A shorter version of this tribute appeared in The Independent
on 12th October 2005
Dennis Kavanagh's perceptive obituary of Arthur Seldon (12 October)
pays fitting tribute to Arthur's decades of quiet toil as the Editorial
Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a selflessness which
helped launch the careers of literally hundreds of young economists
- in IEA publications, the pages of Economic Affairs and, after
his "retirement", in The "New Right" Enlightenment,
a collection of twenty essays by young writers he edited (of course)
and published himself, as E&L Books. As Arthur's amanuensis
for the last decade of his professional life (and the first of mine)
and his successor as editor of Economic Affairs, I experienced that
patient encouragement at first hand, and learned from the libertarian
vision which informed his thinking.
Dennis Kavanagh points to the occasional strains in Arthur's relationship
with Ralph Harris, then General Director of the IEA, with Harris
as the gregarious front man and Seldon the studious and tongued-tied
academic (incidentally, he attributed his stammer to the discovery,
at age 11, that he had been adopted). But it wasn't simply a question
of personality: there was also a profound difference in philosophical
position, Harris the conservative arguing for a smaller state, Seldon
the radical liberal distrusting the very institution of government.
These divergent outlooks helped generate a productive tension between
the two men, one of the reasons their partnership was so effective.
Arthur thus warmed less to Milton Friedman's "monetary rule",
a device for imposing discipline on governments tempted to inflate
the currency for political ends, than to Friedrich Hayek's argument
(first proposed in Choice in Currency in 1976 and refined in The
Denationalisation of Money in 1978 - both, naturally, edited by
Seldon for the IEA) that the state should not issue money at all;
instead, competing currencies could be issued by private financial
institutions, secured against a basket of commodities and policed
by competition in the market place.
At a meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society (an association
of free-market economists founded by Hayek in 1947) in Cannes in
1996, with many of those present congratulating themselves on the
rolling-back of the state around the world, Arthur took the floor
to complain about the slow pace of reform. His central argument
on that occasion - "If we wait for government to give us what
we want, we'll never get it" - was a libertarian call to arms
many of his more conformist colleagues would never have dared to
utter. He saw growing tax evasion as evidence that individuals were
already taking matters into their own hands.
Seldon's radicality allowed him to extend market analysis in directions
that were new. He understood that price was a vital signal between
producer and consumer - sometimes literally. When in 1964 he almost
died because of a shortage of (unpriced) blood in the hospital where
he had undergone an operation, he commissioned an IEA publication
called The Price of Blood which argued that altruism had failed
and that blood should be exchanged in the market like any other
scarce economic good.
One story perfectly captures Arthur Seldon's indifference to the
swish of political power. Mrs Thatcher was one of the politicians
of all stripes who called in at the IEA for occasional lunches.
On one such visit a colleague of ours, pulling no punches, began
to criticise her partial privatisation of British Telecom: by allowing
only Mercury to compete with BT, and that in a few restricted markets,
Thatcher had in truth increased the number of people with a direct
interest in obstructing genuine liberalisation. She was obviously
unused to such direct censure and bridled at the attack. Ralph Harris,
ever the joiner, tried to pour oil on the waters by calling for
"a toast to the best prime minister since Churchill".
Arthur raised his glass and said, in a stage whisper: "I'll
take a sip".
An indication of Seldon's standing among his fellow economists can
be seen in the fact that, of the ten essays in The Unfinished Agenda,
the festschrift I edited for his 70th birthday in 1986, no fewer
than four were by Nobel prize-winners. One of them, James Buchanan,
wrote that "Arthur Seldon has been able, more than most of
us, to combine realism in prediction with continued idealism in
vision." The combination produced some remarkable insights.
In the early days of the IEA he warned that government would soon
raid National Insurance pension funds to bail themselves out of
more immediate political difficulties. In 1979 he foresaw that "Labour
as we have known it will not rule again". And 1981 he predicted
both that Soviet Communism would not survive the century and that
China would go capitalist. His conviction that the state would eventually
wither away as individuals took steps to avoid its intrusions has
so far been proven accurate only in part. What can't be denied is
that you have to go a long way to find anyone these days who seriously
advocates socialism. And no single individual deserves more credit
for that intellectual victory than Arthur Seldon.