Liberalism At Large

Alexander Zevin

A detailed overview of historically dominant strains of liberalism, as embodied by the editors of the Economist. This liberalism is identified with:

The Economist not only shaped and spread this policy, but as editors both came from and moved into powerful financial and political positions, it played a role in implementing it too.

Chapter Summaries

1. Free Trade Empire

James Wilson, founder and first editor of the Economist, rose to political prominence by opposing the Corn Laws and labour reforms and instead espousing laissez-faire solutions to society's ills. So much did the influence of the Economist and liberalism grow, that financial aid was refused during the Irish Potato Famine on the premise that free trade could resolve it: 1.5 million people died. Meanwhile Wilson used his paper's influence to pursue a political career, rising to Chancellor of the Indian Exchequer and advocating bloody imperial wars “from the view that laissez-faire may best be furthered through the barrel of a gun”.

2. Walter Bagehot's Dashed Doubts

The son-in-law of James Wilson, Walter Bagehot likewise used the Economist as both a platform for his brand of liberalism as well, as a political springboard. He considered the working classes “dim” and “stupid”, opposing democracy in favour of “plac[ing] the substantial power in the hands of men of education and of property”. A belief in 'national character' led him — and the Economist — to support expansion of the British and French Empires, take the side of the South in the American Civil War, and oppose the Paris Commune, all of which were at odds with more 'Radical' Liberals of the day.

3. Edward Johnstone and the Aristocracy of Finance

In the late 19th century the Economist continued its staunch defense of empire, having ample evidence that imperial rule “structured the world economy and made it safe for capital”. Under this analysis British imperialism was seen as the superior form, being particularly extractive, open to capital, and brutally retaliatory to any disruption of British investments. But after Gladstone granted Home Rule to Ireland, the Liberals split over issues of imperialism and Irish self-determination — with the Economist calling the Conservatives the true party of the investor, until protectionist policies made them unpalatable too.

4. Landslide Liberalism

Francis Hirst, in contrast to his predecessors, supported Home Rule and was opposed to more expansionist Liberal imperialism, on both fiscal and humanitarian grounds. He opposed the Boer War, and when the First World War broke out his writings were deeply negative: he wrote constantly in support of peace and a return to laissez-faire profit-making. But he was fired in 1916 and replaced with a more nationalist liberal called Hartley Withers, who spread the message of Financial Patriotism and the role that the City could play in winning the war — whilst still securing a profit.

5. Own Gold

Three trends seem to have dominated Walter Layton's tenure, namely:

Despite America buying up gold and reducing the Bank of England's control of its own currency, proving Keynes right, the Economist grew in popularity during this area — and was sold to new owners, curated by Layton himself. This new ownership, along with a more left-leaning (but still firmly laissez-faire) younger staff, cemented the split from the Liberal Party proper as the Economist began to court and influence Labour politicians in the ways of the free market.

6. Extreme Centre

Geoffrey Crowther's tenure, as well as his position as a non-executive director for Donald Tyerman, saw the Economist expound an “extreme centre” ideology. This was Crowther's revival of liberalism, which after the Second World War was based on:

This pacifist mindset did not extend to Communist states: the Economist supported the USA brutally putting down central American revolutions in the name of capitalist democracy, as well as the French attack on Ho Chi Minh's movement.

7. Liberal Cold Warriors

Under the Conservative Alistair Burnet and his successors Andrew Knight and Rupert Pennant-Rea, sycophancy towards the USA turned into support for military expansion and slaughter of leftists. The continued use of some writers as CIA mouthpieces gave intellectual credence to atrocities committed by rightists in Vietnam, Cambodia and Nicaragua — under the guise of opposing Soviet Communism. The Economist opposing neoliberalism until quite late, but once Thatcher and Reagan proved they could win elections it became a full convert — advocating neoliberalism at home and neoimperialism abroad.

8. Globalisation and Its Contents

A pro-America, pro-globalisation stance has only gained fervour under Bill Emmott, John Micklethwait and Zanny Minton Beddoes (the first female editor). Following 9/11, the Economist immediately called for war (despite it being unable to “define the exact objective”) andsupported immediate regime change in Iraq, believing that free trade was “a way of helping countries help themselves” rebuild in the aftermath. This same belief in both globalisation and free trade led it to support crushing austerity following the 2008 crash, under the impression that regulation of banks would only slow down economic recovery.

9. Conclusion

Beginning with an overview of Edmund Fawcett's Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, Zevin identifies an apologist view of liberalism: responsible for all goods, confused as to the cause of crises, and where wrong at least wrong for the right reasons. In reality, the dominant strain of liberalism as embodied by the Economist viewed:

The Economist not only spread this message, but shaped it, and through its ties to high politics and finance implemented it too.