To borrow from 1066 And All That, the Economist has long seemed content to be regarded as right but repulsive (as opposed to “wrong but wromantic”). The 1066 satirists of English history were writing about Roundheads v Cavaliers. For the Economist, it is liberals versus the rest.
What has it been right about? Over the 176 years that the Economist has been championing the cause of free trade, free markets and stable government, the world has seen a massive and unprecedented expansion in material wealth and human prosperity. It is possible to argue about whether the liberal values represented by the Economist are directly responsible for this transformation of the human condition. But to believe that there is no connection would be absurd.
Since the vindication of its value system in 1989, the Economist’s sense of being right has come close to triumphalism, only mildly tempered by the financial crisis of 2008. Always with an influence greater than its impressive circulation, and now with wide international readership (especially in the US) as well, it can appear to be an operating manual for the movers and shakers of the post-1989 world.
Alexander Zevin, a writer for the New Left Review, is a critic of what this world has come to represent. But he recognises the significance of the Economist’s role in helping to create it. Its story offers a window into the wider history of liberalism.
And “repulsive”? In Liberalism at Large, Zevin delivers a coruscating account of what the Economist has had to say about specific events rather than general principles.
Shortly after its launch, the weekly newspaper (as it styles itself) argued against interfering with the workings of the market during the Irish potato famine. It celebrated the manly governments of Louis Napoleon in France and Mussolini in Italy. It backed CIA-inspired coups across Latin America, including Pinochet’s in Chile. It was full-throated in its support of the Vietnam war — worrying that even Henry Kissinger was too inclined towards peace — and the Iraq war.
Zevin wants us to question whether any publication that gets it so wrong on the practicalities can really be right on the principles. He suggests that the Economist’s so-called liberal ethos needs to be understood as prioritising security for investment above all else — whatever the cost.
The author also points out that, when forced to choose, the Economist has taken the side of financial over industrial capitalism. At times it has preferred to suggest that there is no choice. When Keynes argued that Britain’s return to the gold standard in 1925 would produce much avoidable human misery, the Economist lamented that “distinguished economists should disturb the public mind”. When the Great Depression started to bite, it professed itself shocked that any eminent economist would foster the idea that “there are real divergences between ‘finance’ and ‘industry’”.
Inevitably, the case for the prosecution leaves out the sheer variety of the Economist’s output and its changeability — it turned on Louis Napoleon, Mussolini and all the other tin-pot dictators when it saw what damage they could do.
What comes across, as with the history of any longstanding weekly publication, is how easy it is for commentators with tight deadlines to over-interpret events and how quickly stentorian judgments come to seem out of date. The truth is that the Economist, despite its pretensions, has never been trading in political philosophy. Its line of business is journalism.
The Economist’s liberalism has also been reflected in its willingness to challenge prevailing orthodoxies on subjects such as immigration, gay rights, drugs and the monarchy.
Zevin takes his story up to the present but still leaves some things out. As he says in his introduction, he did not have the space to discuss the evolution of the Economist’s approach to Britain’s tortured relationship with Europe or to the growing threat of climate change. Neither has been straightforward. On climate change, the Economist has been devoting increasing space and attention to the urgency of the challenge. It does not have all the answers but it is asking many of the most important questions.
On Europe and environmentalism, the greatest value that the Economist is able to add is in the range of information it provides rather than the attitudes it adopts.
Also missing from Zevin’s account is the sheer usefulness of a weekly magazine with such extraordinary breadth and detail of coverage, especially of parts of the world about which its readership would otherwise be almost entirely ignorant. Yet he is surely correct to argue that the knowledge the Economist supplies cannot be divorced from the causes it champions.
Liberalism at Large is a deeply researched and fascinating insight into what the history of the modern world looks like when seen from one particular vantage point. And it is a salutary reminder of how easy it is for people who are convinced they are right to sometimes get it wrong.
Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist, by Alexander Zevin, Verso, RRP£25, 538 pages
David Runciman is professor of politics at Cambridge university
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