Arthur Seldon, who died on Tuesday aged 89,
was, with Ralph Harris, one of the founders of the Institute of
Economic Affairs, the think-tank which advanced free-market ideas
at a time when they were deeply out of favour, and which provided
much of the intellectual underpinning for Thatcherism.
The success of the IEA was in large part due to Seldon's gifts
as an editor, and to the care with which he encouraged young writers.
Many proposals which were later to be taken up by politicians might
never have seen the light of day without Seldon's meticulous removal
of jargon and insistence that the ideas being presented should
be comprehensible to a wide audience.
Seldon himself had no interest in narrow party politics. He was
not a Tory, but an old-fashioned Liberal, and insisted that shaping
public attitudes, rather than courting politicians, should be the
Arthur Seldon was born on May 29 1916 in the East End of London;
his parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants who died in the 1918
'flu epidemic and, aged two, young Arthur was adopted by a neighbouring
childless cobbler and his wife who had also immigrated from Russia.
In later life he recalled helping to sell repaired boots on a Saturday
at the market in Whitechapel Road.
This background helped foster his belief in self-reliance. When
he was 11, Arthur's adoptive father died, and his widow collected £100
from a Friendly Society. Seldon quoted this as an example of family
self-help before it was crowded-out by the welfare state. Likewise,
before the era of "counsellors", his mother consulted neighbours
and was helped to make a living by selling lisle stockings at 1s
11¾d a pair from their front room in Oxford Street, E1.
Some years later she married - "for Arthur's sake" - an elderly
tailor with his own workshop, which prospered until the Depression
of 1929. From Dempsey Street Elementary, Arthur passed the 11-plus
and went on to Raine's Foundation Grammar School off the Commercial
Road (later abolished by Anthony Crosland's comprehensive reorganisation).
In 1934 he won a state scholarship to the London School of Economics,
where he came under the influence of Lionel Robbins and FA Hayek,
who had recently arrived from Vienna. After a brief flirtation
with Communism he saw the light and joined a few others in establishing
a student Liberal Society.
Despite the dominance of Laski and Dalton, who gave the LSE its
undeserved reputation as a hot-house of Socialism, Seldon imbibed
there his life-long belief in the commanding tenets of classical
liberalism, based on secure property rights and open competitive
markets as the foundation of long-run prosperity and individual
After a First in 1937 he became research assistant to Sir Arnold
Plant before joining the Army. From 1942 to 1945 he served in North
Africa and Italy, emerging unscathed, apart from a stiffened right
arm resulting from an infection.
After 1945, Seldon returned to what he always called "the School",
where he tutored part-time students in the commerce degree bureau
and was appointed a staff examiner. From 1946 to 1949 he edited
a retail trade journal, Store, where he met and married Marjorie
Perrott, (née Willett) whose uncle invented Daylight Saving
Time. She was a war widow with a son, whom Arthur adopted.
For the next decade Seldon worked as economic adviser to the brewing
industry and found himself gently advising heads of famous family
firms that they must improve their amenities at a time when they
were vulnerable to take-over bids. He had seen that dividend limitation
kept company shares far below the site value of many pubs.
In January 1957, on the initiative of a Liberal peer, Lord Grantchester,
Seldon was introduced to Ralph Harris (now Lord Harris of High
Cross), who was general director (and sole employee) of the newly-formed,
independent Institute of Economic Affairs, of which Seldon soon
became editorial director.
In a single week-end at the Reform Club he drafted a paper, published
a few months' later as Pensions in a Free Society. It unfashionably
declared: "The philosophy underlying this paper is that most of
us are now adult enough to be left, or to be helped, to live our
own lives according to our own lights... The transition from dependence
to independence must be gradual; that is all the more reason for
There followed a remarkable 30-year partnership between Seldon
and Harris that produced more than 300 scholarly books and papers
which contributed powerfully, perhaps decisively, to the turn-round
in party politics from the Keynesian-collectivist consensus of
Butskellism to the market-centred programmes of Thatcher and Blair.
As self-confessed members of the awkward squad, Seldon and Harris
were soon writing seminal studies of advertising and hire purchase
in the free society series, and later co-authored further reports,
including several on public versus private welfare.
The IEA had been set-up as an educational charity by a Sussex
farming entrepreneur named Antony Fisher from the early profits
of the Buxted Chicken company. While Harris built up the finances
and student network of the Institute, Seldon became the incomparable,
pro-active editor, orchestrating a rapidly growing academy of scholars,
including Hayek, Milton Friedman and several other Nobel Laureates,
as well as unknown junior scholars whom he coached to prominence.
Seldon identified not only important, but misunderstood or neglected,
topics. After surviving an operation for an ulcer only when his
rare blood group - for which stocks were unavailable - was matched
to a bus driver from Edgware after a frantic search, he wrote The
Price of Blood (1964), which argued for the market to be let loose
to increase blood supplies.
He matched authors to each subject and urged them to develop analysis
with recommendations for policy, but with no regard for what was
then thought "politically impossible". His aim was to destroy
the post-war consensus and rehabilitate the classical liberal philosophy
of limited government based on a competition and the widest freedom
of personal choice.
When faint-hearts dwelt on obstacles to radical reform, he declared
that market forces would triumph over the short-term, opportunistic
manoeuvres of puny party politicians. Yet despite his unceasing
advocacy of the education voucher, in which he was especially helped
by a devoted and energetic wife, he was doomed to watch his hopes
dashed by mounting spending.
He was a pioneer in Britain of the American "public choice" school,
which led him to confront the frequent cry of "market failure" with
the charge of what he called "incorrigible government failure".
The trouble he diagnosed was "that politicians are not generally
saints pursuing the long-term public interest, but party politicians
responding to demands from organised lobbies".
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.
His scholarly magnum opus entitled simply Capitalism (1990) failed
to attract the public attention it deserved. But in his more populist
writing he never ceased to challenge all three political parties. "The
ultimate solution is nothing less than the displacement of 'public
officials' and 'public servants' by the revival of the authority
of parents to reject inadequate schools, crowded medical centres
and captive housing, by empowering them to pay fees, medical insurance
or other costs," he wrote in 2001.
On his 80th birthday, Lady Thatcher wrote to offer her congratulations,
declaring that Seldon had made "an invaluable contribution to the
political and economic map of Britain.
"At a time when free enterprise and the free market were unfashionable
you championed their cause, laying the foundations for their revival
in the 1970s… You always refused to accept Britain's decline
and through your visionary work and rigorous preparation, you inspired
much of our success during the 1980s."
Seldon was a Founder Trustee of the Social Affairs Unit, a Vice-President,
and the first Honorary Fellow, of the Mont Pelerin Society, an
Honorary Fellow of the LSE, and an honorary graduate of the private
University of Buckingham - of which he might be regarded as the
intellectual begetter. By comparison, many thought the CBE he was
awarded in 1983 inadequate recognition of his service as a leading
architect of the economic reforms associated with Thatcherism.
Seldon's phenomenal industry continued in his later years, when
his books included The Dilemma of Democracy and The Retreat of
the State (both 1998); Government: whose obedient servant? (2000)
and The Making of the IEA (2002). His work as an author was crowned
by the recent publication of his Collected Works, in seven volumes,
by Liberty Fund of Indianapolis, edited by Professor Colin Robinson,
his successor as editorial director at IEA. The final volume is
to be launched in December; a conference on his work is to be held
He was fond of cricket and opera, and was particularly noted for
the "parties for non-conformists" which he and Marjorie threw at
their house near Sevenoaks.
Arthur Seldon is survived by his wife and by their three sons.