Indipendant

 

Economic View Points - Institute of Economic Affairs 2005.
Published by Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

THE COLLECTED WORKS OF ARTHUR SELDON
Colin Robinson

This article discusses the achievements of Arthur Seldon as Editorial Director of the IEA in the context of recently published Collected Works of Arthur Seldon.

Arthur Seldon as Editorial Director of the IEA

Arthur Seldon was for about 30 years the Editorial Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). In that capacity he edited the work of hundreds of authors - ranging from the already famous, to the up-and-coming - to produce a remarkable and influential body of IEA publications. Not only did those publications lead directly to the economic reforms undertaken by the Thatcher governments, they moved the 'middle-ground' of politics so that British governments from the 1980s onwards, whether Conservative or Labour, have felt obliged, in order to be elected, to accept much of the economic agenda that IEA authors set out in the 1970s and 1980s.

Seldon's influence, through the IEA's publications programme, has been felt worldwide. Economic reforms of the Thatcher period - such as the privatisation of state industries, freeing labour markets, and the replacement of fiscal 'fine-tuning' by monetary control of the economy - have been exported to many countries. In Milton Friedman's words, "The IEA's influence has not been confined to the United Kingdom. Its publications and the able group of scholars who became associated with it, contributed greatly to the change in the intellectual climate of opinion around the world." Another result was the establishment in many countries of 'think-tanks', modelled on the IEA, that promote economic freedom and form part of an international movement for continuing liberal market reforms.

Arthur Seldon is one of the great editors. During his time at the IEA his time at the IEA, his publishing programme was much more than a collection of papers on a variety of themes. It was a grand programme of liberal market ideas and proposals for reform. He was constantly seeking authors who would explain, in particular fields, what the problems were and what policy changes would be desirable. He invented a new form of paper, rigorous in its analysis yet concise and, above all, firm and clear in its policy conclusions. He insisted that authors waste no words and that they should be lucid both in thought and expression. In particular, there must be no doubt about what they were recommending. Authors were told to pursue their ideas to their logical conclusions regardless of whether or not they appeared, at the time, to be 'politically acceptable'. Everyone - whether it was Friedrich Hayek or a newly-appointed university lecturer- would receive back from Arthur a manuscript peppered with comments and suggestions for changes which, on reflection, they would realise would significantly improve their original thoughts. They would also find that Arthur would write a preface to their work that departed from the traditional summary: it would reveal to readers how the paper fitted into the general corpus of classical liberal thought.

The IEA's publishing programme, under Arthur's direction, might seem accomplishment enough for
anyone. But he was, at the same time, a prolific author, as the seven volumes of his Collected Works show. Since he began to publish in 1937, when he was 21, he has written 28 books and about 230 articles. His body of work, covering a wide range of subjects, free of technical jargon, genuinely accessible to interested people with no formal training in economics and full of original ideas, is a major contribution to classical liberal thought and policy analysis. In particular, his analysis of the inherent deficiencies of the welfare state and his proposals for market-based reform made from the late 1950s onwards, are extremely perceptive and far ahead of their time: they contain all the ingredients to deal with the problems with which governments are still struggling decades later as they cling to outdated ideas. Furthermore, he was one of the first to perceive - before the detailed research of the public choice theorists - the problem of over-government in representative political systems. Government, he realised, had both the ability and the inclination to expand its empire at the expense of the private sector: it would go far beyond the supply of those goods and services that might genuinely be regarded as 'public goods'. Infrequent elections in a democracy are not in themselves sufficient to keep in check the ambitions of politicians, civil servants and the pressure groups that have strong incentives to gain favours from government for their members.

The final volume, number 7, brings together a number of works in which Arthur Seldon discusses the role of the IEA, in which he spent most of his professional life, and his own role within the IEA as he and Ralph (Lord) Harris divided their responsibilities in a fruitful partnership that was of great significance in reviving classical liberal scholarship. Seldon also explains the part played by Friedrich Hayek in the establishment of the IEA and traces the links between his own ideas - absorbed from Hayek, Robbins and other classical liberals at the LSE in the 1930s - and his work at the IEA from the late l950s onwards. Included in this volume are many of the prefaces to IEA publications written by Seldon which, as already explained, place each book within the context of classical liberal ideas. In a revealing passage, Arthur Seldon compares his role in selecting IEA authors with that of the manager of a cricket team 'putting the best players in to "bat" against the other side'.' In that he was certainly victorious. The formidable
publishing enterprise he established helped bring about an economic and cultural revolution.

Conclusion

Summarising the contribution of Arthur Seldon to classical liberal thought and to policy analysis is
difficult because of the great range of his work. But two of the outstanding characteristics of his writings,
as demonstrated in these seven volumes, are how clearly and for how long he has seen and understood
the principal economic problems of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Because his work is based on
unchanging economic principles, the solutions he offers, particularly for the problems caused by state
welfare, are still as relevant as when he first suggested them, in some cases decades ago. His success in analysis and policy prescription, without the need for complex modelling, should be a great encouragement to young economists unsure what their subject can contribute to economic and social welfare.

As I have tried to summarise the secret of his success in the General Introduction to The Collected
Works:

"Seldon's great gift, seen in his writings, was his ability to absorb the literature of economics, synthesize it in his own mind, and then distil it in his publications into a form that could be understood by a wide audience, not just by technically trained economists. From the beginning he detected the fallacies of socialism and appreciated the benefits of capitalism. Despite the changing fashions of economics, he expounded these truths relentlessly."

- Colin Robinson, Collected Works of Arthur Seldon, Volume 1, page xvi.


Colin Robinson is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Surrey. From 1992 to 2002 he was Editorial Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs. He has edited The Collected Works of Arthur Seldon, published by Liberty Fund, Indianapolis. Seven volumes, 2004-05.

 

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