Republican Study Committee in Washington DC, and then took up a professorship in Philosophy at Hillsdale College. He was joined there by Stuart Butler, while Eamonn Butler went to work with Edwin Feulner, who became co-founder and director of the free-market think tank The Heritage Foundation.

After their US experience, they returned to the UK in 1977 to found their own think tank, the Adam Smith Institute. After a year Stuart Butler returned to the US as Vice-President of the Heritage Foundation in charge of domestic policy, while his brother Eamonn remained with Madsen Pirie as co-directors of the Adam Smith Institute.

One of their St Andrews friends, Douglas Mason,[9] who had been active in the university's Conservative Association, did his most influential research and writing for the Institute. Mason became one of its regular authors.

The ASI's Omega Project (1981–83), led by Peter Young, produced a series of 19 papers shadowing each Department of State, and advocated such things as the compulsory contracting-out of most local services such as refuse collection, the replacement of much of the welfare state by private insurance, and further privatisation of public sector services and industries, including aspects of police services.[10][11][12] The Omega Project was very influential, and many of its recommendations were adopted as policy and enacted into legislation.

Unlike some think tanks, the Adam Smith Institute chose not to retain charitable status, but maintained the small Adam Smith Research Trust to fund mainstream academic educational projects.

Thatcher's inner circle[edit]

The Thatcher era saw the think tank movement come of age and achieve influence, and with the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), the ASI was one of three relied upon by the Thatcher government for policy.[6] Unlike the CPS, which had been established by Thatcher and Keith Joseph, and the IEA, which focused on more theoretical matters, the ASI was well-placed to produce bold and direct policies.[6] Despite this role, the Adam Smith Institute developed an iconoclastic reputation, cynical about politicians, but enthusiastic to engage with them.[6] The Institute's relationship with Thatcher was not without troubles. Although Madsen Pirie was the architect of much of the privatisation policy,[7] he had no emotional ties to Thatcher, nor did the ASI propose policies on a range of social issues, despite its Thatcherite reputation.[13] The ASI tended to be libertarian.

The ASI took the view that the market was "more genuinely democratic than the public sector, involving the decisions of far more individuals and at much more frequent intervals".[14] The Institute published Douglas Mason's recommendation that local government rates (the local government tax) should be replaced by a per-capita charge. A version of this was later implemented by the Conservative government, introducing the Community Charge in Scotland in 1989, and in England and Wales in 1990. It brought unpopularity for the Thatcher government and was seen by some as having weakened her political hand ahead of her departure from office, though her attitude to Europe was a more significant factor.

Other policy recommendations which Douglas Mason published with the ASI included the privatisation of the Royal Mail (The Last Post −1991); the introduction of charges in British public libraries (Ex Libris – 1986); the privatisation of the Forestry Commission;[15] the complete removal of arts subsidies (Expounding The Arts – 1987); and the abolition of restrictions on drinking (Time To Call Time – 1986).

After Thatcher[edit]

In November 1994, the Institute began a review of welfare reform, called 'Operation Underclass',[16] aimed at methods of creating jobs for the long-term unemployed.[17] Some elements of the programme were adopted by the government within months.[16]

The ASI, with its author Kenneth Irvine, pioneered the privatisation of British Rail with private companies competing for franchises on a separately owned national network (The Right Lines – 1987). This policy was enacted by John Major's government.

The ejection of the Conservative government in 1997 did not have as dramatic an effect on the ASI as some had anticipated. The Institute praised the government's welfare-to-work programmes, describing it as 'the most successful policy initiative of this century',.[18] The ASI publicly welcomed the news that Labour had implemented the long-held ASI aim of an independent Bank of England,[19] Madsen Pirie gave it a nine out of ten for performance.[20] Eamonn Butler has ascribed this flexibility to who is in power to their role not being 'to be political or shout slogans', but to be 'policy engineers'.[21]

The ASI then collaborated with the MORI organisation on a series of opinion polls to measure such things as the goals of young people and students, and public attitudes to state services.

International work[edit]

In 1992, the Institute founded a consulting company, Adam Smith International Ltd, which was "charged with overseeing the overseas work of the institute... [in] an attempt to capitalise on the growing international trend towards economic liberalization and marketization".[22] While Eamonn Butler and Madsen Pirie were, as of 1998, members of the management board of both organisations,[22] the management team of Adam Smith International and the Adam Smith Institute is now separate.[23]


Tax Freedom Day[edit]

The Adam Smith Institute publishes the British version of Tax Freedom Day, the day in the year when the average person has earned enough to pay his or her annual tax bill.[24] The Institute calculates the figure by expressing the government's take of the economy as a percentage of the year, including all forms of taxation, direct and indirect, national and local.[24] The ASI uses Tax Freedom Day to draw attention to UK tax rates and fiscal policy in a dramatic and readily understandable way.

