[This article appeared in the Winter 1990 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 503-510.] 

 

ARTHUR A. SHENFIELD:

A BRITON WHO EARNED AN HONORED PLACE IN AMERICA 

Dwight D. Murphey

Wichita State University

 

            When cancer claimed the life of Arthur A. Shenfield at age 80 in London on February 13, 1990, America lost one of its finest friends, and the world lost one of its most refined, cultivated and articulate champions of liberty.  Shenfield, a Briton, began his career as a barrister but soon evolved into a practicing economist and finally into one of the leading exponents of the philosophy of freedom.  His later years were mostly spent in this country, where he was a visiting professor at several American universities.  Efforts are now underway to collect his many writings so that they can be available to future generations.

            Readers will forgive me, I hope, for calling him Arthur through much of this article; its seems strangely impersonal to speak of a cherished friend by his last name, as “Shenfield.”  He and I got to know each other in the Philadelphia Society when we worked together to coordinate the papers we were giving on American Constitutional law at the Society’s 1981 annual meeting in Chicago.  (Though a Briton, Arthur had an abiding interest in American Constitutional law, and ranked among the more insightful commentators on it.)

            It is fitting that an article about Arthur be in the form, at least in part, of personal recollections of the man himself, since all who knew him were instantly impressed with him as a persona—which is to say, as a unique and vital human being. 

            When word came of his death, my wife asked me how old a man Arthur was.  I thought for a moment and guessed, “probably between 65 and 70.”  I was amazed, then, when I read his obituary in the London Times, which reported that he was eighty when he died!—a fact that was in no way evident from his enormous vitality and from the professional contributions he made all through the 1980s, the decade in which Arthur, who was born in 1909, was in his seventies.  His age means that he was a visiting professor and a prolific lecturer and author at a time in his life when most people are taking a well-earned rest.

            Arthur was a man of clear thought, and expressed some irritation whenever he came upon a show of what he thought was intellectual pretension.  Because of this, I would hesitate to call him a “complex man” if it were not so abundantly the case.  He was a number of things, all rolled into one unforgettable figure through a combination of vivacity, charm, wit and great learning.

            The encyclopedic knowledge that he brought inoffensively and gently to any conversation was legendary.  This was impressed upon me by a simple incident that occurred at the Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Indianapolis.  I was standing talking to a young man from one of the African countries—I believe Uganda or Ghana--, when Arthur spelled out for us delightfully far more about the country than the yound man knew himself. 

His Many Facets

            Speaking solely in terms of Arthur’s nationality, he was, first, proudly a Briton.  That he cherished British ways was evident to me when at one point he expressed regret that his failure to take an African ambassadorship had more than likely caused him to miss a chance at knighthood.  Since we were both “classical liberal” supporters of limited government and individual freedom—and accordingly shared an affinity for the Jefferson-Jacksonian tradition in American history--, I was tempted to remind him of the strong Jacksonian preference for “republican simplicity,” which found titles of nobility, and all other such trappings of aristocracy, offensive.  I restrained my impulse, though, since I knew that what he cherished most about Britain was precisely the flowering, there, in the nineteenth century, of what he saw as history’s highest expression of classical liberal values.  Arthur relished the fact that his wife, Dame Barbara Shenfield, herself an accomplished exponent of a free society, had attained knighthood (if that is what it is called for a woman; Arthur once instructed me on the difference between “barony” and “baroncy,” and so even after he is gone I am still on my guard about the nuances of such things.)

            Second, Arthur was an adoptive American, both because he spent much of the last third of his life here and because he was spiritually and intellectually so attuned to the best America has had to offer.  He first came to this country as a professor as long ago as 1963, when he put in a stint as a visiting professor of economics in the graduate school of business at the University of Chicago.  Three years later, he was back for yet another semester.

            It apparently wasn’t until 1974, though, that he decided to spend considerable time here.  (Following World War II, he had devoted ten years to the practice of law as a barrister, and then another twelve as the Economic Director of the Confederation of British Industry in London.)  Visiting professorships came his way over the next several years, at Temple University in Philadelphia, Rockford College, the University of California at Davis, the University of Dallas, the University of San Diego Law School, the Colorado School of Mines, Clemson University, Hillsdale College, and the University of Colorado.  From this, we might conclude either that he “couldn’t hold a job” or that he was highly valued by an entire series of American institutions of higher learning.  (We can safely leave it to the reader to decide which I think it was.)

