Sir Samuel Brittan, who died at the age of 86 on Monday, was the doyen of British economic journalists for over half a century. Yet he achieved this position because he was so much more than that. He was a passionate believer in freedom from any sort of tyranny, political or personal, a true intellectual and a man of conscience. These qualities shone through everything he wrote. Not only the Financial Times but the wider world owes him an enormous debt for his contribution.
Brittan had deep convictions, which shone through in his writings. 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.
His opinions in economics, while rooted in his philosophical commitment to liberal individualism, changed with the situation, as they should. He began his career as a Keynesian. Milton Friedman then converted him to the ideas of the “natural rate” of unemployment and monetarism. The failure of monetarism in the early 1980s shifted him towards exchange-rate targeting and support for UK membership of the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System. When the UK was ejected from that, he did not shift towards supporting membership of the European Monetary Union. He mistrusted the ambitions behind it. Finally, after the 2007-08 financial crisis, he shifted back to Keynesianism, excoriating what he saw as UK chancellor George Osborne’s foolish austerity.
This combination of deep principle with flexible opinions on the needs of the day made him a compelling writer. But he also immersed himself deeply in academic debates. As a commentator, he was more than a consumer of others’ ideas. He was a significant participant.
He was one of the earliest supporters of targeting nominal gross domestic product, in place of monetary aggregates or inflation. He was a biting critic of conventional macroeconomic forecasting. He poured scorn on people’s concerns about national “competitiveness”. He favoured universal basic income. He wrote articles on the limits of market solutions, notably one on lighthouses, which concludes: “If I must draw a moral, it is that markets have indeed many more possibilities than their critics suppose, but that they require a much more subtle political, institutional and legal structure to function than is dreamt of by the enthusiasts who frequent the free-market think-tanks.” This is classic Brittan.
His unique blend of liberal conviction, philosophical depth, wide interests, academic engagement and intellectual clarity made him a compelling thinker and writer over many decades. Not least, he transformed people’s understanding of what economic journalism could achieve. If John Maynard Keynes was, as an amateur, the foremost economic journalist of the interwar years, Samuel Brittan was, as a professional, the foremost economic journalist of the postwar era. We are greatly in his debt.