All Commentary
Friday, September 1, 1995

The State is Rolling Back: Essays in Persuasion

Seldon Makes the Continuing Case for Capitalism

Arthur Seldon is what Hayek has called a “professional secondhand dealer in ideas.” This is actually high praise and well deserved. For Hayek had in mind the intellectual in his role as an “intermediary in the spreading of ideas.” In a myriad of ways, Seldon is a model for us all. He is a Founding President of the Institute for Economic Affairs in England. Under his able editorial direction, IEA didn’t just focus on a sort of vacuous public policy. Its prodigious output of books and papers (Seldon authored many of them and edited over 350) combined the highest intellectual quality with a deep commitment to the principles of liberty. There is little doubt that the world in which we live is different because of the sustained work and dedication of Seldon and men and women like him.

The State is Rolling Back is a sampling of 54 (out of some 230) journalistic pieces he wrote between 1937 and 1990. We are given an intriguing snapshot of a young man committed to classical liberal ideas when it was assumed that the welfare state was inevitable and permanent. The battle of ideas over politics is evident in every article. The more recent articles celebrate the successes of capitalism that would have been difficult to conceive of nearly 50 years earlier.

The majority of the pieces here take us through the slow disintegration of the English welfare state from 1950 through 1992. Economic progress and the careful presentation of free-market ideas combined to roll back the state. These are informative controversies here. Seldon’s discussions of the perils of the English social insurance and state pension system apply to Social Security. His critique of government funding of education and of the welfare system are very helpful.

And yet, Seldon is very aware of the continuing dangers of statism. He warns advocates of free markets not to become too enamored of what is “politically possible.”

One should never forget the principles and moral arguments that make these ideas so compelling and universal. One of the last articles in this book presents a wonderful goal and challenge, “Too Little Government is Better than too Much.” (Of Seldon’s other work, one is especially important to mention. His 1990 book Capitalism is a very good exposition of the theoretical, moral, and practical case for capitalism. It was reviewed in the June 1991 Freeman.)

These short articles are also well worth reading as models of how we should make the continuing case for capitalism. They all show an honesty and respect for all ideas. They are, in a word, civilized, following Hayek’s injunction to be “mild in manner, strong in argument.” They don’t just make the case for free markets, but they were, I suspect, convincing to many of their readers. One can’t help suspecting that it is the decades-long effort to make continually the case for liberty in the newspapers and magazines of England that had the most sustained—though less remembered—impact on our lives. We need more young writers to make that kind of commitment Seldon made and challenges us to make. []

Mr. Hamilton is a consultant for foundations and is a former editor of The Freeman at FEE.