The Most Influential Person You Never Heard Of
- Tim Worstall, Tech Central Station
Arthur Seldon died on October 11 at the age of 89. Few outside
policy wonk circles will have heard of him. He may thus merit the
title of the most influential person most people have never heard
of. For he was behind the intellectual sea change that led to both
Thatcherism and Reaganism. As such he merited obituaries in the
New York Times, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian
as well as appreciations from think tanks like the Adam Smith Institute,
and it's that latter that gives a clue as to why was indeed so influential.
The story was told to me only a couple of weeks ago by Madsen Pirie
of the ASI. Sir Anthony Fisher, having made his fortune in introducing
broiler chickens to the UK (sort of a Frank Perdue for his times)
got to know Friedrich Hayek and expressed an interest in going into
politics in order to contribute to the ongoing debate as to how
and where the country was going. Hayek convinced him that influencing
the debate, providing the ideas, was a better way of wielding such
influence and so the Institute for Economic Affairs was formed.
Seldon was the editorial director and Ralph Harris (now Lord Harris)
the general one. Seldon had been educated by both Hayek and Lionel
Robbins at the LSE in the 1930 and had also taught there after the
What followed was a flood of books, articles and pamphlets by Seldon,
Harris and any number of eminent economists (Hayek, Milton Friedman
and other Nobel Laureates amongst them) which, in time, raised the
precepts of classical liberalism from their lowest point, that reached
at the end of the 1950s.
The New York Times described Seldon as a libertarian and while
this may be true in an American sense, in reality he was a liberal
of the old school, had indeed been prominent in the Liberal Party.
As The Times pointed out:
For years the State had been seen as the pre-eminent force in
managing the economy and providing social security. Seldon was a
tireless advocate of replacing the welfare state and of allowing
natural economic laws of supply and demand to increase national
wealth more effectively than the man in Whitehall could ever do.
Not that he had ever been an enthusiast for the Conservative Party.
Fundamentally Seldon was an old-fashioned Liberal who believed in
the liberty - and responsibility - of the individual.
This was in fundamental opposition to both Labour and Conservative
thinking at the time which was that the Man in Whitehall really
did know best. It was simply the duty of those parties to manage
that Man as best they could rather than any ideal of getting the
State off the backs of the people. He wasn't at all a proponent
of what are thought of as the more extreme shores of libertarianism
(Ayn Rand comes to mind here) but rather thought that the State
crowded out those examples of voluntary cooperation and communalism
which had existed before the welfare system overcame them -- the
Friendly Societies for example, from which his adoptive mother had
benefited at the time of her husband's death.
As The Telegraph points out:
For Seldon, the profit motive governed by consumers in an open
competitive economy was more truly democratic -- and wholesome --
than the vote motive operating in a regime of so-called representative
government dominated by pressure groups.
A sentiment which should have some resonance for those in the Porkbusters
campaign going on at the moment. Wouldn't it be a better place,
a fairer society, if we were indeed left alone to make our own decisions,
were actually empowered in our dealings by being consumers, customers,
rather than supplicants to the bureaucracy? It was towards this
end that he was an untiring champion of educational vouchers, something
he lived to see enter the mainstream political debate in the UK
but alas, not their implementation.
To give a true measure of his influence consider this from the
writer Mark Steyn (quoted from a blog as the original is behind
a pay barrier):
[S]uccessful conservatives don't move towards the 'political
centre'. They move the political centre towards them. That's what
Thatcher and Reagan both did
. If Labour is at 1 on the scale
and the Tories are at 9, and their focus groups tell them to move
to 5, they have ensured that henceforth the centre will be 3, and
they'll be fighting entirely on the Left's terms and the Left's
issues. . . .
Conservatives win when they champion ideas. They win in two
ways: sometimes they get elected; but, even if they don't, their
sheer creative energy forces an ever more intellectually bankrupt
Left to grab whatever right-wing ideas they figure they can slip
past their own base.
Replace conservatives with liberals (as that is what Seldon was,
far too radical to be conservative in the English sense and very
much a liberal in that same language) and that's exactly what he
Remember, when he and Harris started out in the '50s, both the
Conservatives and Labour thought that the Health Service should
be exclusively provided by the State, with what private provision
was left a mere hangover from an earlier time. The school system
was just beginning to be made comprehensive, with parental choice
being removed. The "commanding heights" of the economy
were nationalized or about to be (steel, coal, shipbuilding, car
manufacturing and so on) and it was thought by all that this should
continue to be so. Government should micro-manage the economy, to
the extent of deciding how much money each individual could take
out of the country when on holiday. In everything, the bureaucrat
in his office knew better than the individual knew themselves about
themselves and their family.
I might also point out that the Liberal Party of the day was so
sidelined that at one point their entire number of MPs could fit
in one London taxi....each with their own seat.
The Thatcher Revolution of course made a difference but it is the
ideas themselves that have lasted much longer. It is the current
Labour Government that is bringing academic selection and parental
choice back into schools, insisting that private companies be allowed
to bid for work from the National Health Service, privatized the
Air Traffic Control system.
To have, as the phrase goes, not so much won the game as to have
pulled the board, the place of conflict, over to your ground is
a grand and great achievement in politics, one showing how much
more influential one can be when proposing ideas rather than a specific
Which is really rather a grand and great achievement for one who
has such an ill starred start in life:
Seldon was born in the East End of London. At the age of 3 he
was orphaned - his parents died of the Spanish flu - and he was
adopted by a cobbler and his wife.
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