Spectator's Journal

A Think Tank With Action

The O’Neil Center is helping to introduce a new generation to the fresh water of capitalism.

By From the April 2013 issue

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WHEN TEXAS NATIVE JERRY FULLINWIDER was just 30 years old, he was invited to an unusual seminar in the ranch country of central Texas. The graduate of Southern Methodist University and oil entrepreneur traveled to Bass Ranch for the weekend with 15 other male professionals. Sans women, telephones, televisions, or radios, the men ate barbecue, drank beer, and sat around campfires talking with invited guests—like Leonard Read, the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, and F.A. “Baldy” Harper, founder of the Institute for Humane Studies—about limited government, individual liberty, and free-market principles. Not exactly your typical Texas hoedown.

Fullinwider had never heard anyone talk about these issues with such clarity and passion. He drank it up. “I was like a duck that had lived that long without ever seeing any water,” he says. “But I knew I belonged in the water. It was like a great huge beautiful pond and I dove in and have been paddling every since.”

Fast-forward over half a century, and Fullinwider is still paddling furiously and passing on free-market ideas to the next generation through the O’Neil Center for Global Markets and Freedom, a think tank at SMU’s Cox School of Business. While you may not recognize the name of founder William O’Neil, you’ve likely heard of his publication, Investor’s Business Daily. “Bill didn’t get his free market ideas from SMU,” recalls Fullinwider. “He got them from his father’s dinner table, where I got mine.”

Five years old this year, the O’Neil Center is a 501(c)(3) that focuses its research on economic freedom, monetary policy, capitalism, and free trade. Its publications also examine why its home state, Texas, is such a free-market success. In the last several years, more university-based, free market–focused think tanks have been popping up throughout the country, joining more established organizations like the Hoover Institution at Stanford and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Bob Lawson, who sits in the Jerome M. Fullinwider Endowed Centennial Chair in Economic Freedom at the O’Neil Center, helps communicate the dry, wonky academic material in clear, articulate ways. “We don’t want to write articles in journals no one reads,” he says. “We’re not content to do our work and influence no one else. We want other people—students, business people, politicians even—to spread the word.”

For 20 years now, Lawson and co-author Jim Gwartney have compiled and released the Economic Freedom of the World index. The process has changed over the years, and the pair have added a third co-author, but essentially: Lawson coordinates the revisions each year at the O’Neil Center, and a consortium of other think tanks, including the Cato Institute and the Canada-based Fraser Institute, help publish the report annually. Currently, out of 144 countries, Hong Kong ranks first, the U.S. is 18th, and Venezuela comes in last. Lawson believes the empirical, objective data fills an information gap that worried economists like Milton Friedman, and thus pushes the economic debate in favor of free markets.

IN ADDITION, Lawson teaches four graduate classes a year, including microeconomics in the MBA program. “I’ve taught at four different universities,” he says, “and have always found students willing to think free markets are a good thing.”

The think tank’s access to—and willingness to focus on—students is what separates it from others, says the O’Neil Center’s director, 
Michael Cox. After working as an economics professor at Virginia Tech, Cox decided to shift his focus, to “stop professing and start practicing.” He went to the Dallas Federal Reserve where, for 25 years, he served as the only chief economist the central bank has ever had.

Cox’s mantra at the O’Neil Center is, “We don’t need more think tanks; we need more action tanks.” He believes fundamental reform in education is one of the most influential paths to change. “The public schools have been influenced by socialist thinking, so by the time students reach us, many have been programmed with pro-government thinking,” he says. Cox’s goal is to influence the minds of young people toward thinking, living, and working with free-market principles. “It’s not too late; some minds are still open,” he says with confidence.

According to SMU senior Nicholas Saliba, the O’Neil Center is well on its way to accomplishing that goal. As a high schooler, Saliba didn’t have a clear, thorough understanding of how economics works and used to take “capitalism and free markets for granted.”

Saliba credits O’Neil Center classes with giving him a more thorough understanding of conservative principles, which will influence his next stage of life: pursuit of a dual MBA/JD. “I’m beginning to understand the intertwined relationship between policy, finance, and economics, especially as it relates to the growth of businesses and nations,” he says. “Opportunities such as these lectures are made possible because of the O’Neil Center, and they give SMU Cox students an advantage over students from other universities.”

Another senior, Stephanie Toms, a double major in Finance and Markets and Culture, credits O’Neil Center courses with refining her political views. “Dr. Cox was one of my first professors who boldly and critically assessed different political and economic systems,” she recalls. In one of Cox’s courses, she began to clearly understand the urgency with which our government must cut entitlement spending. “I work for reward,” Toms says. “Without the incentives to produce, to work hard, and to succeed, our country will fall behind.”

Those associated with the O’Neil Center are proud of what they have accomplished—particularly given the think tank’s relative youth. Its published articles discuss various economic topics in practical ways. Cox recently appeared on a Canadian current-affairs television program to discuss what “rich” and “poor” really mean. And the Economic Freedom of the World index was cited more than 100 times last year.

The O’Neil Center is helping to introduce a new generation to the fresh water of capitalism—which gives supporters like Jerry Fullinwider hope for the generations to come. 

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About the Author

Nicole Russell writes from Northern Virginia.