The Next Generation[edit]

The Adam Smith Institute facilitates regular meetings of young people who have interests in free markets and libertarian ideas. These 16- to 30-year olds form a group called The Next Generation (TNG). MPs and prominent media figures are typical guest speakers (for 10-minute speeches) at monthly meetings of The Next Generation The Liberty League, an affiliated network for groups across the UK, was founded by members of the TNG Committee.


In January 2009 Foreign Policy and the University of Pennsylvania named the Adam Smith Institute among the top 10 think-tanks in the world outside of the US.[25] The Institute is highly influential in UK public policy, and was "a pioneer of privatisation"[26] in the UK and elsewhere. Early Institute papers proposed the outsourcing of local government services (1980), the fundamentals of the poll tax (1981–1985), and the deregulation and privatisation of transportation (1980). The privatisation of British Rail in 1997 was also based on a plan suggested by the Institute. Other influences include the UK's cutting of the highest rate of income tax from 83% to 40% in the late 1980s, and its liberalisation of alcohol licensing laws.

The Institute has released a series of Roadmap to Reform papers, calling for shifts in public policy in Health, Deregulation and Europe. In 2006, the Institute released a paper calling for a rethink of Britain's countryside policy.[27]

According to the 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report (Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania), ASI is ranked number 69 (of 150) of the "Top Think Tanks Worldwide".[28]

Public sector reform[edit]

Internal markets – ASI proposed that the National Health Service establish an internal market with hospitals buying the use of facilities from other districts and from the private sector. Internal markets are now NHS policy.

ASI also recommended an internal market system for UK schools that would have state funds to follow students to independently run academic institutions. This approach to school funding is now Coalition policy.

National government – ASI proposed that QUANGOs be reduced in number and subject to increased scrutiny. QUANGOs were subsequently cut by 20 percent and put under parliamentary review.[citation needed]

Local government – Following the Institute's call for the use of private businesses by local governments, many local services, such as waste collection and cleaning, were contracted out. Additionally, local governments are now required to solicit competitive bids for local services[citation needed]

Welfare – ASI called for a radical shake-up of welfare policy, which would make work requirements absolutely central to the benefits system. Many of ASI's proposals subsequently became Tory policy, and some even found favour among Labour MPs and Liberal-Democrats.

Health – ASI lobbied for a change in VAT regulations to facilitate the outsourcing of ancillary hospital services. The government now requires a solicitation of bids from private contractors for cleaning and catering services. VAT regulations have been modified to put in-house work and outside tenders on an equal basis. It is estimated that these actions save £100 million per annum.

Education – The Education Reform Act 1988 reflected many policy changes proposed by ASI including increasing representation of parents on state school governing boards, shifting control of state schools from the local authority to the board and head teachers, abolishing fixed school catchment areas.[29]

Transport – Urban and local bus services have been deregulated and the National Bus Company has been privatised into more than 60 companies following ASI's suggestion that the National Bus Company be broken up and urban and local bus services be opened to competition and choice.

Justice – In accordance with ASI's proposals, the government resolved to experiment with privately contracted prisons and electronic tracking tags for low-security prisoners.

Tax reform[edit]

Tax rates – As recommended by the Adam Smith Institute, the top tax rate was reduced from 60% to 40% in Margaret Thatcher's 1988 budget.

Personal allowance – Prior to the Exchequer's 2008 pre-budget report, ASI made a case for the personal income tax allowance to be raised to £12,000 (from the current £6,035 allowance) for all UK taxpayers. The policy was promoted as taking 7 million people out of the tax system, with low-income earners not paying tax at all, although in fact low earners were still subject to both employer and employee National Insurance, in addition to indirect tax such as VAT, council tax, and in reality, heavy tapering of tax credits and/or benefits such as housing and council tax benefit should also be borne in mind. Raising the allowance does of course benefit all income tax payers; in fact in cash terms those with incomes below £12,000 benefit less, with those earning less than £6036 not benefiting at all. Despite this, marketing the policy as taking the poor out of the tax system was generally accepted in media reporting as recently as the 2015 general election, with both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats claiming credit for implementing the generally well-received policy. The ASI calculated that this reform would be equivalent to giving the average worker an extra £1,730 per year in gross pay, making them £100 per month better off. The cost to the Exchequer would be £18.9 billion.

