Arthur Seldon - An economist and polemicist, he co-founded the
IEA and helped pave the way for Thatcherism
Thursday October 13, 2005
The economist and writer Arthur Seldon, who has died aged 89,
was one of a small band who, in effect, launched what eventually
came to be known as the Thatcherite revolution. Together with the
entrepreneur the late Sir Anthony Fisher and Ralph (now Lord) Harris,
he founded the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in 1957.
Seldon participated in the management of the IEA, particularly
its vigorous programme of publications, and was its editorial director
from 1957 until 1988. During that time the organisation evolved
from barely tolerated fringe grouping to pillar of a new, or renewed,
orthodoxy which prepared the ground for the politico-ideological
Thatcher enterprise launched in 1979.
Seldon was a man of his age. Born in the East End of London during
the first world war into the Jewish artisan class, and faithful
to his Jewish roots, he was orphaned at the age of three by the
influenza epidemic that swept Europe at the close of the first
world war. He was adopted by a cobbler and his wife, attended Dempsey
Street elementary school in Stepney, and was a state scholar at
Raine's foundation school. Seldon benefited from the educational
provisions of the time, which enabled him to make his way to the
London School of Economics where, in 1937, he graduated with first
Fleetingly, in 1940, he worked with a Ministry of Information survey
research unit, but then served in the army in Africa and Italy
from 1942 to 1945. After the war, he edited the periodical Store,
from 1946 to 1949, while teaching evening classes at the LSE -
and from 1956 to 1966 was a staff examiner there. He was also from
1948 to 1949 chairman of a Liberal Party committee on the aged.
From 1949 to 1959 he worked as an economist in industry - conducting
industrial research - before and alongside his recruitment to the
newly-founded IEA, Fisher's brainchild. At first he was a part-time
editorial director, but soon it became a full-time post. Meanwhile
Harris was appointed general director.
In that job as editorial director, Seldon was personally responsible
for commissioning and editing a stream of booklets, periodicals
and other publications that played a considerable part in modifying
the climate of opinion in Britain. Authors published included Friedrich
Hayek and Milton Friedman. The thoroughness and responsibility
of this editing made it a heavy workload, but, in addition, he
wrote more than two dozen books and 10 times that number of articles
in newspapers and periodicals.
The general reader may remember him, and the IEA, best for their
macroeconomic polemics. During three decades these transformed
the mindset of policymakers and commentators. They were swayed
from neo-Keynesian and statist certainties - which rejected disagreement
and categorised "monetarism" as an eighth deadly sin - to a new
consensus. This would indeed be called "monetarist", but that epithet
had not then fallen into desuetude, together with the ideas which
gave it birth.
However, Seldon's remit ran much wider. From the outset, he advocated
what now would be called "compassionate conservatism". He demonstrated
in a series of works that the working classes were in many ways
the principal victims of socialism and welfarism. In 1957 he co-wrote
Pensions in a Free Society, the IEA's first pamphlet. Two years
later came Advertising in a Free Society, and in 1960 he co-wrote
Pensions for Prosperity.
His picture of the working classes was a remembered one, of people
capable of self-respect and self-help, but vulnerable to the massed
battalions of power. It was in that same vein that he had devoted
such attention to pensions. In The Great Pensions Swindle, in 1970,
he issued many warnings, won many arguments but failed to bring
about a reshaping of policies, as we are now learning to our cost.
Twenty years after the IEA set up shop, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher
entered Downing Street to high hopes among her supporters. Unlike
the US, where thinktanks - and the IEA was an early example - were
brought into administrations favourable to their ideas, the IEA
remained strictly outside government.
True, Ralph Harris was elevated to the House of Lords, but he entered
as a crossbencher and remained friendly but critical of the government's
achievements. Arthur and his wife Marjorie were particularly keen
on the promotion of education vouchers, and had high hopes when
Keith Joseph was moved in as secretary of state for education from
Industry, where the civil servants trampled all over him. They
were to be disappointed during Joseph's time at the department,
from 1981 to 1986. The IEA won more arguments in theory than in
practice, but Seldon kept writing. Corrgible Captialism, Incorrigible
Socialism (1980) was followed by Wither the Welfare State (1981),
Socialism Explained (1983), The New Right Enlightenment (1985)
and The Riddle of the Voucher (1986).
His full-time appointment with the IEA ended nearly two decades
ago. His Capitalism (1990) won the Fisher Prize in 1991, but by
that time Thatcher had fallen, and six years after that the Conservative
government fell in its turn.
But Tony Blair's incoming Labour government did little to turn
the clock back where economic philosophy was concerned. Seldon
continued to write for posterity, confident that the worst fallacies
were behind, that the Treasury, the Bank of England, the economic
ministries and employers' organisations were nearer the mainstream
of neo-classical economics than they had been when the IEA had
begun its uphill climb in the 1950s of Harold Macmillan and Hugh
Gaitskell. If many of Blair's critics in the Labour Party and unions
complain that his policies are Thatcherite, they might more accurately
describe them as IEA-ite.
The IEA's distance from the Conservative party, unlike that of
the thinktanks of the left, may have appeared disadvantageous during
the heyday of Thatcherism, but it was seen as a boon as time went
on. IEA scions command several economics faculties in the universities.
The IEA remains active and, if not always actually accepted, at
least respected and tolerated, and soundly financed.
After his retirement from the directorship Seldon was a consultant
and then, finally, in 1990 he became a founder-president and remained
one for the rest of of his life. In 2002 he published The Making
of the IEA, and in 2004-05 a collection of his IEA work and material
from other sources has been published in seven volumes by the American
organisation the Liberty Fund.
Seldon's recreations were cricket, opera, and, as he wrote in Who's
Who, "parties for non-conformists". His house in Kent, "the Thatched
Cottage" is, in spite of its name, quite large, and surrounded
by generous gardens. It has always been a centre of conviviality
and conversation. In retrospect, it seems that whenever we gathered
there for leisured colloquies, the sun always shone.
His personal life was happy and uneventful. He married Marjorie
in 1948; she survives him. They had three sons, of whom the youngest,
Anthony, has made a name for himself as biographer, educationist
and headmaster of an independent school.
· Arthur Seldon, economist and writer, born May 29 1916;
died October 11 2005