Liberalism According to The Economist
Founded in 1843 to spread the doctrine of laissez-faire, the magazine has wielded influence like no other. But at what cost?
Liberalism made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it,” an article in The Economist lamented last year, on the occasion of the magazine’s hundred-and-seventy-fifth anniversary. “Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal élites, who are seen as self-serving and unable, or unwilling, to solve the problems of ordinary people,” even as authoritarian China is poised to become the world’s largest economy. For a publication that was founded “to campaign for liberalism,” all of this was “profoundly worrying.”
The crisis in liberalism has become received wisdom across the political spectrum. Barack Obama included Patrick Deneen’s “Why Liberalism Failed” (2018) in his annual list of recommended books; meanwhile, Vladimir Putin has gleefully pronounced liberalism “obsolete.” The right accuses liberals of promoting selfish individualism and crass materialism at the expense of social cohesion and cultural identity. Centrists claim that liberals’ obsession with political correctness and minority rights drove white voters to Donald Trump. For the newly resurgent left, the rise of demagoguery looks like payback for the small-government doctrines of technocratic neoliberalism—tax cuts, privatization, financial deregulation, antilabor legislation, cuts in Social Security—which have shaped policy in Europe and America since the eighties.
Attacks on liberalism are nothing new. In 1843, the year The Economist was founded, Karl Marx wrote, “The glorious robes of liberalism have fallen away, and the most repulsive despotism stands revealed for all the world to see.” Nietzsche dismissed John Stuart Mill, the author of the canonical liberal text “On Liberty” (1859), as a “numbskull.” In colonized Asia and Africa, critics—such as R. C. Dutt, in India, and Sun Yat-sen, in China—pointed out liberalism’s complicity in Western imperialism. Muhammad Abduh, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, wrote, “Your liberalness, we see plainly, is only for yourselves.” (Mill, indeed, had justified colonialism on the ground that it would lead to the improvement of “barbarians.”) From a different vantage, critiques came from aspiring imperialist powers, such as Germany (Carl Schmitt), Italy (Gaetano Salvemini), and Japan (Tokutomi Sohō). Since then, Anglo-American thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr and John Gray have pointed out liberalism’s troubled relationship with democracy and human rights, and its overly complacent belief in reason and progress.
Yet the sheer variety of criticisms of liberalism makes it hard to know right away what precisely is being criticized. Liberalism’s ancestry has been traced back to John Locke’s writings on individual reason, Adam Smith’s economic theory, and the empiricism of David Hume, but today the doctrine seems to contain potentially contradictory elements. The philosophy of individual liberty connotes both a desire for freedom from state regulation in economic matters (a stance close to libertarianism) and a demand for the state to insure a minimal degree of social and economic justice—the liberalism of the New Deal and of European welfare states. The iconic figures of liberalism themselves moved between these commitments. Mill, even while supporting British imperialism in India and Ireland, called himself a socialist and outlined the aim of achieving “common ownership in the raw materials of the globe.” The Great Depression forced John Dewey to conclude that “the socialized economy is the means of free individual development.” Isaiah Berlin championed the noninterference of the state in 1958, in his celebrated lecture “Two Concepts of Liberty”; but eleven years later he had come to believe that such “negative liberty” armed “the able and ruthless against the less gifted and less fortunate.”
Because of this conceptual morass, liberalism has, to an unusual degree, been defined by what it wasn’t. For French liberals in the early nineteenth century, it was a defense against the excesses of Jacobins and ultra-monarchists. For the free-trading Manchester Liberals of the mid-nineteenth century, it was anticolonial. Liberals in Germany, on the other hand, were allied with both nationalists and imperialists. In the twentieth century, liberalism became a banner under which to march against Communism and Fascism. Recent scholars have argued that it wasn’t until liberalism became the default “other” of totalitarian ideologies that inner coherence and intellectual lineage were retrospectively found for it. Locke, a devout Christian, was not regarded as a philosopher of liberalism until the early twentieth century. Nor was the word “liberal” part of U.S. political discourse before that time. When Lionel Trilling claimed, in 1950, that liberalism in America was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition,” the term was becoming a catchall signifier of moral prestige, variously synonymous with “democracy,” “capitalism,” and even simply “the West.” Since 9/11, it has seemed more than ever to define the West against such illiberal enemies as Islamofascism and Chinese authoritarianism.
