A Life for Liberty. A review from Australian Conservative by Ron Kitching
I have just read a wonderful new book titled “Arthur Seldon : A Life for Liberty” by Colin Robinson.
For thirty one years Arthur Seldon was the Editorial Director of London’s “Institute For Economic Affairs”. Like everybody else in the Mont Pelerin Society, I knew Arthur well - or at least I thought I did until I read this excellent book. I first met him at the Mont Pelerin Society meeting at Hong Kong in 1978, and kept meeting him at subsequent meetings until the meeting at Vienna in September 1996 where he was inaugurated as the first Honorary Fellow of the MPS. That was a great occasion.
I was astonished to read that Arthur Seldon was born Abraham Margolis on 29th May 1916 in East London. His parents were refugees from Russia’s Ukraine. At age three his parents both died, onlyweek apart, from the post war Spanish Flu.
Arthur was adopted by another childless Jewish couple named Eva and Marks Slaberdain. Marks Slaberdain was a self employed boot and show repairer. Hard work and help for other members of the community were accepted norms of behaviour and education was respected and Marks Slaberdain was determined to give his adopted son the best he possibly could.
Arthur’s thirst for knowledge earned him a place at Sir Henry Raines Grammar School in Arbour Square just off the Commercial Road.
His first essay, at age 16, titled “Some Reflections on the Science of Political Economy” still survives. An excellent essay, it is marked by his teacher as “Well worth reading”.
In 1935 Arthur won a scholarship worth eighty pounds per year to attend a university of his choice. He decided to attend the London School of Economics and his most influential teachers appear to be Lionel (Lord) Robbins, (Sir) Arthur Plant and F. A. Hayek.
All three of these teachers showed their students how the power of market forces, price, and the benefits of competition promote classical liberal values and overcome the forces of prejudice and discrimination. Also a paper written by Eugene von Bohm Bawerk titled “Political Power or Economic Law” had a great influence on the young Arthur Slaberdain.
Arthur Slaberdain graduated from the LSE with first class honours and was appointed research assistant to to Arnold Plant. Curiously, a picture of the handsome young graduate reminded me of the Wizard Harry Potter. But hidden from the view then were his Potter-like economic accomplishments in later life.
Just before the war broke out in 1939, Plant advised him to change his name by deed poll from Slaberdain to Seldon. This he did before enlisting and serving in the Middle East and other theatres of the war until its end.
Returning from the war he again served at the LSE. He was a tutor and staff examiner there from 1946 until 1966. It was in 1957 that Anthony Fisher employed Ralph Harris as Director of the newly founded Institute for Economic Affairs. Later that year, Arthur Seldon joined him as a part time Editorial Adviser. He joined full time in 1959 as Editorial Director until he retired from this post thirty one years later.
The two men were an ideal choice as Arthur was the engine room of the outfit and Ralph was the shop front. For 20 years they remained voices in the wilderness of London’s and England’s political world, but sound, well-edited economic truths attractively presented in a language that both sides of politics could understand gained slow but sure intellectual traction.
Arthur’s choice of a partner in marriage was ideal. He married war widow Marjorie in 1948, when Arthur was 32 and Marjorie was 28. Marjorie already has a young son and they added two more boys.
They were inseparable and Marjorie shared Arthur’s classical liberal philosophy.
• Arthur’s basic planks were the infallible efficiency of free markets internally and externally, as they also brought understanding and tolerance between different nationalities, different religions and different races of people.
• And competition hatched the lowest possible prices for goods and or services for which the public internally and externally scrambled, but also hatched new competitive ideas for producing those and other services heretofore undiscovered. In short, competition is a discovery procedure as F. A. Hayek pointed out on many many occasions.
• Central to Seldon’s views about the market is the advantage of the reliance on the price system. Price is the device which decides which resources are to be used according to individual preferences and coordinated quite impartially by the market.
Market pricing cannot be combined with government or state ownership, as there is no way of knowing what costs and prices would emerge in a competitive market system unless such a market system exists.
Fundamentally it was the absence of secure private property laws, and its subsequent attachments, such as honest money, free internal and external markets, rule of law and very low taxation that brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union and many other similar institutions.
Arthur also produced 28 books of his own, plus 230 essays and articles.
This new book by Colin Robinson is a wonderful history and tribute to one of the mid to late 20th Century’s most productive, most influential and greatest of classical liberals. I can do no more that to recommend that it be read by all.
The book is available from IEA.