Co-founder of body that became intellectual progenitor of Thatcher revolution
Arthur Seldon, who has died at the age of 89, helped to found the
free-market Institute of Economic Affairs which became the intellectual
progenitor of the Thatcher revolution. Seldon challenged thepost-war
Keynesian consensus on the welfare state and played a crucial part
in creating a centre-right position rooted in economic liberalism.
Although not naturally a conservative - he always called himself
an old liberal - he had a great influence on Margaret Thatcher and,
arguably, on Tony Blair. Many of Thatcher's policies originated
in Lord North Street, Westminster, the home of the IEA. On his 80th
birthday Baroness Thatcher paid tribute to him for championing free
enterprise and the free market. His "visionary work",
she said, had "inspired much of our success in the 1980s".
Seldon set up the IEA with Lord Harris of High Cross in 1957 when
market economics were unfashionable. From obscurity throughout the
1950s and 1960s, Seldon and a distinguished cadre of writers managed
to influence a generation of economists and writers into a fresh
way of thinking on the market and on limited government. He also
introduced them to such "foreign" economists as Milton
Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, the free market econmists who became
Born in 1916 into relative poverty, the son of a Jewish immigrant
family in the East End of London, his parents died in the 1918 flu
epidemic and he was adopted by a cobbler and his wife. Educated
at Raine's Foundation School, he won a scholarship to the London
School of Economics where he came under the influence of Hayek,
a recently appointed professor. He quickly learnt that almost everything
the government does, the market and the private sector could do
better. Most important, he realised that, if you want to advance
the interests of the working class, capitalism always beats the
government. This was the beginning of a life-long campaign against
state welfare. From his earliest days he understood that spontaneous
working class organisations such as the Friendly Societies provided
better health care, old age pensions and unemployment benefit than
the vast state bureaucracies that replaced them. Seldon's first
paper for the IEA was a stunning piece on the inequities and inefficiencies
of the state pension system: a subject that was to bother him all
his life. As editorial director, he quickly set about recruiting
some of the best names in free market ideas, teaching them how to
write clear, concise English.
One of the many reasons for the new right's eventual triumph over
the old left was the clarity, as
well as the perspicacity, of its arguments. Someone very receptive
to Seldon's approach was Milton Friedman, who had a genius for conveying
complex ideas in lucid prose, and he led the IEA's onslaught on
Keynesianism from the early 1960s. Always anxious to keep his readers
up to date with new thinking, Seldon quickly saw the significance
of American "public choice" theory which was emerging
in the 1960s. He was a natural anarchist who delighted in offending
the welfare establishment. This reached its apogee in 1968 with
the publication of The Price of Blood which presented the shocking
idea that hospital shortages would be solved if blood were bought
and sold like any other wanted good. Seldon was a prolific writer.
His best work was probably on welfare in which he relentlessly exposed
the denial of choice and the dull inefficiency that the state produced
in health and pensions.
He and his wife, Marjorie - the couple had three sons - were indefatigable
proponents of Friedman's idea of vouchers in education. Perhaps
his finest work was the sadly unnoticed book Capitalism (1990).
Here he celebrated the market system's efficiency but also its contribution
to human freedom. He was working to the end - against the state.
His seven volume works are being completed by the IEA. Only then
will a full evaluation be possible.
The author is professor of social and political theory at Buckingham