The Economist: Liberalism's Historical Record


An excerpt from Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist by Alexander Zevin, now available in a new paperback edition.

What Is Liberalism? Barriers to a Better Definition

The Economist has long defined itself as a lodestar of liberalism. In the aftermath of Trump and Brexit in 2016, it took great pains to renew and recast that commitment in a series of online debates, podcasts, films and profiles of liberal philosophers, culminating in a bold manifesto for its 175th anniversary in September 2018. Made complacent by their very success in spreading ‘freedom and prosperity’, the paper declared, liberals had to rediscover their besttraditions to ‘rekindle the spirit of radicalism’ these contained. But what is liberalism? Who are liberals? If American readers are confused, they are not alone; so are scholars, who are partly responsible for the muddle. Before proceeding, it makes sense to consider some of the shortcomings in studies of this difficult to-define ‘ism’, not only to explain how a work on the Economist may help to avoid them, but also to set us on the path to a more accurate conception. The barriers are roughly three: anachronism, decontextualization, and lack of comparison.

Political theorists usually treat liberalism as a boundless body of thought, loosely and adaptively adhering around a few abstract principles of freedom, to be found in this or that canonical text or great thinker. In one recent indicative survey, liberalism is said to begin with John Locke, who supplied its first capacious axiom: men are ‘born in a state of perfect freedom, to order their actions and dispose of their possessions, and persons, as they see fit’.

The writings of this seventeenth-century English philosopher, for whom liberalism as a developed doctrine was totally unknown, are then stretched into political formulae fit for today: ‘committed to democracy tempered by the rule of law, a private-enterprise economy supervised and controlled by government, and equal opportunity so far as it can be maintained without too much interference with the liberty of employers, schools, and families.’ The dangers of this approach are clear, and do not arise through want of erudition.
Perhaps the best-known account of liberalism in this key, and for many an inspiration, is Isaiah Berlin’s 1958 Oxford lecture, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. There were two diverging branches of the political philosophy, argued Berlin: one based on negative and another on positive freedom. The first, greatly to be preferred, meant ‘non-interference’ – by individuals, a ruler, the state, a ‘minimum area of personal freedom which must on no account be violated’. John Locke and John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville lit up this path. The second was darker, and held that men could be made free, in conformity with their ‘true’ or ‘rational’ selves, even if they do not desire it. This was the legacy of Plato, Auguste Comte, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and in certain moods even Immanuel Kant and Mill. Here, the issue of decontextualization – thinkers plucked from across time and space, to be arranged like flowers in a vase – met anachronism, as Berlin applied ‘profoundly divergent and irreconcilable attitudes to the ends of life’ to the two camps in the Cold War.
The procedure may have been useful for normative purposes, but as one of Berlin’s students later acknowledged, it could not be justified on the basis of what liberals had actually thought.

Rejecting in principle (if not always in practice) arbitrary bricolages of this kind, the so-called Cambridge School of historians has sought to re-contextualize political thinkers in their national, linguistic and temporal space, so that who counts as a liberal at any given moment will depend on the available concepts, arguments and terms. This approach has produced remarkable histories of early modern republicanism, extending across epochs and frontiers, but has never been successfully applied to liberalism, of which its leading practitioners have markedly different, not to say incompatible, views. No comparative tracing of the transnational development of liberal ideas across borders has been offered by this tradition. Attempts to bridge this gap have come from other kinds of scholarship, but have been few and far between. For our purposes, a brief retrospect of early uses of the word liberalism in nineteenth-century Europe can suffice to set the historical stage for the birth of the Economist.


Classical Liberalism: Three Unanswered Questions

The core ideological complex of classical liberalism that emerged in Britain combined economic freedoms – the right to unconditional private property; low taxes; no internal tariffs; external free trade – with political freedoms: the rule of law; civil equality; freedom of the press and assembly; careers ‘open to talent’; responsible government. While this was a coherent, integrated agenda, it left unresolved three large questions.

First, to whom was government to be responsible? Who should parliaments, essential to the new constitutional system, actually represent? The classical liberal response was a censitary suffrage: votes only for those with sufficient means and education to form an independent judgment of public affairs. But how should liberals react when those without them pressed for inclusion in the political process? Second, how far should the liberal order extend, not just to the lower classes within the constitutional state, but to territories beyond it? By the mid-nineteenth century, the modal type of liberal state was national. Could it also be imperial, with overseas possessions? If so, did liberal principles apply to them?

Finally, what was the role to be accorded by liberal political economy to activities not regarded as productive of value – neither agriculture, nor industry, nor trade, but lending and borrowing, and speculation? Was money a commodity like any other, with banks no different from farms or factories? If business cycles were normal in a market economy, what of longer-lasting crises and depressions?

How, in other words, would liberals respond to the rise of democracy, the expansion of empire, and the ascendancy of finance, none of which figured in the core doctrine?

The Economist as Touchstone

Other studies have examined a single point in this triad. Scholars have shown how methodically liberals opposed democracy, defending a limited suffrage on the basis of education, and turning to an emphasis on economic over political liberties as socialist ideas spread after 1848. The concept of ‘empire’ has recently garnered more attention than in the past. Liberals are now acknowledged to have been deeply interested in the imperial project, even as debate rages over the nature of that interest, and whether it constituted a fundamental ‘urge’ or was liable to constant shifts and shadings. Recent histories of finance capitalism have added to our knowledge of the City of London, though they remain rather hesitant to credit an ideological perspective to the varied actors operating within it. The Economist, however, unlike particular thinkers or themes, offers a continuous record of the confrontation between classical liberalism and the challenges of democracy, empire, and finance across the better part of two centuries – and can claim far greater intellectual success than any other expression of liberalism, with a world-wide reach today. Reading it is an antidote to the standard eclecticism of most accounts of liberal ideas, whose effect has been to noyer le poisson, as the French say, adducing everything and its opposite in a grab-bag going back at least to Smith, if not to Locke or earlier. From the time when the term first truly became part of political discourse, the paper has pressed imperturbably forward under the banner of liberalism – sometimes a little ahead of ideological shifts, at others a little behind them. What the history of the Economist reveals is the dominant stream of liberalism, which has had other tributaries, but none so central or so strong.

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