Liberty Matters

What Work Would Arthur Seldon Be Encouraging Today?


I think the points made by Nigel are challenging and should give all of us pause. I agree with the list of areas of intellectual enquiry that Arthur pioneered or encouraged work on.  I am afraid that I broadly agree with Nigel’s gloomy view that little progress has been made in the 10 areas Arthur identified. However, I would qualify this. I think work has been done in all of these areas, but what has failed is the translation process from academic research and publications to the wider audience of the educated public and the academy in general.  As a result, all kinds of analyses have been made by scholars that have not so far had any real impact on semi-popular discussion or on textbooks. One example would be Alberto Alesina’s work on the optimum size of political units.[18] There are signs that this is starting to change, such as the popular success of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s work,[19] but these are very much at the “green shoots” stage. In other areas this is clearly still not the case. For example, in the first on the list, a huge amount of work has been done by economic historians on the history of capitalist modernity and related topics such as the nature of early industrial society in Britain or the nature of post 16th century slavery and the reasons for its demise, or the nature and effects of the New Deal, but popular discussion of these issues is still dominated by ideas and narratives that were formed in the 1950s. A related problem is that many of the scholars doing these kinds of work have done it in an explicitly non-ideological way. The difficulty is that as a result, the findings and arguments float free of any specific context of general principles and concerns, and the conclusions that follow from the work for the bigger questions are not spelt out. The need is to persuade people in the academy that intellectual integrity and high academic quality are perfectly compatible with an explicit commitment to a broad ideology (or explicit Weltanschaung if you prefer). That combination was crucial to Arthur’s intellectual project and needs to be recovered.
Nigel also asks if there have been intellectual developments in other disciplines than economics that would be added to Arthur’s list if we were to draw it up today. I think that there have been, particularly in history, philosophy, and psychology, although there are major gaps such as anthropology, theology, and sociology. I would note work on the nature of the self, personal identity, and consciousness; the connections between capitalist modernity and the gradual lenifying of personal behavior and a corresponding decline in violence (an old idea but now put on much more robust foundations); the nature, origins, and development of political power and of different kinds of state; in particular a much better understanding of the history and nature of empires; and a much clearer grasp of the nature of the modern state and its conflicted connection to liberty.
What kinds of project would somebody in Arthur’s kind of position look to encouraging today? I would identify firstly the one Nigel pointed to, that of producing a worked out theory of government failure (as opposed to entertaining accounts of particular examples of government cock-ups).  Another would be to explicitly examine and criticize the emerging consensus view that we may be facing a condition of secular stagnation. Yet another would be to try to revive the traditional liberal form of class analysis and produce a rigorous economic sociology of ruling-class composition and power. There others that I can think of, but those would be a good start.
[18] Alberto Alesina, “The Size of Countries: Does It Matter?” Journal of the European Economic Association, 1:2-3 (2003), 301-16.
[19] Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (London, Profile Books, 2013).