Liberty Matters

Imagining Arthur Seldon Today

First let me thank Dr. Ashford, Professor Boettke, and Dr. Davies for their insightful responses to my appreciation of Arthur Seldon. While we have slight differences of emphasis, it is mostly hard to squeeze a cigarette paper between us.
Before turning to some of the issues they raise, let me amplify one point in my opening paper, namely the tensions that arose when in 1979 Ralph Harris received a peerage and Arthur got nothing. (Incidentally, Ralph’s story of his choice of title with Garter King of Arms at the College of Arms is hilarious. Before settling on “of High Cross,” a local focal point in Tottenham, where he grew up, they argued over many other possibilities, the first of which was “of Cambridge,” where Ralph had studied. He wanted to cock a snook at the Keynesians, but Garter would have none of it for heraldic, not political, reasons.)
Ever the politician, Ralph immediately knew there would be tensions. At IEA lunches and at outside speeches to free-market conferences, such as the one I ran in Oxford in late 1979, he would proclaim that his peerage was to be shared by all of us who had fought for a market-based society before Margaret Thatcher’s spring 1979 victory. We little band of warriors were now all members of the House of Lords!
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From then on, until well into the current century, Ralph did everything he could to redress the balance. He lobbied intently behind the scenes for Arthur to receive due recognition, and honors began to come his way. He was made an Hon. Ph.D. by the University of Buckingham, then the United Kingdom’s only private university, founded at the IEA based on a paper Arthur had edited, Toward A Private University by Harry Ferns (1969). He was made a Commander of the British Empire, or CBE, by the Queen – which is one notch short of a knighthood. The LSE made him a Fellow and the Mont Pelerin Society made him its first ever such.
I was recruited into all of this, and when we remodeled the ground floor of the IEA, creating a big rectangular function room, we called it The Arthur Seldon Room and hung in it a large color portrait of him. Ralph insisted nothing be named after him, so the board room was not rebranded and a two-room area on the first floor was remodeled and became The Fisher Room.
I was so tuned into this program of Ralph’s that when a representative of Liberty Press called me one day to say, “We are thinking of doing the Selected Works of Arthur Seldon,” I replied, “I think the Collected Works might go down better!” and he speedily agreed. When Liberty Fund later inquired about filming Lord Harris for its Intellectual Portrait Series,” I replied: “I’m sure Lord Harris would be happy to participate, but he’d be ten times happier if the film was of him and Arthur!” Liberty Fund agreed, and it was done over two days at the IEA offices. Watching the finished product, it is obvious to me that Ralph several times holds back (sticking his pipe into his mouth and looking off into the distance) to ensure Arthur gets a clear run at answering the question, or I should write, “Dear Arthur,” as that is what Ralph always said.
Let me turn to the three comments.
Dr. Ashford is spot on to write of Arthur’s big frustrations. Yes, there were many victories (too many to list here) in the broadly economic sphere, but with health, education, and welfare Arthur’s artillery shells just bounced off the armor plating. I earlier mentioned education vouchers. Let me amplify. It is the height of Thatcherism. Margaret made Keith Joseph (her closest, longest standing friend in the Commons and her soul mate) as her secretary of state for education. Arthur launched his artillery shells. In Tory Kent, where he lived, his wife built a grassroots campaign for a countywide experiment. Yet still the educational establishment, bureaucrats and unions, prevailed.
(This episode reminds me of how shocked Margaret Thatcher was when, as secretary of state for education herself, she attended the annual dinner of a big teacher trade union only to see her entire senior staff being very friendly with the union bosses.)
Let me pick up on two of many points made by Dr. Davies.
First, is a career like this still possible? He makes the excellent point that the university research assessment exercise (RAE) employed to rank departments and steer money does not reward you for an IEA monograph, however famous it might make you. I would counter that those affected are but a small subset of the potential talent pool; there are many good IEA writers in industry; banking; the City of London, the capital's financial district; and operating as independent consultants. The IEA’s first ever book was written by a financial journalist no less. Also my hunch is that the RAE is not so critical once faculty become well-established. But the point does remain. I would also add that Arthur had three main successors, Dr. Cento Veljanovski, Professor Colin Robinson, and Professor Philip Booth, and they have not been too bad – as Brits say!
Dr. Davies makes an excellent point about the media. The number of outlets has exploded since Ralph and Arthur’s era. Because of his stutter, Arthur to my knowledge did only one TV program and that with Ralph at his side; Ralph once told me that in 30 years he went on TV thrice. Back then there were three radio stations and three TV stations, of which only four were relevant to the IEA, and on the print side there were, say, three major national newspapers with serious economics correspondents.
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So Ralph and Arthur focused, as noted above, on bringing in the heavyweights such as Jay and Hutber and Alexander and exposing them to Friedman, Hayek, and Buchanan. And it worked.
