Could we have another Arthur Seldon?
By Alberto Mingardi
The Online Library of Liberty is hosting an interesting symposium on the contributions of Arthur Seldon, the first, unforgettable editorial director of the IEA. Seldon studied at the LSE, where, like Ronald Coase, he found a mentor in Arnold Plant. In his remembrance of the LSE in the 1930s (“Economics at LSE in 1930s: A Personal View”, now in “Essays on Economics and Economists“), Coase mentions Seldon among Plant’s “many able students”, with Ronald Fowler, Ronald Edwards, Arthur Lewis and Basil Yamey. He joined the IEA in the Fifties, right after Ralph Harris (later Lord Harris of High Cross) was recruited by entrepreneur Anthony Fisher to set the Institute up.
John Blundell, who headed the IEA after Harris, notes how the opportunity to work in a think tank, though very precarious and insecure (the IEA was the first of its kind), suited Seldon well. He writes:
The IEA allowed Seldon to spread his wings. If he’d chosen academia, as he might well have, there would have been huge incentives to specialize in one narrow area. As editorial director of the IEA, he was not only a general but also a generalist, commissioning work on many fronts.
One of the most recognized Arthur Seldon’s talents was editing. He wanted IEA’s publications to be at the same time scholarly rigorous but readable by the educated layman. He demanded precision and banned jargon.
Dr Davies has a hilarious anecdote on the matter: “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!”. Too bad Seldon didn’t leave a record of his literary idiosyncrasies, something like Ambrose Bierce’s “Write It Right. A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults“.
Under the leadership of Seldon and Harris, the IEA was a particular kind of ideas shop. They published “intellectually rigorous books for the second-hand dealers in ideas”, and this allowed Seldon’s talents to blossom. The IEA has been the most effective of all classical liberal think tanks, in terms of its political impact: it baptized Thatcherism, and it played a seminal role in the development of economic policies that liberalized a big chunk of the British economy, as it was openly acknowledged by Mrs Thatcher herself. Some IEA authors were directly involved in the process.
However, the IEA did not aim to set the tone of the day-by-day political discussion. It basically followed Hayek’s view of how ideas influence politics, and focused on the higher end, so to say. As Pete Boettke points out, William Hutt wrote an insightful book, “Politically Impossible?“, that deplores the temptation of pragmatism and presents a problematic vision of the interplay of political ideas and political acts. It also helps to clarify the IEA’s approach. It was originally published as an Hobart paper, and in Seldon’s preface you can read that “the Institute has (…) no intention of venturing beyond severe economic analysis into judgments on political acceptability or administrative feasibility”.
I think Steve Davies asks an interesting question:
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.
My impression is that, particularly in the United States (where they tend to be more appreciated, better funded, and more relevant in the public debate), think tanks are increasingly focused on the here-and-now of the political game, and less on the impalpable world of ideas. Nigel Ashford notes that few think tanks today “would meet Arthur Seldon’s standards”. Steve Davies proposes the following classification of think tanks:
1. networking clubs for policy makers such as Council on Foreign Relations,
2. scholarly ones like the IEA,
3. policy production shops like Heritage or the Adam Smith Institute,
4. media-oriented or campaigning organizations
5. educational ones.
I suppose that most organizations tend to settle between two or three of these “types.” What their future would be, it is rather difficult to tell. Social media are great, but they are forcing many think-tanks to oversimplify their message. This won’t do much good to scholarly think tanks, neither to (serious) policy production shops. Also, one wonders to what extent social media are reducing the impact of “intermediaries” between ideas and the general public–the old target of the IEA. On the other hand, I suppose that competition for resources is now growing from grassroots groups: they are not party organizations, but they aim to influence party politics in a more direct way and perhaps with stronger weapons (activist pressure vs policy papers). I wonder whether think tanks are in the same position as the publishing industry: their function is still useful, but the particular actors performing it may change dramatically in the next few years. I don’t know if getting closer to politics is a good defensive strategy, in this context, nor what kind of think tanks will need to endure a more dramatic change (though, it seems to me that the Internet helps educational ones in their efforts to make classical texts more widely read). “Is a career like Arthur Seldon’s, with the impact that he had, possible today?” is a very good question indeed, though I fear the answer is no.