The Economist fashions itself a liberal magazine, in the original sense of the word. The weekly was founded in 1843 to argue against the corn laws, which discouraged food imports with tariffs and other restrictions and kept domestic food prices high. It chalked up the repeal of those laws only three years later to “a fearless reliance upon the truth and justice of a great principle”: liberalism.
Today we usually call the intellectual descendants of liberals “classical liberals” for clarity. Liberals like those who founded and supported The Economist in its earlier years believed in property rights, free trade, freedom of speech, religious toleration, and the emancipation of slaves. The original liberals’ idea of government was limited, usually sharply.
Conservatives are broadly in agreement with classical liberal ideas, and so are libertarians. The reason we don’t call ourselves liberals, without the qualifier, is what happened to the term in the intervening years. As we’ll see, it was an unfortunate intellectual trend that The Economist was susceptible to.
Progressives Versus Liberals
Progressivism is a movement that came after liberalism, and had very different ideas about government. Progressives wanted a lot more government with few restrictions of its aims or its size.
To progressives, the growth of the state, and its demands on our purses and our persons, was a good thing. Big business was the enemy of the people. Big government was the people, and it was the remedy to a huge number of problems. This was true even if it trampled the liberal project underfoot.
Many opponents of progressive politics in America considered themselves liberals, but so did many defenders of big government, especially New Dealers. Liberal critics of progressivism included economist Milton Friedman and journalist Felix Morley.
In his 1949 book “The Power in the People,” former Washington Post editor Morley wrote in support of “the liberal position, using the word in its true, historical sense.” He explained, “A person who maintains that the State should solve, by necessarily coercive methods, any problem that individuals are capable of solving voluntarily is, of course, the very opposite of liberal.”
The European Union Problem
The European Union is many things, but not one of those things is a classical liberal institution. True, it helps facilitate trade and movement across the subcontinent. It also imposes a huge body of laws and regulations upon people in member countries.
The EU regulated the curvature of bananas, for instance. Straight bananas are still allowed, but the extra-curvy ones are right out. It banned bottled water packagers from saying that their H2O “fights dehydration” and prohibited prune packagers from saying that the contents can help your bowels move. It insists on the “right to be forgotten” and has passed Internet copyright laws that may throttle most memes. It heavily subsidizes fisheries, farming, and French Boeing competitor Airbus.
Organizations such as the World Trade Organization also help to facilitate free trade. The WTO manages to do this without forcing countries to pass all kinds of laws and regulations that have little to do with knocking down barriers to allow the normal back-and-forth of commerce.
Obviously, a British magazine that was founded to champion liberal ideas would be cheering on the UK in its moves to get out of the EU, right? Wrong. The unsigned editorial collective that makes up The Economist is so bitterly opposed to Brexit (the voter-driven “British exit” from the EU) that they endorsed the Liberal-Democratic Party in the December 12 Parliamentary elections.
The Liberal-Democrats are the shrill and irksome third party that promised to raise spending, raise taxes, and to just cancel Brexit without so much as an “are you sure about that?” second referendum to the voters. These positions ought to be spurned by a genuinely liberal journal, not encouraged.
Even More Economic Illiberalism
Brexit is far from the only issue where The Economist takes leave of classical liberalism. The magazine is also an enthusiastic promoter of gun control in all its forms, an influential endorser of Obamacare, and an advocate for penuriously high taxes on hard alcohol.
The late Friedman wrote an open letter explaining why “Death should not be a taxable event” that has been co-signed by over 700 fellow economists, many of them distinguished. “Spend your money on riotous living – no tax; leave your money to your children – the tax collector gets paid first. That is the message sent by the estate tax. It is a bad message and the estate tax is a bad tax,” Friedman and company argued.
In contrast, The Economist published a cover story package in 2017 arguing that “the case for taxing inherited assets is strong,” and calling the estate tax “a hated tax but a fair one.” That was the final straw for this liberal reader. I let my subscription lapse and haven’t gone back.
Pretending to be Almighty
Other magazines have started out as liberal enterprises, drifted into progressivism, and owned it. The Nation is a great example of this shift. But The Economist is a different sort of magazine. It’s often wrong, but never uncertain. “Pretend you are God,” was one senior editor’s famous advice to a first-time editorial writer.
Even as The Economist drifts further and further into progressivism and away from the liberalism of its founding, it still claims to be liberalism’s true, authentic voice. “Liberalism made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it,” the magazine warned in 2018.
That may or may not be true. It was certainly a classic case of projection.