Liberty Matters

Is Another Arthur Seldon Possible Today?

John Blundell’s engaging account of Arthur Seldon captures well some of the most important features of his character, career and influence. There are some points where I would add further emphasis to what John says, and others where I would qualify it. I think that in more general terms this account also raises a large and significant question for anyone interested in the role of ideas in public policy: Is a career of this kind, with its impact and consequences, still possible.
As someone who knew Arthur over many years and who was one of the young authors he brought on and developed, I can confirm and endorse John’s account of his character and style as editorial director. His editing style was indeed severe; I can vividly recall getting back my first piece for Economic Affairs and being dismayed by the swathe of blue penciled comments and directions in the margins. Somebody once circulated a spoof of the Seldon style, in the shape of his response to Hamlet’s soliloquy, such as: “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – How many? What proportion of slings to arrows? Be clear!” I certainly gained from my exposure to this, and it made me a much better and, I hope, effective writer. Arthur was a demanding editor, but what he wanted was clear and direct writing that incorporated only arguments that were coherent and supported by evidence. Above all he valued precision and clarity.
One point that John makes that I would expand and reaffirm concerns the nature of his intellectual background and orientation. It was indeed the LSE that was the source of this, and in particular Arnold Plant, whose seminar Arthur had participated in as a student. This explains one of the consistent themes of IEA work from the time that he arrived: a skepticism about Keynesianism and particularly the policy of macroeconomic management aimed at securing full employment (always in practice overfull for Arthur) as the central goal of economic policy.  This came from the views of the majority of economists at the LSE in the 1930s and 1940s, which included people such as Hugh Dalton and Evan Durbin, both leading Labour Party politicians. (Arthur always saw Durbin’s untimely death in as a tragic loss since in his view he would have moved Labour policy in a much more pro-market direction had he lived.)
Another point that bears emphasis is that of the nature and degree of Arthur Seldon’s antistatist radicalism. He was throughout his career as definite in this respect as any of the young turks he brought on and encouraged. He never saw himself in any way as being a conservative, much less a Conservative, and he remained always the thoroughgoing classical liberal to Ralph Harris’s market conservative. One slight qualification I would make here is that while the IEA did publish arguments in favor of contracting out public services, Arthur preferred that local government paid for any remaining services through user charges rather than taxes. His argument was not only that this would improve the services by introducing market incentives, but also that it would change the relationship between the public and government. I think it is fair to say that Arthur’s relations with members of the political class was always more distant and prickly than that of Ralph Harris, as the anecdote about the toast that John recounts shows. He would not have wanted it any other way, and this outsider’s stance was one of the keys to his success in what he did. 
This brings up another point where I would differ slightly from John in emphasis rather than substance. John stresses the success and impact of Seldon’s work, which was indeed considerable. Arthur himself, however, was more aware of the “misses” than of the “hits,” partly because of his radicalism, which meant that he judged the impact of the IEA by a high standard.  The education voucher was indeed his biggest disappointment, and he was strongly opposed to much of the education policy the Thatcher government did follow, in particular the national curriculum. However, there were a number of other areas where he felt that the arguments of his authors had fallen on stony ground. One in particular was the case for significant reductions in government spending, with his feelings captured in an IEA monograph written by his protégé John Burton with the title Why No Cuts?[3] Another was welfare policy in general, where politicians remained resistant to his arguments for a radical reassessment of both the content and scale of government action.
However, for me the major point that comes from reading John’s essay is the question I alluded to earlier. Is a career like Arthur Seldon’s, with the impact that he had, possible today? The general goal and “big idea” of the IEA was always clear from the start for Fisher and Harris, but as John indicates, there was some lack of clarity before Arthur arrived over how to realize this. If Antony Fisher’s instincts had been followed, the IEA would have ended up as a popularizing educational outreach institution like the Foundation for Economic Education. Alternatively it could have become a networking organization aiming at identifying and nurturing an intellectual “remnant” of the kind identified by Albert Jay Nock.  Or it could have gone down the route later followed by many think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Adam Smith Institute, concentrating on feeding definite policy proposals into the later stages of the policy-making process. None of these would have suited Arthur’s talents to the same degree as the route he identified and realized. As John says, this was to identify scholars both new and aspiring, and older and established, and persuade them to produce well thought-out monographs of high scholarly quality that put the market-liberal perspective on whole areas of public policy. The aim was to influence not so much the general public or the politicians and civil servants, but the “second-hand dealers in ideas,” identified all those years ago by Hayek – academics, teachers, lay intellectuals, and journalists.
In this Arthur was very successful, as John says. The question, though, is whether this can still be done. Arguably changes in the academy and the wider world since Arthur retired have made this strategy for intellectual change much more difficult to realize. John says, “Usually the research was a sunk cost.  Professor X had already had say three articles on topic Y in obscure academic journals that had been read by a few friends and family members. The IEA’s lure was a first print run of 3,000 copies,… press coverage, and a following.” I fear this is no longer the way things often are, for two reasons. The first is that often the papers and research simply do not lend themselves to digestion and publication in this way because of the introverted nature of the contemporary academy, where arguments and publications are increasingly esoteric and directed only at a few insiders instead of being of wider relevance and interest.  For economists the additional problem is the increasing formalism and mathematization of the field. The second problem is the change in career incentives for scholars. Getting a following and a publication with a wide readership now counts for much less in career terms than an article in a refereed journal, even if it is indeed only read by a handful of people.  In fact writing for bodies such as the IEA now has a considerable opportunity cost since it takes time away from turning out yet another technical journal article to add to the research assessment. This makes finding authors much more difficult.
Even more important is the change in the workings of the media. In Arthur’s time a key part of the strategy was to influence journalists, such as Sam Brittan, Andrew Alexander, and Patrick Hutber. They were the medium of transmission between the academy and the politicians and civil servants, as well as the wider educated public. Although there still are journalistic figures of this kind, the contemporary media have an intense focus on the short term and do not do the same kind of multiplier job that print journalism performed in the past. One response is to adapt and follow a strategy of trying to capture the daily media narrative and agenda, and at least ensure that the ideas are given a hearing in the 24-hour news cycle. This is probably necessary, but it is also a high-risk strategy: The contemporary media is rapacious and can easily consume its story providers, turning them into nothing more than a source of sound bites and arguments for phone-ins. This may have some passing impact on the wider public, but the key class of opinion formers that Hayek and Seldon identified are unlikely to be moved.
On balance I think that the career of Arthur Seldon can still be emulated, but this will require significant new thinking and changes of tactics, if not strategy. It is important, however, that this is done. Milton Friedman once stated that the advent of the large policy think tanks in the 1970s and 1980s had been bad for the freedom movement because it moved the focus away from high-quality thought, research, and argument to the shorter time horizons of politics. Gordon Tullock once posed the question why there was not an equivalent of the IEA in the United States and argued that the lack of an institution following Arthur’s kind of approach was a serious lack. It probably is the case that the kind of institution the IEA became (and broadly remains with his current editorial direction, Philip Booth) would not have been possible without Arthur and that it was his strategy that gave the Institute a status and intellectual standing that is unusual in the think-tank world. The question is whether this was a phenomenon of his own life and times or whether it can be reproduced. Let us hope so it can be.
[3] John Burton, Why No Cuts? (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1985).