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July 01st 2011 print

James Allan

Out of Love with the Economist

I fell in love with the Economist magazine, or rather newspaper as it prefers to be styled, a long time ago. I was given a subscription by my dad. I think it was when I turned eighteen. I also think it was when I finished high school in Toronto. In any event, it was some three decades ago.

That subscription has never lapsed. I kept it up when I got married, when we were dirt broke, when we moved from Canada to London and back and back, and then to Hong Kong, on to New Zealand for a decade, and finally to Australia where we have lived for the past six years. The weekly arrival of the Economist, with one week off each year after the Christmas special issue, has been a solid constant in a rather itinerant life.

For a young man back then first presented with this gift of a subscription to this exotic English magazine (oops, newspaper), what was not to like? There was news about everywhere on the planet. There were cunningly clever puns scattered throughout the titles to the many articles. There were sections wholly devoted to economics, business and science, and truth be told I have learned more about science and economics from these sections and their occasional special briefings than from any other single source.

Then there were the letters to the editor, and the wonderful convention at the Economist of virtually always leaving the letter writer with the last word, rather than having some editorial afterword under the letter. This taught me that it was good practice not always to insist on the last word, that letter writers sometimes knew more than the original writer of the piece and that in life it was good just to have a thick skin and be prepared to take criticism. (There was also always an exception to this restraint in the case of letters from Singaporean government officials, publication of their letters being a condition of the continued sale of the Economist in that jurisdiction and hence a ground for the editor on occasion to gainsay the letter writer.)

On top of all that there were these amazing obituaries, often of people otherwise unknown. I don’t think I’d ever regularly read obituaries until the Economist came into my life. But I’ve enjoyed them ever since. And I’ve come to see that there is very much an in-house style about how they’re done at the Economist, one in stark contrast with how others do them, some of those others (such as Mark Steyn) simply being better at it than the Economist is.

That’s not all that was attractive about this publication. There was also, to this young Canadian, the rather quirky and charming practice of not running any bylines. All the writers and journalists were anonymous. Even the method and practice of selecting a new editor was steeped in secrecy. The message was clear. This was a team effort. Journalists who wanted a byline and a personal following could look elsewhere for work.

Of course as appealing as all of those were to me, I’ve thus far left out the best bit. You see the Economist back then immediately came as something of a bolt out of the blue. Its editorials were consistently in favour of small and limited government. It struck me as the house journal for the classical liberal, someone who thought the best government was one that left the citizen alone as far as possible. If you need political labels, then think of it as definitely right of centre on economic issues and size of government issues and keeping under control government spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product issues, but at the same time not of the high Tory or paternalistic political Right that assumes the government knows best about social issues. There was that hint or streak of libertarianism on these social issues that always put the lie to all the many critics’ attempts to label the Economist “right-wing” in some simplistic way.

So for this young Canadian it was a shock to be reading this magazine, this newspaper, that consistently seemed to take up the cudgels for the classical liberal position. For me, it was iconoclastic and refreshingly contrarian.

Here was perhaps the best part. Even when I was viscerally sure the Economist was wrong on some claim or position, it was worth reading. It seemed so open-minded, so anchored in an attractive worldview.

Sure, it could be impossibly time-consuming to read from cover-to-cover, though I got better at that as the years went by. And it could be at times a tad smug and sanctimonious. But as I said at the start, I quickly fell in love with it. And I loved it before its popularity in the United States took off, before the bulk of its sales and advertising revenues were there, and before it could regularly boast of dozens and dozens of copies each week being delivered to the White House as it could and did during the Clinton presidency.

Alas, and despite having catalogued all those virtues, it pains me to say that I no longer love the Economist. I’ve fallen out of love. Yes, I still subscribe. Yes, I still read it. But it’s more out of habit and thirty years of practice and the general sense that it would be easier to go along living with this once mesmerising woman than having to go through the painful process of splitting up. In recent years I’ve contemplated giving up my subscription, but whether it be due to lethargy, or a paralysis induced by wistful remembrances, or some comfortable ease that comes with staying with what you know so well, I can’t do it. I may never be able to do it. 

So why do I wish I could? What’s happened to my former love, the Economist?

I think I first started getting suspicious of her back in the late 1990s when she came out in favour of a British statutory bill of rights tied to the European Convention on Human Rights, today’s Human Rights Act there. With an astonishing insouciance about the dangers of increased judicial power, and no apparent worries at all about the rule-of-law-sapping effects that flow from directives that tell judges to read all other statutes in what they consider to be a human-rights-friendly way and hence make it so hard for citizens to know what the law demands, the Economist’s support for this innovation read more like religion than its regular hard-nosed analysis. And despite mounting evidence that this innovation has had far, far more costs than benefits, and that it is causing political sovereignty to leach away even faster from the UK to European judges, she has yet to apologise for her keen advocacy and support back then.

