The British have a gently mocking phrase to describe the kind of people whom we are all supposed to admire — the Great and the Good.
This week a large gathering of classical liberals and conservatives bade farewell to Ralph Harris — a great and good Briton who had, however, nothing to do with the Great and the Good.
Though he was elevated to the peerage by Margaret Thatcher as Lord Harris of High Cross, he never sat in the House of Lords as a Conservative, but preferred to retain his independence. Members of the Lords with no party affiliation are known as "cross-benchers," because they sit on the benches that cross the divide between the two main parties.
In the case of Ralph Harris, it would be truer to say that he needed a bench all to himself, as the sole representative of the "radical reactionary" faction, as he liked to describe himself.
It is a fairly safe bet that a man who wears fancy waistcoats, smokes a pipe, and parts his hair in the middle is going to be conservative in his tastes and slightly eccentric — a "character," if you will. But you might not expect him to be also one of the most brilliant evangelists for the free market who has ever lived. Yet that is what Ralph Harris was.
The Institute of Economic Affairs, which he founded half a century ago with Arthur Seldon and Anthony Fisher, was a free market think tank avant la lettre. Thanks to Harris' tireless enthusiasm, it has been emulated by some 200 similar organizations around the world. Harris went on to help found several more think tanks as well as Britain's first private university.
Ed Feulner was one of many who recalled first meeting Harris in the mid-1960s, as an American student at the London School of Economics, bearing a letter of introduction from "a crazy professor in Chicago." The professor was Milton Friedman. Harris took one look at the letter and offered the young Mr. Feulner a job at the IEA. Decades later, Mr. Feulner reminded Harris that he had been paid just £5, about $10, a day. Harris replied with a twinkle in his eye, "The market — she works!"
Far more valuable for Mr. Feulner than the modest salary was that he learnt how to have the courage of his convictions. Thanks in part to the inspiration of Harris' IEA, Mr. Feulner went on to help set up the Heritage Foundation, which in turn generated many of the ideas that fed the Reagan era.
The former editor of National Review and the National Interest, John O' Sullivan, put his finger on a paradox. Running a conservative student society in 1962, he was advised to invite Harris to address the members, but the young O'Sullivan was perplexed to find the prospective speaker described as a "liberal." "Yes, he is a liberal," he was told by the lady at Conservative headquarters, "but a very sound liberal!"
By combining the classical liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries with Conservative principles, Mr. O'Sullivan explained, Harris became one of the men who invented Thatcherism. Of course, he quickly added, it would all have come to nothing without the lady's own genius for translating theory into practice. Looking down at Lady Thatcher herself in the audience, he quoted her famous words to her colleagues: "The cock may crow, but it's the hen that lays the eggs!"
There was, Mr. O'Sullivan conceded, something quixotic about Harris, who loved nothing better than to tilt at the acres of windmills created by the environmental lobby. Someone else reminded the many politicians present that the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, is having a windmill built on top of his house — the height of green-tinged fashion in Notting Hill. "Sometimes it is easier to be a conservative outside the Conservative Party," remarked Mr. O'Sullivan dryly.
The Telegraph columnist, Simon Heffer, recalled the reception that Harris received at Cambridge University, the birthplace of Keynesian economics, in 1979, when he addressed a room full of economists and their students. Before he could even begin speaking, two-thirds of them walked out, in protest against the laissez-faire principles of Friedrich Hayek and Friedman that the IEA was promulgating. This was a prelude to a far more serious protest.
In 1981, 364 economists wrote to the Times of London to denounce the Thatcher government's monetarist policy, which was intended to reduce the inflation inherited from the socialists. It took real courage and resolution to ignore the jeremiads of the Keynesian orthodoxy.
After the speeches, Lady Thatcher, the woman who embodied that courage and resolution, posed for the photographers with a couple of dozen guests who, in honor of Ralph Harris, had worn fancy waistcoats.
Unlike pipe-smoking in public places, such sartorial extravagance is still legal. But it was striking that neither Mr. Cameron nor any of his followers were in the picture. They don't want to be seen with the greatest Conservative alive. They call it "decontaminating the brand." Ralph Harris would have called it cowardice.