The Economist proudly enlists itself in this combative Anglo-American tradition, having vigorously claimed to be advancing the liberal cause since its founding. In “Liberalism at Large” (Verso), Alexander Zevin, a historian at the City University of New York, takes it at its word, telling the story not only of the magazine itself but also of its impact on world affairs. Using The Economist as a proxy for liberalism enables Zevin to sidestep much conceptual muddle about the doctrine. His examination of The Economist’s pronouncements and of the policies of those who heeded them yields, in effect, a study of several liberalisms as they have been widely practiced in the course of a hundred and seventy-five years. The magazine emerges as a force that—thanks to the military, cultural, and economic power of Britain and, later, America—can truly be said to have made the modern world, if not in the way that many liberals would suppose.
In terms of its influence, The Economist has long been a publication like no other. Within a decade of its founding, Marx was describing it as the organ of “the aristocracy of finance.” In 1895, Woodrow Wilson called it “a sort of financial providence for businessmen on both sides of the Atlantic.” (Wilson, an Anglophile, wooed his evidently forbearing wife with quotations from Walter Bagehot, the most famous of The Economist’s editors.) For years, the magazine was proud of the exclusivity of its readership. Now it has nearly a million subscribers in North America (more than in Britain), and seven hundred thousand in the rest of the world. Since the early nineties, it has served, alongside the Financial Times, as the suavely British-accented voice of globalization (scoring over the too stridently partisan and American Wall Street Journal).
According to its own statistics, its readers are the richest and the most prodigal consumers of all periodical readers; more than twenty per cent once claimed ownership of “a cellar of vintage wines.” Like Aston Martin, Burberry, and other global British brands, The Economist invokes the glamour of élitism. “It’s lonely at the top,” one of its ads says, “but at least there’s something to read.” Its articles, almost all of which are unsigned, were until recently edited from an office in St. James’s, London, a redoubt of posh Englishness, with private clubs, cigar merchants, hatters, and tailors. The present editor, Zanny Minton Beddoes, is the first woman ever to hold the position. The staff, predominantly white, is recruited overwhelmingly from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and a disproportionate number of the most important editors have come from just one Oxford college, Magdalen. “Lack of diversity is a benefit,” Gideon Rachman, a former editor who is now a columnist at the Financial Times, told Zevin, explaining that it produces an assertive and coherent point of view. Indeed, contributors are not shy about adding prescription (how to fix India’s power problems, say) to their reporting and analysis. The pieces are mostly short, but the coverage is comprehensive; a single issue might cover the insurgency in south Thailand, public transportation in Jakarta, commodities prices, and recent advances in artificial intelligence. This air of crisp editorial omniscience insures that the magazine is as likely to be found on an aspirant think tanker’s iPad in New Delhi as it is on Bill Gates’s private jet.
Zevin, having evidently mastered the magazine’s archives, commands a deep knowledge of its inner workings and its historical connection to political and economic power. He shows how its editors and contributors pioneered the revolving doors that link media, politics, business, and finance—alumni have gone on to such jobs as deputy governor of the Bank of England, Prime Minister of Britain, and President of Italy—and how such people have defined, at crucial moments in history, liberalism’s ever-changing relationship with capitalism, imperialism, democracy, and war.
A capsule version of this thesis can be found in the career of James Wilson, The Economist’s founder and first editor. Wilson, who was born in Scotland and became the owner of a struggling hatmaking business, intended his journal to develop and disseminate the doctrine of laissez-faire—“nothing but pure principles,” as he put it. He was particularly vociferous in his opposition to the Corn Laws, agricultural tariffs that were unpopular with merchants. The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, three years after the magazine first appeared, and Wilson began to proselytize more energetically for free trade and the increasingly prominent discipline of economics. He became a Member of Parliament and held several positions in the British government. He also founded a pan-Asian bank, now known as Standard Chartered, which expanded fast on the back of the opium trade with China. In 1859, Wilson became Chancellor of the Indian Exchequer. He died in India the following year, trying to reconfigure the country’s financial system.
