Happy birthday, IEA!
By Alberto Mingardi
On Thursday, the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs organized a gala dinner to celebrate its 60th anniversary. The same day Steve Davies, who is education director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, had a nice article summarizing the Institute’s achievements.
The IEA was incorporated in 1955, but its activities came to motion in 1957, when its founder–Anthony Fisher, a chicken farmer who was to be an inexhaustible promoter of free market think tanks–recruited Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon.
In thinking of the IEA, you cannot avoid remembering the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher, how she was deeply influenced by the IEA’s work, the fact that she partially implemented the IEA’s classical liberal ideas about taxation, privatization, and regulation. Steve Davies, however, did not refer to Thatcher in his piece. I think Steve was right in avoiding any mention of Thatcherism, because he wanted to focus on ideas and on method.
Insofar as the ideas are concerned, some of IEA’s ideas may now be associated with Thatcher but they were long quite unpopular among the Tories. The English referred to “Buskellism”, combining the names of the conservative (Butler) and labour (Gaitskell) chancellors of the exchequer, who shared a similar Keynesian approach. Davies rightly remembers that the IEA pioneered a critique of Keynesian macroeconomic policy and nationalization (which, yes, eventually bore fruit in the political world with Thatcher).
Here’s how Steve Davies describes IEA’s method:
The IEA sought to do this by producing commissioned scholarly research that was accessible and clear but of the highest intellectual standard. Equally important was that its output had no concern with what was “politically possible”. Rather, it put the case for sound economics, whether fashionable and politically feasible or not, and by doing this to actually make things that were unthinkable part of debate and ultimately politically possible.
This is what good, non partisan think tanks should do, though different environments and different societies may need this strategy to be accommodated and adjusted according to cultural sensibilities. The IEA did that waving the most unpopular of flags, in a very difficult time, and establishing a standard.
It succeeded in part because the dominant consensus was regularly failing its promises. But it also succeeded because of its human capital. Harris and Seldon were remarkable men. And, more important, they were so good for the job that it seemed that some all-knowing central authority planned them that way!
Their background was in the British working class. It was an important part of why they advocated classical liberalism: Harris and Seldon thought opportunities for the humble and the thrifty were provided less by the government than by markets. Self Help, by Samuel Smiles, that Victorian classic, was one of their favorites. They also had non-Keynesian economic education: Seldon at the LSE with Arnold Plant, Harris at Cambridge with Dennis Robertson.
The relationship between Harris and Seldon was something inimitable. They had talents that were different but equally instrumental to the IEA’s take off. Harris was a born spokesperson and learned to fund-raise successfully. Seldon was a creative and careful editor and talent scout. They matched perfectly.
Friendship helped. In writing on their partnership, Harris commented that “we grew closer together than either of us was to anyone else outside our respective families (…) We had our share of differences and periodic tensions, but it was never conceivable that we should separate.”
Think tanks are human ventures too: having competent people is key. But the chemistry among them is of vital importance too. Particularly in small establishments (but, I suspect, this is also true for much larger ones), people need a basic understanding of each other, and a complicity that goes beyond simple respect, to make a formidable team. This is particularly true when you are not in a trade for money or prestige but basically because doing what you think is *right* makes you feel better. When I think of Harris and Seldon, I am bound to remember that our cause (their cause, and–si parva licet–mine too) will prevail only insofar as we are able to find intellectually powerful allies, but also good people that care about it profoundly. Helping liberty to grow stronger is more a mission than a job, and you should remember that, even when you’re lucky enough that it becomes your job.
Turning 60, the IEA is in good hands, with Mark Littlewood, Philip Booth, Steve Davies and their wonderful team. I am sure Ralph and Arthur would be pleased.