            Arthur’s intellectual affinity for this country was perhaps best expressed by his expertise in American Constitutional law.  It must certainly be unusual for a Briton to be as knowledgeable about our Constitution as Arthur was, but his insights were so clear and sound that I once expressed regret to him that he weren’t an American—on the ground that he would have been an ideal Reagan appointee to our Supreme Court.  He would have given the conservative wing of the Court some much-needed intellectual direction.  His identification was with the great run of Constitutional decisions prior to the leftward turn of the Court in the late 1930s.  He did not repudiate the pre-New Deal classical liberal interpretation of the Constitution the way the “original intent” school does within a prominent branch of today’s conservative legal theory.  Arthur embraced the concept of the Constitution as a charter for limited government, and would have striven to renew that conception in the current situation.  The force of his personality and logic, and the quality of his thought and writing, would have placed him among the greatest of the justices.

            Third, at the risk of applying to him a shopworn cliché, Arthur can only be called a “man of the world.”  True, he was British; and true, he was American; but more than anything else he was a man of civilization.  A devotee of the thinking of Friedrich Hayek (although without a hint of the limitations that make caricatures out of so many disciples), his thought transcended parochial interests, and made the world its stage.  In common with Hayek, he thought in terms of principles rooted in long experience. 

Shenfield’s Thought

            Before we examine some of his thinking as we find it in his many monographs and articles, it will be helpful to express some overall assessment of it.

            I would not claim for Arthur, and he would not have claimed for himself, that he was one of our century’s premier intellectuals in the sense that he was an original thinker.  It is probable that the ideas behind everything he wrote can be found in the writings of his great predecessors in classical liberal thought—in the works of the likes not only of Hayek, but of Mises, Roepke, Boehm-Bawerk, Menger, Ricardo, Bastiat and Smith.

            But this is no criticism, unless only those are worthy who see what others have not seen.  Arthur’s merit lay elsewhere, in having so internalized the wisdom of civilization at its best that he spoke that wisdom with a fresh tongue and renewed insights.  His was no mere repetition of truths gleaned from others; it was a vital expression of truths as they came to be felt by a man of sparkling intelligence and enormous good will.  His voice was the voice of the educated and humane individual.  Thus, he was the epitome of what a civilization must have, and hopefully in abundance, if it is to reach its highest expression.

            We see the quality of Arthur’s mind in a passage from his Foreword to my Socialist Thought (Murphey, 1983 pp. ix-xii).  The passage shows that inherently he eschewed the narrowness of an ideologue, who in a partisan strait-jacket cannot depart from a mental groove to comprehend what opposing views are saying.  Note the fine temper and intellectual spirit of what he wrote: “Clearly, the true intellectual has a duty to seek to understand the phenomenon of socialist thought.  Its influence on Western liberal civilization is, and long has been, deep and wide.  Furthermore, duty or no duty, there is a fascination in it for men of ideas.  To dissect its occasional or partial glimpses of truth from its many misunderstandings and distortions provides a marvellous exercise for the analytical mind.”

            While in no sense pro-socialist, this passage shows an openness to inquiry that marks Arthur Shenfield as among the really genuine “intellectuals,” in the best sense of the word, of our time.  It is no wonder that Milton Friedman, in his own Foreword to some of Arthur’s lectures published under the title The Ideological War Against Western Society (Shenfield, 1970, p. 2), could say so accurately that “the lectures are calm and reasoned—yet suffused with a deep passion for truth and freedom.”  (It was Friedman, by the way, whom Shenfield succeeded in 1972 as the president of the Mont Pelerin Society, a position that Arthur filled for the ensuing two years.)

            There are many passages in Arthur Shenfield’s writings that could be selected to illustrate the sparkle of his analysis.  One of the passages I like best appears in his essay The Economic System—Rules, Yes; Authorities, No (Shenfield, 1990, pp. 3-4).  He has just posed the question of “why do men, who in some measure believe in the principles of the free political order, also believe in the socialization of the economy?”  To this, he has answered that socialists erroneously see a market economy, on the one hand, as suffering from formless chaos while thinking that a command economy, on the other hand, offers “form, shape, plan and direction.”