During his short career as a journalist-cum-crusader, Wilson briskly clarified what he meant by “pure principles.” He opposed a ban on trading with slaveholding countries on the ground that it would punish slaves as well as British consumers. In the eighteen-forties, when Ireland was struck with famine, which was largely caused by free trade—the British insisted on exporting Irish food, despite catastrophic crop failure—Wilson called for a homeopathic remedy: more free trade. With Irish intransigence becoming a nuisance, he advised the British to respond with “powerful, resolute, but just repression.” Wilson was equally stern with those suffering from rising inequality at home. In his view, the government was wrong to oblige rail companies to provide better service for working-class passengers, who were hitherto forced to travel in exposed freight cars: “Where the most profit is made, the public is best served. Limit the profit, and you limit the exertion of ingenuity in a thousand ways.” A factory bill limiting women to a twelve-hour workday was deemed equally pernicious. As for public schooling, common people should be “left to provide education as they provide food for themselves.”
The Economist held that, “if the pursuit of self-interest, left equally free for all, does not lead to the general welfare, no system of government can accomplish it.” But this opposition to government intervention, it turned out, did not extend to situations in which liberalism appeared to be under threat. In the eighteen-fifties, Zevin writes, the Crimean War, the Second Opium War, and the Indian Mutiny “rocked British liberalism at home and recast it abroad.” Proponents of free trade had consistently claimed that it was the best hedge against war. However, Britain’s expansion across Asia, in which free trade was often imposed at gunpoint, predictably provoked conflict, and, for The Economist, wherever Britain’s “imperial interests were at stake, war could become an absolute necessity, to be embraced.”
This betrayal of principle alienated, among others, the businessman and statesman Richard Cobden, who had helped Wilson found The Economist, and had shared his early view of free trade as a guarantee of world peace. India, for Cobden, was a “country we do not know how to govern,” and Indians were justified in rebelling against an inept despotism. For Wilson’s Economist, however, Indians, like the Irish, exemplified the “native character . . . half child, half savage, actuated by sudden and unreasoning impulses.” Besides, “commerce with India would be at an end were English power withdrawn.” The next editor, Wilson’s son-in-law Walter Bagehot, broadened the magazine’s appeal and gave its opinions a more seductive intellectual sheen. But the editorial line remained much the same. During the American Civil War, Bagehot convinced himself that the Confederacy, with which he was personally sympathetic, could not be defeated by the Northern states, whose “other contests have been against naked Indians and degenerate and undisciplined Mexicans.” He also believed that abolition would best be achieved by a Southern victory. More important, trade with the Southern states would be freer.
Discussing these and other editorial misjudgments, Zevin refrains from virtue signalling and applying anachronistic standards. He seems genuinely fascinated by how the liberal vision of individual freedom and international harmony was, as Niebuhr once put it, “transmuted into the sorry realities of an international capitalism which recognized neither moral scruples nor political restraints in expanding its power over the world.” Part of the explanation lies in Zevin’s sociology of élites, in which liberalism emerges as a self-legitimating ideology of a rich, powerful, and networked ruling class. Private ambition played a significant role. Bagehot stood for Parliament four times as a member of Britain’s Liberal Party. Born into a family of bankers, he saw himself and his magazine as offering counsel to a new generation of buccaneering British financiers. His tenure coincided with the age of capital, when British finance transformed the world economy, expanding food cultivation in North America and Eastern Europe, cotton manufacturing in India, mineral extraction in Australia, and rail networks everywhere. According to Zevin, “it fell to Bagehot’s Economist to map this new world, tracing the theoretical insights of political economy to the people and places men of business were sending their money.”
The pressures of capitalist expansion abroad and rising disaffection at home further transformed liberal doctrine. Zevin fruitfully describes how liberals coped with the growing demand for democracy. Bagehot had read and admired John Stuart Mill as a young man, but, as an editor, he agreed with him on little more than the need to civilize the natives of Ireland and India. To Bagehot, Mill’s idea of broadly extending suffrage to women seemed absurd. Nor could he support Mill’s proposal to enfranchise the laboring classes in Britain, reminding his readers that “a political combination of the lower classes, as such and for their own objects, is an evil of the first magnitude.” Not surprisingly, The Economist commended Mussolini (a devoted reader) for sorting out an Italian economy destabilized by labor unrest.
