Pivotal People at Pivotal Times: John Blundell

John Blundell (1952-2014) was a very critical individual in the world-wide advance of classical liberal ideas in the 1980s and beyond.  As a young student in the UK, John played an instrumental role in spreading the ideas of the Austrian School of Economics among college and university students.  In his 30s who would assume a leadership role in the US in organizations such as the Institute for Humane Studies, and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. And in the 1990s and 2000s, John would return to the UK and serve as the General Director of the Institute for Economic Affairs.  Along the way, he published a book on Margaret Thatcher, and a book on the important contributions of “Ladies of Liberty”.

John was personable, committed, and professionally organized.  This is why he could have such a critical role at such a young age and for such a sustained period of time.  I personally knew John from the mid-1980s, and in fact my wife Rosemary worked directly for John at the Institute for Humane Studies from 1986-1988, which was a critical time, as the IHS in 1986 celebrated its 25th anniversary and this coincided with a major capital campaign that was directed by John.  What I want to stress is that John was the right man, in the right organization, at the right time — he was a pivotal person at pivotal times in the world-wide resurgence and advance of the ideas of classical liberalism.  I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Christine, who was his partner through thick and thin, and who played such an important role at both the IHS and then the IEA.

My narrative of John’s role is rather straightforward. (1) He possessed unique organizational skills, and this talent was evident early on so while in his mid-20s he was given major responsibilities, such as organizing the Austrian School of Economics conference at Windsor Castle as the follow up to the conference at South Royalton. (2) Clarity of mission defined John’s work at the IHS, Atlas and the IEA, he did not suffer from mission creep, but as he stressed in his IEA monograph, Waging the Battle of Ideas, he took seriously Hayek’s message from “The Intellectuals and Socialism.”  Quoting Hayek, “Unless we can make the philosophical foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and the implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our livest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark.”

John’s mission was not one of politics, nor even one of policy, but of cultivating the creative development of policy relevant ideas.  John was an ideas man.  Clarity of thought and clarity of exposition were defining characteristics of what he sought in others and what he demanded of himself.  He was interested in the “marketing” of the ideas that explained the institutional order of productive specialization and peaceful cooperation among free individuals, and the spread of those ideas to audiences that previously had not heard the message or remained unpersuaded by the message.  But while he may have recognized the importance of tailoring and contextualizing ideas, he never failed to emphasize the critical ideas of private property, freedom of trade, freedom of association, sound money, and fiscal responsibility.  Finally, (3) John was the right man in the right organizations at the right time.  In the 1980s, John was the organizational head and manager of the Institute for Humane Studies.  He made possible the programs that were instituted under the intellectual leadership of Walter Grinder and Leonard Liggio.  Most critically, John oversaw the move of the IHS from small offices in Menlo Park, CA to the organization playing a central role in the intellectual life of a major university – George Mason University – and a massive expansion in its operating budget.  Then in the late 1980s and into 1990s, John moved to Atlas where he oversaw an explosion of free market think-tanks across the US and especially the state level policy institutes.  And, finally, in the 1990s and 2000s, John returned to the IEA where he oversaw the great expansion and resurgence of that venerable institution of classical liberal scholarship and analysis.

At the IEA the old story was that basically Fisher met Hayek, then Lord Harris, and then Arthur Seldon and the IEA was off and running. The team of Harris and Seldon was indeed a formidable one and had a major impact on the culture and policy atmosphere that resulted in the Thatcher revolution.  But the modern history of the IEA cannot be written without due recognition of the great work John Blundell did for 2 decades as its general director.  Again, John led the battle of ideas, and a new generation of students and interested members of the public were exposed continually to new ideas of liberty presented in new ways and by new voices.

The international movement for classical liberalism experienced major growth during John’s tenure at the IHS, Atlas and the IEA and it is no mere coincidence.  John’s commitment to the ideas, his clarity of mission, and his unique organizational capacities put him in a position to play a pivotal role.  He didn’t waste his opportunities.  Instead, he made the most of them.  It is now up to us to continue to push forward his good work, and not squander the opportunities we are afforded to advance the ideas of liberty – the intellectual heritage of Smith and Hume, of Say and Bastiat, of Menger, Mises and Hayek, of Alchian, Buchanan and Coase, etc.  John Blundell was indeed a pivotal person at a pivotal time.