All Commentary
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Arthur Seldon: A Life for Liberty

Historians who look at think tanks usually write about their presidents or scholars. But Colin Robinson’s life of Arthur Seldon (1916–2005) is one of the few biographies that looks at a think-tank editor. Although Seldon was a prolific author, whose collected works fill seven volumes, his most important legacy was as cofounder and editorial director of Britain’s Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) from 1957 to 1988. While with the IEA Seldon edited over 350 books, many of which significantly influenced Margaret Thatcher and her allies in Britain’s free-market reforms of the 1980s. Arthur Seldon: A Life for Liberty substantially adds to our knowledge of this important figure.

This biography’s primary author is Colin Robinson, an emeritus professor at the University of Surrey and Seldon’s successor as IEA editorial director. But the first chapter adapts an unpublished manuscript by Chris Tame, who was commissioned to write Seldon’s biography but died before finishing his manuscript. In addition, Martin Anderson, Stuart Waterhouse, and Basil Yamey, who knew Seldon at various periods of his life, supply reminiscences.

Arthur Seldon was born Abraham Margolis in London in 1916. After his parents died in 1918, he was adopted by Eva and Mark Slaberdain and given the name Arthur Slaberdain. In 1939 he changed his name to Arthur Seldon.

Robinson finds several influences on Seldon’s early thinking. He grew up in a Jewish ghetto whose residents believed in self-reliance and self-help organizations as the way to climb out of poverty. A history teacher in high school, E. J. Hayward, taught courses that strongly emphasized the importance of liberty in British history. In 1934 Seldon won a scholarship to the London School of Economics, where his studies with F. A. Hayek, Ronald Coase, Lionel Robbins, and Arnold Plant enhanced his understanding of free-market economics.

After serving in the British army during the war, Seldon worked for a magazine about retail stores and for the Brewers’ Society until he was recruited for the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1956. The IEA was the first British free-market think tank. Seldon’s job as IEA’s principal editor, Robinson writes, was to produce studies “to be written primarily by academic economists but carefully edited by him—with the specific purpose of explaining, in language that could be understood by those not technically trained in economics, the practical benefits of voluntary action in competitive markets, the virtues of self-help and the disadvantages of state intervention.”

Seldon was a masterful editor, able to turn dense economic treatises into pellucid prose. He invented the idea of a series of papers, between 10,000 and 15,000 words each, which argued for a particular reform. Many economists, even those sympathetic to IEA’s free-market positions, chose to limit their conclusions to what they considered “politically possible.” Seldon urged his authors to pursue their analyses to their logical conclusions—even if those conclusions were quite radical.

Seldon liked to use a military metaphor to explain IEA’s goal. The institute, he argued, would be like long-range artillery, launching shells into statist lines from a great distance. The IEA, he argued, “would never be the infantry, engaged in the short-term face-to-face grappling.” Rather than quickly generated policy analyses, Seldon believed that the IEA should produce thoroughly researched, detailed studies to persuade a skeptical audience of the virtues of the market.

Over his career Seldon edited many great economists, including Milton Friedman and Gordon Tullock. Most of the authors respected his skills as an editor. Hayek admired Seldon’s editorial work so much that he asked Seldon to complete his trilogy Law, Legislation, and Liberty if he passed away before he finished it (thankfully, that didn’t happen). Seldon’s influence shows up in surprising places; according to Martin Anderson, Seldon’s assistant in the 1970s and 1980s, he “was an enthusiastic adviser” to Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn when they wrote the scripts for “Yes, Minister,” a television comedy that remains a very funny critique of government bureaucracy.

As for Seldon’s own writings, Robinson finds two works particularly significant. In 1968 Seldon nearly died because of a botched blood transfusion following an ulcer operation. Seldon’s response was The Price of Blood, a controversial study that called for blood to be bought and sold. Another important book was The Riddle of the Voucher (1986), an exploration of why Britain failed to adopt educational vouchers.

How significant was Seldon? In economics, Robinson argues that Seldon was crucial both in introducing Public Choice theory to Britain and in emphasizing the importance of monetary economics, by publishing papers by Milton Friedman and Sir Alan Walters. Robinson also believes that Seldon-edited papers provided analyses used by the Thatcher administration in Britain’s deregulation of the 1980s.

Arthur Seldon: A Life for Liberty is an important biography of a major libertarian figure.

  • Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center, a contributing editor to Philanthropy, and a education book reviewer of The Washington Times.