The Top Free-Market Institutes: 2014 Rankings

First Published: 2015-01-23

First published at…

The 2014 think tank rankings are out. Thousands of policy experts voted for their favorite groups. Over 6,600 groups were listed and less than 300 qualified among the top. Free-market think tanks again got a share of the vote.

Cato was ranked higher among U.S. free-market think tanks, just before the completion of the rankings. But, when adding all areas and topics ranked by the 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index GGTTIHeritage came on top with 21 mentions, followed by Cato 20, and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) with 16. Outside the United States, the Fraser Institute (Canada) is again the leader with 18 mentions, followed by Libertad y Desarrollo, in Chile, with 13.

For some analysts free-market think tanks have been a key instrument of the “Masters of the Universe" (those who want to impose their views). Other see think tanks occupying such a unique place in society that their influence can’t be neglected. The 2014 GGTTI provides a picture of think tanks around the globe and tries to stay above ideological disputes. It includes abundant material to continue the discussion about the forces that try to influence and determine public policy.

The index, compiled by Dr. James McGann at the University of Pennsylvania, is a collaborative effort. Three thousand plus scholars, journalists, policymakers, directors and donors, from around the world helped select and vote for their favorite—and most effective— organizations. In addition, over 1,950 area and regional specialists provided valuable insights and assistance. This year there were 49 categories.

Brookings again won the main award. Some of its work, like their Latin American research which is handled mostly by CERES in Uruguay, can qualify as pro free-market. Yet Brookings prefers to be seen as neutral. This article will be similar to my 2014, and 2013 versions and will only list think tanks that have missions that focus on the promotion and understanding of the benefits of free enterprise and the market process.

Last year the independence of Brookings was called into question as it was revealed that it was receiving considerable sums from foreign government sources. The criticism did not lower their rank. A large number of foreign think tanks also get support from the U.S. government. So, the attacks did not achieve much traction. The U.S. government is not alone, several European countries provide money to foundations which, in turn, conduct programs that benefit foreign think tanks. Free-market think tanks are also beneficiaries of these funds.

I mentioned last year that other organizations have tried to develop competing indices, such as the Center for Global Development. But those efforts also had their weaknesses, and have not been continued.

Although the rankings get most of the media attention, some of the best aspects of this publication appear in the introductory chapters. This time it focuses on an analysis of global trends and new challenges for think tank. It should be mandatory reading for all those interested in the work of think tanks, which means everyone interested in public policy. The table below lists the main points.

Highlights of the 2014 ranking

After the Fraser Institute and Libertad y Desarrollo, the foreign think tanks with more mentions are: CIDAC, Mexico (11), IMANI, Ghana (10), and the Centro de Divulgación del Conocimiento Económico (CEDICE), in Venezuela (9).

Cato (16th), Heritage (17th), Fraser (19th) and AEI (24th), ranked very close in the overall index. If we factor their rankings per budget, Fraser would win hands down. With $10 million in income, Fraser is roughly 1/3 the size of Cato and 1/8 of Heritage.

Free-market think tanks, conservative, libertarian, and classical liberal all scored very well in social policy research and advocacy. Fraser, Cato, Acton, AEI, and Heritage scored closed to the top. Outside North America, Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress and Civitas in the U.K., were the top scorers among free-market groups.

An increasing number of free-market think tanks are conducting advocacy campaigns. At least 12 out of 75 scored well, this time with Heritage ahead of its peers. With most organizations competing to have the best conference, the rankings list the Mont Pelerin Society meetings on top, followed by the Acton Institute (with its Acton University) and then the Atlas Network (which hosts a well-attended Liberty Forum). Atlas also scored on top as the best managed free-market think tank.

Free-Market Think Tanks absent in key areas

As in previous years, there are very few free-market thinks appearing in the rankings in areas of extreme importance. On environment, only two (out of 70), PERC and CEI. On energy one (out of 20), AEI, and on education, only three (out of 50), and a similar weak performance on think tanks with some focus in science and policy.

There is a growing number of university-based think tanks and centers, but I was able to find only two who are overtly pro free-market, the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University, and the Mercatus Center, at George Mason University. This despite that according to Dr. McGann, over half of the think tanks in the world are affiliated with a university. In future rankings, I expect that we will see additional free-market centers, such as the Free-Market Institute at Texas Tech University, or the Navarra Center for International Development, appearing in this field of the Go To Ranking.

When I began working for Antony Fisher in 1985, the Institute of Economic Affairs, IEA (U.K.), which he founded, was the leading think tank (in 2014 IEA had 4 mentions, up from 1 in 2012) and ILD (Perú) was the rising star (2 mentions, same as 2012). Fisher listed 27 free-market think tanks in his Atlas network. They had a combined budget of $7 million. As the GGTTI shows, much has changed. Free-market think tanks approach the 500 mark, and I estimate the combined budget at close to $1 billion. To influence their respective civil societies they will have to continue enhancing their operations and adapt to the market. Indices such as the GGTTI will have to be perfected and those of us in the industry should not only learn from it but also provide advice, constructive criticism, and collaboration.

Anaïs Reig conducted research for this article


Alex serves as President of Atlas Network and has previously served as President and CEO from 1991-2009, and was elected to its Board in 2009. He is also the president and founder of the Hispanic American Center of Economic Research and is the author of Faith and Liberty. He serves on the boards of the Chase Foundation, the Acton Institute, and the Fraser Institute. A graduate of the Argentina Catholic University, he was Associate Professor at the Argentine Catholic University, University of Buenos Aires, and The Hispanic American University, CA. He is a Trustee for Grove City College, PA. In 2010, Atlas Network recognized Alex for 25 years of service.

Dr. Chafuen became President of Atlas Network in 1991, and was elected to its Board in 2009. He joined Atlas Network in 1985 and worked alongside Sir Antony Fisher. He is a trustee of Grove City College, and member of its Governance and Development Committees. He has been a member of the Mont Pelerin Society since 1980 and a member of its membership committee. Dr. Chafuen serves on several boards including the Chase Foundation of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, the Fraser Institute (Canada), and is Honorary Active Member and member of the Member’s Committee of the John Templeton Foundation, the World Charity Foundation and The Templeton Religion Trust. He is member of the board of advisors of The Philanthropic Enterprise, and was member of the founding committee of Donors Trust. He is a regular contributor to writing a column “Intellectual Entrepreneurs” focusing on think tanks and policy scholars. He received the Global Leadership Award (2010) from the Leadership Institute (US), the Bow Group (U.K.), the World Congress of Families/Howard Center for Family, and recently received the 2014 Walter Judd Freedom Award. His book Faith and Liberty about the Christian roots of free market economics has been published in several editions in seven countries.

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