Commentary (The Times)

Obituary: Seldon [Arthur] (1916-2005) [free market thinker & IEA co-founder]

Document type: Press
Source: The Times , 13 October 2006
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 869 words
Themes: Conservatism, Economic policy - theory and process, Liberal & Social Democratic Parties, Social security & welfare

Arthur Seldon

May 29, 1916 - October 11, 2005

Economist whose rejection of state intervention came to underpin the Thatcherite belief in free-market policies

ARTHUR SELDON was a prophet of what came to be called Thatcherism. The Thatcherite revolution of the 1970s and 1980s had many roots, but one was certainly a sea change in the intellectual climate of the times, and Seldon played a huge role in that sea change.

For years the State had been seen as the pre-eminent force in managing the economy and providing social security. Seldon was a tireless advocate of replacing the welfare state and of allowing natural economic laws of supply and demand to increase national wealth more effectively than the man in Whitehall could ever do.

Not that he had ever been an enthusiast for the Conservative Party. Fundamentally Seldon was an old-fashioned Liberal who believed in the liberty — and responsibility — of the individual.

The causes he espoused, for replacing state welfare by encouragement of the individual to provide for his own care, were dismissed at the time as eccentric or dangerous. He had the satisfaction as a prophet of seeing his ideas absorbed into political thinking, not just by Thatcher’s Conservatives but later by Blair’s new Labour. What had been dangerous thinking in the 1960s was accepted as sensible and orthodox in the 1990s.

In the 1960s and 1970s Seldon was a voice in the wilderness as he hit out at the folly of Labour and Conservatives politicians alike as they expanded state welfare and fiddled with the economy.

From his desk in the modest offices of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), around the corner from the Houses of Parliament, he strove relentlessly to educate opinion to see that ordinary people’s welfare and prosperity would be better served by “rolling back the State”.

Seldon was born in the East End of London. At the age of 3 he was orphaned — his parents died of the Spanish flu — and he was adopted by a cobbler and his wife. His education began at Dempsey Street Elementary School, Stepney. He went on to Raine’s Foundation School and then to the London School of Economics, where he took a first in 1937.

After the war, during which he served in Africa and Italy, he was editor of the magazine Store, where he developed his ideas on the harm done to the economy by the notorious British distaste for commerce and salesmanship and the other trappings of free enterprise. Significantly, his first book (in 1959) was Advertising in a Free Society.

Meanwhile, he was active in Liberal politics. He was chairman of the party’s committee on the aged in 1948-49, and he took part in one of the most famous by-election campaigns of the century — at Orpington in 1962 — when the Liberals took the seat from the Tories and seriously shook the confidence of the Macmillan Government. From then on, the writing was on the wall for old-style Conservatism. Tories had to rethink their philosophy.

In 1959 Seldon became co-founder and editorial director of the IEA. Sloppy thinkers often dismissed the IEA as a Conservative cover organisation. In fact it was always careful to preserve its independence, and recognised that much of its inspiration came from Liberal doctrines of free trade.

Being limited as a public speaker by a noticeable stutter, Seldon was obliged to expound his ideas in print. As a writer or editor he produced an avalanche of books, pamphlets and articles in newspapers and journals challenging the “postwar consensus”, which had seen the Conservatives accepting many of the doctrines of the Attlee Labour Government.

The IEA’s influence among politicians, academics and journalists was enormous. Seldon’s part in this helped to change economic opinion abroad as well as in Britain. In his particular specialism, the financing of welfare services, he was in demand as a consultant and adviser. In the late 1960s he was a member of the committee on health financing of the British Medical Association and adviser to the Australian Cabinet committee on welfare.

He fostered exchange of information on how Britain’s welfare state compared with other countries. He became involved with many politico-economic institutes in Europe and the US. From 1980 to 1986 he was vice-president of the respected Mont Pèlerin Society — the group, which advocates “classical liberalism” and free-market economic policies, arose from a conference organised in 1947 by Friedrich Hayek at the Swiss resort of Mont Pèlerin.

Much of Seldon’s writing was done jointly with the IEA’s director and co-founder, Ralph Harris, later Lord Harris of High Cross. The long list of the titles of his books gave the flavour of the message: they included Choice in Welfare (1963); After the NHS (1968); The Great Pensions Swindle (1970).

In an article in The Times he once explained how the natural political alignment in British voting was not between Left and Right but between a Minimal State Party (“with a Whiggish flavour”) and a Paternalist Party. He was in no doubt that the majority of voters would opt for minimal interference by the State, because they knew better how to run their lives and would spend their own money better than politicians.