Nonetheless, by the early twentieth century, the magazine was groping toward an awareness that, in an advanced industrial society, classical liberalism had to be moderated, and that progressive taxation and basic social-welfare systems were the price of defusing rising discontent. The magazine has since presented this volte-face as evidence of its pragmatic liberalism. Zevin reveals it as a grudging response to democratic pressures from below. Moreover, there were clear limits to The Economist’s newfound compassionate liberalism. As late as 1914, one editor, Francis Hirst, was still denouncing “the shrieking, struggling, fighting viragoes” who had demanded the right to vote despite having no capacity for reason. His comparison of suffragettes to Russian and Turkish marauders—pillaging “solemn vows, ties of love and affection, honor, romance”—helped drive his own wife to suffragism.
As more people acquired the right to vote, and as market mechanisms failed, empowering autocrats and accelerating international conflicts, The Economist was finally forced to compromise the purity of its principles. In 1943, in a book celebrating the centenary of the magazine, its editor at the time acknowledged that larger electorates saw “inequality and insecurity” as a serious problem. The Economist disagreed with the socialists “not on their objective, but only on the methods they proposed for attaining it.” Such a stance mirrored a widespread acceptance on both sides of the Atlantic that governments should do more to protect citizens from an inherently volatile economic system. Since the nineteen-sixties, however, The Economist has steadily reinstated its foundational ideals.
In the process, it missed an opportunity to reconfigure for the postcolonial age a liberalism forged during the high noon of imperialism. The emergence of new, independent nation-states across Asia and Africa from the late forties onward was arguably the most important development of the twentieth century. Liberalism faced a new test among a great majority of the world’s population: Could newly sovereign peoples, largely poor and illiterate, embrace free markets and minimize government right away? Would such a policy succeed without prior government-led investment in public health, education, and local manufacturing? Even a Cold War liberal like Raymond Aron questioned the efficacy of Western-style liberalism in Asia and Africa. But The Economist seemed content to see postcolonial nations and their complex challenges through the Cold War’s simple dichotomy of the “free” and the “unfree” world. In any case, by the seventies, the magazine’s editors were increasingly taking their inspiration from economics departments and think tanks, where the pure neoliberal principles of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek were dominant, rather than from such liberal theorists of justice as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and Amartya Sen.
In the nineteen-eighties, The Economist’s cheerleading for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s embrace of neoliberalism led to a dramatic rise in its American circulation. (Reagan personally thanked the magazine’s editor for his support over dinner.) Dean Acheson famously remarked that “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” No such status anxiety inhibited The Economist as it crossed the Atlantic to make new friends and influence more people. After the Second World War, when the U.S. emerged as the new global hegemon, the magazine—despite some initial resentment, commonplace among British élites at the time—quickly adjusted itself to the Pax Americana. It came to revere the U.S. as, in the words of one editor, “a giant elder brother, a source of reassurance, trust and stability for weaker members of the family, and nervousness and uncertainty for any budding bullies.”
This meant stalwart support for American interventions abroad, starting with Vietnam, where, as the historian and former staff writer Hugh Brogan tells Zevin, the magazine’s coverage was “pure CIA propaganda.” It euphemized the war’s horrors, characterizing the My Lai massacre as “minor variations on the general theme of the fallibility of men at war.” By 1972, following the saturation bombing of North Vietnam, the magazine was complaining that Henry Kissinger was too soft on the North Vietnamese. A policy of fealty to the giant elder brother also made some campaigners for liberalism a bit too prone to skulduggery. Zevin relates colorful stories about the magazine’s overzealous Cold Warriors, such as Robert Moss, who diligently prepared international opinion for the military coup in Chile in 1973, which brought down its democratically elected leader, Salvador Allende. In Moss’s view, “Chile’s generals reached the conclusion that democracy does not have the right to commit suicide.” (The generals expressed their gratitude by buying and distributing nearly ten thousand copies of the magazine.) Zevin relates that, when news of Allende’s death reached Moss in London, he danced down the corridors of The Economist’s office, chanting, “My enemy is dead!” Moss went on to edit a magazine owned by Anastasio Somoza, Nicaragua’s U.S.-backed dictator.
