An ideas man before his time

Christopher Fildes

Published: 14th October

NOTHING beats the power of an idea on the march. One such idea marched in on a fighter pilot when he read Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, between sorties. He survived to become a chicken farmer and, when his hens laid golden eggs, could afford to promote the heretical notion that people, left to themselves, might know better than governments.

He hired a scholarship boy from the East End who had survived the London School of Economics and was earning his keep by advising brewers.

This was Arthur Seldon, who died this week. The chicken farmer was Antony Fisher. They started the Institute of Economic Affairs, with Seldon as its editorial director. His very first pamphlet, on pensions, argued that we could and should be trusted to make our own decisions.

In those post-war days, such thinking was regarded as eccentric or Victorian. Planning had won the war and would win the peace. Governments needed to camp out on the commanding heights of the economy. The gentleman in Whitehall knew best, and therefore knew all the right levers to pull. In the end, they jammed.

Seldon lived to see his heresy become the new orthodoxy. A New Labour Chancellor professes his belief in market economics. Privatisation becomes a successful British export. Governments climb down from those heights. All the same, their own sector of the economy is growing, and competition and choice are held at arm's length. We shall soon see whether Adair Turner, invited to square the circle on pensions, agrees with Arthur Seldon. It may be that another orthodoxy is creeping up on us, or even marching.

(c)2005. Associated Newspapers Ltd..