I am saddened to hear that Samuel Brittan has died at the age of 86. He wrote columns on economics and politics in the Financial Times that were often described as “essential reading” for almost 50 years, as well as essays and books. He described himself as a “sort of individualist liberal,” writes the FT, with “lasting hostilities: to politicians (with rare exceptions), the Treasury and economic forecasting.”
In 1973 he wrote a brilliant essay titled “Capitalism and the Permissive Society,” which is included in his book by that name (later reissued as A Restatement of Economic Liberalism) and in The Libertarian Reader. He noted that in recent decades the advocates of personal freedom and of economic freedom have often found themselves on opposite sides of the political spectrum, with supporters of economic liberty lining up with Republicans or the British Conservative party and those who defend civil liberties and personal freedom becoming Democrats or Labour party supporters. In the 18th and 19th centuries no such distinction was made, and those who favored freedom — both personal and economic — were found in the liberal movement. The logical connection among various liberties remains, however, and in that essay Brittan argued that “competitive capitalism is the biggest single force acting on the side of what it is fashionable to call ‘permissiveness,’ but what was once known as personal liberty.” He pointed out that although capitalists and the young people of the Sixties regarded each other as the enemy, both the market economy and the “counterculture” were based on the idea of “doing your own thing.”
The FT notes the themes of some of his other books:
His books included Left or Right: the Bogus Dilemma, in which he argued that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin had more in common with each other than either had with middle‐of‐the‐road politicians, and Is There an Economic Consensus?, in which he showed that economists of all political persuasions agree more closely with each other than they do with non‐economists.
The FT’s Editorial Board adds:
He was a passionate believer in freedom from any sort of tyranny, political or personal, a true intellectual and a man of conscience.…
He was known for his belief in free markets. But this was more because of his conviction that they expressed and supported liberty than that they would make everybody rich. He was well aware, too, that a society with free markets, such as Victorian England, could be replete with squalid tyrannies. His liberalism was far broader than this. He believed in freedom in all domains — economic, social and political.
That belief made him ambivalent towards Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. “The greatest paradox of Thatcherism, and to some extent Reaganism,” he wrote, disapprovingly, “is the contrast between their economic individualism and their authoritarianism in other areas”. Brittan hated violence and coercion. Essentially a pacifist, he condemned what he saw as the immoral sales of arms.
Brittan was knighted in 1993, so if I were British I would call him Sir Samuel Brittan. As an American republican, I just call him one of the most insightful economic journalists of the past half‐century. RIP.