By Douglas Martin
Published: October 15, 2005
Arthur Seldon, a libertarian economist whose books, pamphlets
and articles supplied much of the intellectual artillery that inspired
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's free-market revolution, died
Tuesday at his home in Godden Green in Kent County, England. He
His death was confirmed by the Institute of Economic Affairs,
the research group he helped found and guide.
Long before Mrs. Thatcher came to power in 1979 and attacked many
decades of ever-increasing government power through privatization
and her other free-market policies, intellectuals on the right
were formulating novel approaches to education, health and other
government services. So initially radical were their notions that
The Independent, a London newspaper, said this week that they were
regarded as "political crackpots."
The institute, known by its acronym, I.E.A., "plowed a lonely
furrow in its espousal of capitalist ideas," according to
Patrick Cosgrave in "Thatcher: The First Term."
Mrs. Thatcher was listening, and regularly lunched at the institute
before becoming prime minister, drinking in their message that
users, not taxpayers, should pay for government services.
Tony Blair, the current Labor Party prime minister, continued
much of Mrs. Thatcher's free-market emphasis. She thanked the "lonely" academics
on the 30th anniversary of the institute in 1987, saying, "They
were right and they saved Britain."
Mr. Seldon and Ralph Harris, now Lord Harris, the other founder
of the I.E.A., steered clear of partisan politics, being careful
to portray their thoughts as a product of classical liberal economics.
They and their colleagues remained strictly outside of government,
unlike many of the conservative research groups whose legions streamed
into the administrations of President Reagan and subsequent Republicans.
They were not even necessarily members of Mrs. Thatcher's Conservative
Nor were some of their many ideas for transforming the British
welfare state, particularly government vouchers to pay for private
schooling, ultimately successful. But the institute helped change
the nature of Britain's national conservation, as it also oversaw
the proliferation of more than 100 similar institutions to nearly
This effort was greatly aided by Mr. Seldon's ability to translate
complex economic ideas into clear English. He did this both as
an editor of all the institute's publications, more than 350, and
as the author of 28 books and some 230 articles.
His trenchant phrasemaking became famous, as in this criticism
of socialist economies for providing less choice: "Socialism
is a vast machine for churning out piles of goods marked 'Take
it or leave it.' "
Critics faulted Mr. Seldon as seeming to start with an ideological
answer he liked and then looking around for a question. In a review
of Mr. Seldon's 1990 book, "Capitalism," Gordon Brown,
a Labor Party leader who is now chancellor of the exchequer, suggested
he made a theology out of free markets.
A letter to The Times of London in 1990 attacked Mr. Seldon's
contention that the spending decisions of people were truer indications
of their wishes than elections. The letter writer pointed out that
wealthier people have more votes in such a formulation.
Mr. Seldon countered such criticisms by advocating a negative
income tax, under which the poor would be paid money by the government.
He said they could then vote with their money for the services
they wanted most.
Arthur Seldon was born in the East End of London on May 29, 1916.
His parents died in the flu epidemic of 1918. He was adopted by
a childless cobbler and his wife, who, like his parents, were Russian-Jewish
In 1934, he won a scholarship to the London School of Economics
where he studied with Lionel Robbins and Friedrich Hayek, who taught
classical liberal economics. Many others in the school embraced
socialism or Communism, with which Mr. Seldon briefly flirted.
After graduating with honors, Mr. Seldon worked in a government
survey research unit. In 1940, he joined the Army, serving in Africa
and Italy. He next taught, edited a trade journal called Store
and did research for the beer industry.
At Store, he met and married Marjorie Perrott. He adopted her
son from a previous marriage, and they had two more sons. His survivors
were not announced.
In 1957, he became editorial director at the institute, which
was set up by businessman, Antony Fisher, who had been inspired
by a lecture by Mr. Hayek. Lord Harris, as general director, handled
finances and recruitment.
Mr. Seldon co-wrote the first pamphlet of the institute, "Pensions
in a Free Society." It argued for private pensions, something
achieved 30 years later. One of his most widely reviewed books
was "Capitalism," which The Economist called "a
triumph of the human spirit."
Mr. Seldon liked cricket, opera and having what he called parties
for nonconformists at his home, Thatched Cottage, which was quite
a large house surrounded by expansive gardens.