Dr. Davies ponders how to respond in today’s open freer media market, one created by the IEA for whom competition in broadcasting was a long-running theme. My own strategy (1993-2009) was to continue doing what Ralph and Arthur did, write as much as possible for the quality press, and appear myself a little more than they did. But what I added was to make the IEA a resource for names of experts for the media, and then when our referrals did well, they ended up as regulars and we dropped out of the picture. With the size of the IEA staff, that is clearly the best way to address Dr. Davies’s concern.
Professor Boettke comments on the nonsectarian nature of the IEA, or as I used to say, “We are a broad church.” And he is spot on. Arthur created a pipeline that was a blend of Austrian, Chicago School, and Public Choice economics, mixed with good micro, a healthy skepticism of macro, and a dash of law and economics.
Professor Boettke pegs his whole response on the Gordon Tullock question: “Why no IEA in the United States?” Tullock and Buchanan first asked this question in “Why No American IEA?,” included in an IEA collection of papers, The Emerging Consensus? (1981). Their answer then was that the United States has no London; in other words, that D.C. is more like a Brasilia or a Canberra, and that you’d have to roll up New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and San Francisco into one to create a U.S. “analogue to London.” It is because the IEA is at the heart of London, they said, it is at the heart of all the centers of gravity: intellectual, cultural, commercial, and political. They commented that the IEA had not been taken over by vested interests, but believed that (even with “the devotion, wisdom, and integrity” of both Ralph and Arthur) an IEA in D.C. “would have … become at least partially captured” by the monkeys (my word) in the “jungle.” This would have made it “incapable of exhibiting the long-range coherence of purpose that has been its London hallmark.”
Just as this essay came out in 1981, the Cato Institute was packing up its bags in San Francisco before moving to Washington D.C. Milton Friedman warned founder/president Ed Crane that he would be captured. For once Milton was wrong, as by implication were Buchanan and Tullock.
The capture threat is there, however, as I wrote in The Sunday Times in July 2009.[12] In Ralph’s day there was really only one think-tank, the IEA, and he dealt with top chairmen and CEOs. By the end of my 17 years, there were, say, a dozen, maybe 20 if you include the one-man outfits. Companies now have think tank budgets run by directors of public affairs who want something for their money. Professor Boettke really juices things up in his final two paragraphs.
He references “an initiative of Sir Antony Fisher,” which must mean the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, now trading as Atlas Network. By the early 1970s Ralph and Arthur had done such a good job that people the world over were asking, “How do you do this?,” and Antony began a final phase of his life helping to start, or helping soon after their launch, new IEAs, initially in cities such as Vancouver, B.C.; New York; San Francisco; Sydney; and Dallas. By 1981 he incorporated Atlas to give a focal point for this burgeoning industry.
Boettke’s complaint is that none of them have an Arthur Seldon and so they have slipped down the structure of production and have become more like “the Heritage model.” The new IEAs, he states, are “policy think tanks” or “grassroots think tanks.” He goes on: “What they don’t provide is intellectually rigorous arguments directed at the second-hand dealers of ideas to impact their general framework of analysis about economic issues.“
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I have been involved with the Atlas Network for 26 years and have served on its board for over 20 years, nearly 25 maybe. There is more than a germ of truth in Boettke’s claim, but let me say this:
1. I think he is a bit too sweeping. The early Atlas institutes led by men such as Dr. Michael Walker and Dr. John Goodman learned a great deal from the Seldon modus operandi. 2. You can only do, without an endowment, what your donor base will support. 3. Some (many?) of the newer institutes in Africa and Asia are operating in extreme conditions. 4. Some institutes are consciously downstream, such as London’s Adam Smith Institute, still very rigorous but enjoying the benefit of upstream IEA. 5. Many institutes take IEA products and translate them. Arthur and Ralph published Tullock’s The Vote Motive, and it was I was told translated 12 times. Gordon once said to me, “The Vote Motive did more to spread public understanding of Public Choice than any other single paper.”[13] 6. And finally the liberal tradition has been so lost for so long in so many countries that maybe they do not need an Arthur for the moment. I think of the late Donald Stewart in Brazil, who translated classic texts into Portuguese because, he said, there was just no base to build on with none of the fundamental texts available. And I recall over two decades ago friends in Austria and Sweden taking great risks to smuggle copies of Hayek, Friedman et al. behind the Iron Curtain.
But I do agree with Boettke’s main thrust, and as an Atlas trustee I do not hesitate to complain when I see a so-called think tank teaching Tea Party members how to paint placards or putting messages on beer mats. The latest vogue at the state level in the United States is to hire redundant investigative reporters. I spoke at one such think tank recently, which even publishes its own paper. I must have frowned or something because they immediately became defensive and one staffer blurted out, “But we’ve just put three Democrats in jail!”
This might all be very well and good – the more scoundrels of all parties in jail the better – but it’s not think-tank work and if Arthur were here he would be cautioning us: “The artillery should never desert the high ground.”
[12] John Blundell, “Fight to Keep Dirty Thoughts at Bay – John Blundell on the Need to Guard Think Tanks against Undue Influence,” Sunday Times, July 5, 2009; online at <>.
[13] Gordon Tullock, The Vote Motive (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1976. <>