Colin Robinson, biographer of the sage who so influenced Thatcherism, says that Seldon has no counterpart now — the Tory party is no longer receptive to such challenging ideas
Arthur Seldon deserves greater recognition as a central figure in a small group of economic policymakers which started the transformation of the British economy in the last two decades of the 20th century.
Seldon, who was born in 1916 in London into an émigré Russian Jewish family, was orphaned early in life and brought up by his adoptive parents in the Jewish East End in a community in which hard work, self-help and caring for the disadvantaged were the norms. He had early experience of welfare without the state: when Seldon was ten, his adoptive father died but the financial impact was mitigated by his mother’s receipt of death benefits from his father’s friendly society and some help provided by the Jewish community. A surviving essay from Seldon’s schooldays shows that by his late teens he had already started to appreciate liberal market ideas. He then attended the London School of Economics in its heyday in the late 1930s when it was home to great classical liberal economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Lionel Robbins, Arnold Plant and Ronald Coase. They reinforced and formalised Seldon’s emerging liberal views and had a profound effect on him. Much of his working life thereafter was devoted to expounding and applying to practical policy the ideas he had formed in his early years which had been developed into economic principles at the LSE.
The turning-point in Seldon’s career came in 1957 when, after war service and a period working in the retail and brewing industries, he was appointed Editorial Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a post which allowed him both to publish his own views and to establish a publishing programme in which economists and others explored the workings of markets and their generally beneficial outcomes. Seldon was not only a prolific writer, with one of the major works of classical liberalism (Capitalism) to his credit, he was a gifted editor of the work of others, able to formulate a publishing programme with a clear purpose, to find authors to carry it through (including some of the most eminent economists of the day) and to edit their work to make it more understandable. He insisted that authors take their arguments to their logical conclusions without regard for the ‘politically possible’. Without that insistence, there would have been no radical ideas from the IEA.
With his colleague Ralph Harris (later Lord Harris of High Cross), Seldon formed an immensely productive partnership. Their talents were complementary. Arthur, through his own writings and his editing, produced a stream of ideas, concisely expressed and designed to be comprehensible to any intelligent person. Ralph, with his own ‘take’ on classical liberalism and his gift for cutting through the jargon, was a witty and engaging speaker, adept at expounding liberal ideas (and also at raising funds for the Institute).
Their common characteristic was sheer perseverance. Without that, they could not have continued to fight for the best part of 25 years a conventional wisdom that favoured highly interventionist economic and social policies, supported by a political and economic establishment that regarded Harris and Seldon as cranks whose views had no relevance to the times in which they lived. Seldon and Harris demonstrated the power of ideas, as few others have done. By the late 1970s they had begun to create a changed intellectual climate which laid the groundwork for the election of a reforming government which implemented a programme which revived the British economy.
Harris and Seldon were careful to avoid direct involvement in party politics. But eventually the Conservatives came to them. Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher, impressed by the IEA’s work, tried before the Conservatives were elected to formulate policies based on that work, using study groups composed mainly of academics and others with liberal ideas. Consequently, by the time the Conservatives came to power in 1979, they had a coherent collection of policies which, if not always ready for implementation, was beginning to take practical form. Many of the Thatcher government’s policies, such as privatisation, were not executed as the IEA’s founders and authors would have wished. Nevertheless, underlying the government’s actions was a bedrock of principles which stemmed primarily from the work of the IEA (the ‘artillery’ in the battle of ideas, as Seldon described it), though sometimes primed for practical purposes by Alfred Sherman’s Centre for Policy Studies (the ‘infantry’).
Think tanks’ have proliferated in the last 30 years. But there is no ferment of ideas comparable to that in the late 1970s. The newer think tanks, often associated with political parties, accept the prevailing economic and political consensus and propose marginal changes, invariably involving more government spending and more government intervention. Sometimes they claim to be searching for a ‘big idea’. They bear no resemblance to the IEA of Seldon and Harris, which wanted to overturn the consensus, not reinforce it. Moreover, Harris and Seldon were not in search of a big idea. They already knew, when they started work at the IEA, what that idea was — a return to market liberalism. Their mission, which they accomplished, was to explain how that goal could be achieved by a reforming government which wished to leave people freer to make their own choices.
Sadly, there is no Seldon now. But, even if Arthur were still here, would his ideas be heeded, as they were in the late 1970s? Regrettably, that period now seems like an isolated, atypical episode when British politicians were seeking ideas and were willing to accept a set of principles as a basis for action.
In 1980, Arthur Seldon predicted correctly that ‘Labour as we know it will never rule again’. Since Labour abandoned socialism, it has had no discernible principles on which to base policy. Without a guiding light, it is reduced to a group trying to attain and then stay in power.
What of the Conservatives, who were once the reformers? After their Thatcherite phase of principled decision-making based on radical ideas, they seem now deliberately to avoid any such ideas for fear of offending some part of the electorate, all too ready to latch on to elements of the conventional wisdom (particularly if they are tinged with green), without having addressed a fundamental issue which concerned Arthur Seldon — how to promote individual choice, thereby reining in coercive action through the state?
Seldon, following Lionel Robbins, saw markets as empowering devices which allow people a constant referendum on the goods and services they want. However, if governments (whose actions are often biased in favour of pressure groups) are forever overriding the referendum, handing out favours which they hope will buy votes, and taxing and borrowing to redistribute wealth and income, how are constant expansion of the state and consequent erosion of individual freedom to be avoided? That is the ‘dilemma of democracy’ identified by Arthur Seldon. It is time for ideas on how the tendency towards overgovernment might be countered, rather than yet more schemes for doing good with other people’s money.