Flat tax – A 2005 paper by the Institute proposed a flat-rate income tax of 22% for UK taxpayers, with the above-referenced tax-free personal allowance of £12,000.[30] City AM editor Allister Heath said of this report, "rarely has a think-tank publication been this influential so quickly. Its arguments have been dissected by the UK Treasury, are well known among the Shadow Treasury Team, have had an influence on some parts of the Liberal Democrats and were even adopted by several minor political parties".[31] The ASI continues to campaign for a flat tax.



See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gilligan, Andrew (15 September 2012). "'Poverty barons' who make a fortune from taxpayer-funded aid budget". The Telegraph. Retrieved 12 January 2016. 
  2. ^ Rusbridger, Alan (22 December 1987). "Adam Smith Institute's sense and nonsense". The Guardian. p. 30. Retrieved 19 January 2010. 
  3. ^ "Private Ayes". The Dallas Morning News. 5 January 1986. p. 38. 
  4. ^ "Britain weighs pleas to cut capital-gains and inheritance taxes". The Wall Street Journal. 6 February 1989. 
  5. ^ "Menem asks Adam Smith Institute for privatisation advice". The Guardian. 13 November 1989. 
  6. ^ a b c d Denham, Andrew; Garnett, Mark (January 1999). "Influence without responsibility? Think-tanks in Britain". Parliamentary Affairs 51 (1): 46–57. doi:10.1093/pa/52.1.46. 
  7. ^ a b Brookes, Warren T. (4 May 1988). "Is Margaret Thatcher leading the way in education reform?". San Francisco Chronicle. 
  8. ^ Denham, Andrew and Garnett, Mark (1998). British Thinktanks and the Climate of Opinion, London: UCL Press, p. 155
  9. ^ Butler, Eamonn (14 December 2004). "Douglas Mason: local councillor known as the 'father of the poll tax'". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 January 2010. 
  10. ^ Kavanagh, Dennis (1987). Thatcherism and British politics: the end of consensus?, Oxford University Press, p. 88)
  11. ^ Denham and Garnett (1998), p. 157
  12. ^ South, Nigel (1988). Policing for profit: the private security sector, London: Sage Publishing, p. 153)
  13. ^ Pearce, Ed (19 April 1993). "The prophet of private profit – Dr Madsen Pirie". The Guardian. 
  14. ^ Denham and Garnett (1998), p. 158
  15. ^ Butler (2004)
  16. ^ a b "Replacing the welfare state". The Wall Street Journal. 16 February 1995. 
  17. ^ "Help for long-term unemployed urged". Financial Times. 7 November 1994. 
  18. ^ Atkinson, Mark (16 February 1998). "Rightwing think-tank applauds Blair on welfare-to-work". The Guardian. p. 3. 
  19. ^ Pirie, Madsen (15 June 1997). "Why Britain's best-known right-wing think tank is enjoying working with Tony Blair". Scotland on Sunday. p. 19. 
  20. ^ Campbell, Denis (15 June 1997). "Thatcherite guru gives Blair 9 out of 10 for performance". Scotland on Sunday. p. 1. 
  21. ^ Smith, David (1 May 1998). "Think tanks – who's hot (and who's not)". Management Today. 
  22. ^ a b Denham and Garnett (1998), p. 153
  23. ^
  24. ^ a b Hill, Debbie (17 May 1998). "147 days at work foots the tax bill". The Sunday Times. 
  25. ^
  26. ^ The Influence of the Adam Smith Institute, Philip Morris, c 1994
  27. ^ BBC News: 'Woods and homes' green belt call, BBC News, 17 April 2006
  28. ^ James G. McGann (Director) (4 February 2015). "2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report". Retrieved 14 February 2015.  Other "Top Think Tank" rankings include No. 3 (of 80) in Domestic Economic Policy, No. 5 (of 50) in International Economic Policy, No. 17 (of 60) for Best Use of Social Networks, No. 40 (of 60) of Think Tanks with the Best External Relations/Public Engagement Program, No. 24 (of 70) for the Most Significant Impact on Public Policy, and No. 12 (of 60) for Outstanding Policy-Oriented Public Programs.
  29. ^ Open Access for UK Schools: What Britain Can Learn from Swedish Education Reform
  30. ^ A Flat Tax for the UK – a Practical Reality
  31. ^ Flat Tax – Towards a British Model Alistair Heath, 2006 p.104


  • Denham, Andrew; Garnett, Mark (1998). British Think-tanks and the Climate of Opinion. London: UCL Press. ISBN 978-1-85728-497-3. 

External links[edit]