            In explaining why socialists are in error about this, Arthur used an example of a football game: 

            “Suppose a Martian arrived on our planet and landed at a football field… Watching the players butting and tackling each other, throwing each other to the ground, now kicking the ball and now throwing it, now huddling and now dispersing, all without apparent rhyme or reason, our Martian might well conclude that what he saw was pure chaos.  But we know better.  We know that there is a scheme of things, a plan, a pattern, in a football game which, if the game is well played, may exhilerate the players and entrance thousands of spectators.

            “Like our Martian the unschooled observer of the free economy sees men hurrying and scurrying in the acts of buying and selling, producing and consuming, saving and investing, without apparent rhyme or reason, and concludes that chaos is before his eyes… Hence our unschooled observer rushes to the State for aid, for only the State appears to have the controlling hand which is needed.  He knows that the free economy also operates with or under a State, but this seems to him to be a weak State…

            “[But] in a successful free or capitalist economy, the State is not a weak State.  It is a limited State.  Within its strictly limited sphere, it is a strong State.  Indeed it is precisely because it is limited that it is able to be a strong and effective State….

            “If a baseball umpire, dissatisfied with the play before him, suddenly decided to pick up a bat and hit the ball or to run between the bases or to take the place of the catcher or pitcher, we should not only be astonished, we should also understand that such acts would ruin the game.  Suppose that the umpire did not go so far as this, but decided at some point to direct the pitcher to throw a fast ball or a curve bull or ordered the runner to attempt to steal a base, again we should understand that the principles of the game had been violated… Such a game really would be incalculable and chaotic.” 

            I could quote more, but this suffices to show how well Arthur Shenfield understood the principles of a free society.  The ideas in the passage are readily identifiable as Hayekian, but Arthur, rather than simply parroting Hayek, gave them fresh voice because they articulated his own solid understanding.

            From all that has been said here, it can’t be surprising that Arthur held to a form of classical liberalism that saw the needs of a free society in all their dimensions.  Thus he avoided the oversimplifications that have weakened so many presentations of the case for individual liberty.  He was no friend to a “do your own thing,” freedom-divorced-from-community-and-responsibility conception of freedom.  There is great wisdom in the following passage from his essay “Myth and Reality in Economic Systems” (Shenfield, 1981, pp. 49-50): 

            “Was there ever a doctrine more flyblown, despite its grip on many notable minds, than that which sees capitalism as the system of atomistic individualism, without the cement which makes a true society?  Consider again the United States and Britain in the high noon of capitalism, and also Holland and Switzerland at a comparable time.  Were there ever more cohesive societies than these, with people more imbued with a common pride in their society…?

            “The error here lurks in the failure of the critics to understand the distinction between the political and the social, between state and society.  In his relation with the state, the free man insists on his individual rights.  He requires government to be limited and circumscribed in power… His loyalty is thereby enhanced, not diminished.  He does accord it a mystique, the mystique which enthuses him when he proudly declares that he lives in a free country….

            “At the same time, precisely because the state respects his individual rights, he finds it natural and easy to enter into a web of voluntary relationships with his fellow men, which is the true cement of his society.  Contrary to the assertions of his critics, he knows very well that a society is more than a mere assembly of individuals….” 

            At least three different colleges and think tanks have indicated an interest in gathering all of Arthur Shenfield’s writings and perhaps publishing them in a compilation.  More power to them, I say, both for the edification of those who will benefit, now and in the future, from reading his thoughts, and for the well-deserved honor it will afford to a man who so richly deserves our praise. 

 

References 

Murphey, Dwight D.

            1983   Socialist Thought, Washington: University Press of America.

Shenfield, Arthur A.

            1970   The Ideological War Against Western Society, Hillsdale: Rockford Institute.

            1981   Myth and Reality in Economic Systems, Heritage Foundation Lectures No. 4  Washington: The Heritage Foundation.

            1990   The Economic System—Rule, Yes; Authorities, No, - Lecture published posthumously by The Rockford Institute.  Hillsdale: Rockford Institute.