After the fall of Communist regimes in 1989, The Economist embraced a fervently activist role in Russia and Eastern Europe, armed with the mantras of privatization and deregulation. In its pages, the economist Jeffrey Sachs, who was then working to reshape “transition economies” in the region, coined the term “shock therapy” for these policies. The socioeconomic reëngineering was brutal—salaries and public services collapsed—and, in 1998, Russia’s financial system imploded. Only a few months before this disaster, The Economist was still hailing the “dynamism, guile and vision” of Anatoly Chubais, the politician whose sale of Russia’s assets to oligarchs had by then made him the most despised public figure in the country. In 2009, a study in The Lancet estimated that “shock therapy” had led to the premature deaths of millions of Russians, mostly men of employment age. The Economist was unrepentant, insisting that “Russia’s tragedy was that reform came too slowly, not too fast.”
“Who can trust Trump’s America?” a recent Economist cover story asked, forlornly surveying the ruins of the Pax Americana. The political earthquakes of the past few years perhaps make it lonelier at the top for the magazine than at any other time in its history; the articles celebrating last year’s anniversary were presented as a manifesto for “renewing liberalism.” Ten years before, when the financial crisis erupted, the magazine overcame its primal distrust of government intervention to endorse bank bailouts, arguing that it was “a time to put dogma and politics to one side.” It also continued to defend neoliberal policies, on the basis that “the people running the system, not the system itself, are to blame.” Now, finally chastened, if not by the financial crisis then by its grisly political upshot, the magazine has conceded that “liberals have become too comfortable with power” and “wrapped up in preserving the status quo.” Its anniversary manifesto touted a “liberalism for the people.” But soul-searching has its limits: the manifesto admiringly quoted Milton Friedman on the need to be “radical,” resurrected John McCain’s fantasy of a “league of democracies” as an alternative to the United Nations, and scoffed at millennials who don’t wish to fight for the old “liberal world order.” A more recent cover story warns “American bosses” about Elizabeth Warren’s plans to tackle inequality, and revives Friedmanite verities about how “creative destruction” and “the dynamic power of markets” can best help “middle-class Americans.”
The Economist is no doubt sincere about wanting to be more “woke.” It seeks more female readers, according to a 2016 briefing for advertisers, and is anxious to dispel the idea that the magazine is “an arrogant, dull handbook for outdated men.” Whereas, in 2002, it rushed to defend Bjørn Lomborg, the global-warming skeptic, this fall it dedicated an entire issue to the climate emergency. Still, The Economist may find it more difficult than much of the old Anglo-American establishment to check its privilege. Its limitations arise not only from a defiantly nondiverse and parochial intellectual culture but also from a house style too prone to contrarianism. A review, in 2014, of a book titled “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” accused its author of not being “objective,” complaining that “almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” Following an outcry, the magazine retracted the review. However, a recent assessment of Brazil’s privatization drive—“Jair Bolsonaro is a dangerous populist, with some good ideas”—suggests that it is hard to tone down what the journalist James Fallows has described as the magazine’s “Oxford Union argumentative style,” a stance too “cocksure of its rightness and superiority.”
This insouciance, bred by the certainty of having made the modern world, cannot seem anything but incongruous in the rancorously polarized societies of Britain and the United States. The two blond demagogues currently leading the world’s two oldest “liberal” democracies bespeak a ruling class that—through a global financial crisis, rising inequality, and ill-conceived military interventions in large parts of the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa—has squandered its authority and legitimacy. The reputation, central to much Cold War liberalism, of England as a model liberal society also lies shattered amid the calamity of Brexit.
For the young, in particular, old frameworks of liberalism seem to be a constraint on the possibilities of politics. It should be remembered, however, that these new critics of liberalism seek not to destroy but to fulfill its promise of individual freedom. They are looking, just as John Dewey was, for suitable modes of politics and economy in a world radically altered by capitalism and technology—a liberalism for the people, not just for their networked rulers. In that sense, it is not so much liberalism that is in crisis as its self-styled campaigners, who are seen, not unreasonably, as complicit in unmaking the modern world. ♦