Alberto Mingardi  

Could we have another Arthur Seldon?

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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.


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CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture



COMMENTS (5 to date)
Roger McKinney writes:

Thanks for the intro to a man I knew nothing about.

I think a career like Seldon's might be possible in the US with several caveats. He would never reach a wide audience because the number of people who can appreciate good writing is very small. Literary journals are a good example.

He might have to work like TS Eliot: do his writing/editing on the side. It would help to be a university professor to do that.

But depending on voluntary contributions like most think tanks do, you would have to try for a much broader audience than the one that can appreciate good writing and sound thinking. Most Americans want to hear nothing but foaming at the mouth thrashing of political opponents.

Back in the 70's when I was an undergrad in journalism the op-ed/editorial/political section of the paper was the least read. Few people cared about politics. It was considered a necessary evil. Today, that's all people care about, but they don't want to read good writing with sound logic. They want anger and vitriol and blood spilling everywhere. Very sad.

Is there anyone writing/editing today close to what Seldon did in your opinion? If so, I would love to read it.

Tim Worstall writes:

"3. policy production shops like Heritage or the Adam Smith Institute,"

I'm entirely uncertain about this description. I am at the ASI (as a Senior Fellow) and that isn't how I see either my or our role at all. Madsen Pirie has described our role as being the voices howling in the wilderness. And a decade later everyone agrees that this is a jolly good idea. So much so that our origination of the idea is forgotten: the prime case being the London Congestion Charge which the ASI supported for decades but which was actually brought in by Ken Livingstone. Not someone who would admit the origination of that idea (the real primary origination was Alan Walters of course, back in the 1950s).

I have seen two ideas of mine move towards becoming standard assumptions. One is now actually law (shared parental leave) and one rapidly becoming common (the difference between the living wage and minimum wage is the amount of tax that is charged to the working poor. Reduce that tax burden and the minimum wage *is* the living wage).

These were not injections into policy at all. They were entirely analysis that convinced people to change their minds.

Oddly, the only work I have done for the IEA (on the FTT) was a direct feed into policy.

To some extent I think the positions have switched in recent years, the ASI/IEA ones.

David Friedman writes:

I wonder if the role of the IEA hasn't been largely taken over by blogs and web pages. Forty years ago, if I wanted to put an idea into circulation I pretty much had to find someone such as the IEA or a magazine to publish it. Now I can simply do it, and do it much more easily, by putting it up as an essay on my blog. Allowing for both people who regularly read my blog and people who will see an idea sufficiently interesting so that other blogs put up links to it, I probably get at least as large an audience as I would have for a pamphlet published by the IEA.

The nearest I can see to a role for someone like Selden would be as a free lance editor/advisor working with people who shared his political views to help them write better. And the equivalent of the IEA itself may now be the sort of blog that has a large readership and consists mostly of links to posts on other blogs.

Andrew M writes:

Whether a career like Arthur Seldon's (whom I knew when I was an undergraduate) is possible today depends on whether there is demand for what the IEA under his direction produced: intellectually responsible condensations of serious academic research accessible to intelligent and committed readers who lack either the time or the ability to review the original scholarly literature for themselves.

The blogs that I know do not produce this product, by the way, partly because even the longest blog posts are way shorter than the typical IEA paper was--and needed to be.

I fear the demand does not exist, because attention spans have shortened.

Alberto Mingardi writes:

Thanks for the comments. I highly sympathize with Roger McKinney’s and Andrew M’s pessimism. Politics is for a good deal a show, and anger and vitriol and blood spilling meet a borderline demand than “good writing with sound logic”.
I think the point on the shortening of attention spans is very interesting. On the one hand, I would tend to agree: the success of Twitter among policy wonks seem to prove the point. On the other hand, is it just my impression, or there is a tendency on the part of publishers to have social scientists producing very, very big tomes? It would be very interesting to have information on what are the most downloaded publications from different think tanks.
I largely agree with David Friedman’s point: think tanks were/are basically middlemen, and the Internet is disintermediating them. I perhaps romantically continue however to see a role for publishers, or think tankers - which may well consist in stimulating authors and keeping more alerted than they are, on areas in which work is needed to support a given set of ideas (in the IEA/in our case, the ideas of a free society). Sure, there are many cases in which think-tanks have failed in doing that: the 2007-2008 financial crisis, for example. There was very little, back then, that could have helped arguing a solid libertarian case in the face of what happened, in the major think tanks’ arsenal. People may argue that funding reasons oriented the research elsewhere. I think there were also genuine mistakes being done, by those whose job is commissioning research on subjects they consider relevant/ important for the sake of pursuing they mission to advance a certain set of ideas.
I find the idea of a free lance advisor that helps people to write better very interesting (I’d like to have one!).
On Tim Worstall’s point, I agree that organizations tend not to stick in the cells of Steve Davies’s table. We are talking, after all, of a very small group of people (and yet now it’s larger than ever!) and we should simply consider the fact that some of them may want from time to time to change their focus, or may grow dissatisfied with their previous approach and try to develop a new one. I suppose funding may play a role too, particularly in the US where competition for resources is more intense and today think tanks have somehow to compete with successful grass roots groups.

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