Still, she and I had differed plenty of times before. I put this down to another mere squabble.

The same went for her call for Britain to become a republic. Where was the Walter Bagehot-like sentiment-free cost-benefit analysis that weighed up whether replacing a virtually powerless head of state, in favour of some sort of US or French-style set-up, or even maybe an Irish one, was really a good idea? Contrarian iconoclasts don’t call for change because it’s trendy. They don’t indulge in sappy sentimentalism about outdated feudal trappings. They look at what works, and what doesn’t. Or so I thought.

Still, easy to put that down, too, to being another lovers’ spat. Good for getting the blood pressure up. But nothing much to worry about in the long term.

And so I carried on thinking until 2008 or so. It was round about then that there seemed to be a real sea-change in my old amour. Astute readers will remember that the Economist had come out in favour of invading Iraq. And when no weapons of mass destruction were found there, she may well have suffered some sort of crise de conscience. I don’t know; no one likes to indulge in Freudian pseudo-psychology with their mistress.

But it wasn’t long afterwards that one noticed real change. First came the whole-hearted endorsement of Barack Obama for President. Now don’t get me wrong. The Economist had endorsed plenty of Democrats in the past, including Bill Clinton. No, it was the way it was done, as though this was a human being who could transcend the culture wars, bridge the centre ground, even walk on water. It was all a little sickening, and possibly plagiarised from the Obama campaign itself.

Again, where was the ruthless scepticism? Where was the contrarian woman of my youth? Where was the newspaper so quick to point out the mass hysteria surrounding the cult of Lady Diana and her death? When that sort of evidence-free hysteria was transplanted across the Atlantic, that newspaper’s resistance simply vanished.

And it continues to be gone. The Economist, virtually alone outside hard-core Democratic ranks, still seems to see President Obama as a centrist. The American voting public, judging by the 2010 mid-terms, clearly does not. There is hardly a single instance of bipartisan outreach by this President before the extension for all of the Bush tax rate cuts, more or less forced on President Obama. And his self-glorifying rhetoric remains the same, and the Obamaesque casting of political opponents as wicked or uninformed rather than simply those with differing views and values never stops. But these days that makes for a centrist according to the Economist, whose support for President Obama has barely wavered.

Then there are the reports from Australia. I read them and wonder if they were first written by the BBC or the Australian Labor Party government, they are so self-consciously politically “progressive”, not to mention in favour of any and all stimulus spending. In its May 28 special feature on Australia it opined that the Howard government achieved little after 2003 (which might be a defensible judgment for a newspaper were it not for the fact that it was on balance positive about the Blair–Brown government whose accomplishments seem pretty much invisible from that date onwards). It claims the Liberal Party appears to have “no philosophical principles at all”, one assumes on the basis that opposition to a carbon dioxide tax and a great big new tax on mining can’t, to the progressive elite mindset, be based on principle but must be motivated by some desire to oppose for the frisson of excitement it gives the opposer. And it hates Mr Abbott, making the biting claim that “Mr Abbott is socially conservative but above all populist”. There is no higher criticism of a politician in the new Economist mindset than trying to be popular, unless of course that politician is Mr Obama, or Mr Blair, or Mr Ignatieff or—well, you get the idea. 

Which brings me to the global financial crisis and Keynesianism. What has happened to the Economist on this front? It has become an unquestioning proponent of stimulus and government spending and all its progeny such as quantitative easing. And I don’t mean support of a half-hearted nature that questions and doubts itself. I mean vigorous support that lacks all doubt. Paul Krugman looks less sure of this Keynesian prescription than my Economist.

Many top economists reject this Keynesian medicine, and think there are better options than “spend taxpayer money till you drop”, plenty of smart, well-informed economists and others who do not think this Keynesian path is self-evidently the way to go. So where are those special briefings one used to see in the Economist from critics of the in-house line? Gone. Where is the odd opinion piece leader mooting the possibility of a non-Keynesian approach? Invisible.

Perhaps worst of all, all we worriers get from our old lover are vague assurances that the ballooning size of government this all entails can be dealt with later, in the future, somewhere over the rainbow. And how many examples are there of that happening, of big government later being knocked back to size? Precious, precious few. Politicians who differ from this take on things, such as Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, are more or less likened to dinosaurs.

Then there are the emissions trading schemes. The Economist I fondly remember would be asking how this man-made ETS market can possibly function when China and India and other big developing economies are not a party to the restrictions and when carbon-creating manufacturing can be moved to these places in the blink of an eye. How, precisely, do you create a market that will limit output worldwide when a big chunk of the world—the part that is growing by far the fastest—will not be a party to the game? It’s more religion and being part of the progressive consensus, as far as I can tell.

And who can forget the Economist’s half-hearted support for sharia law in the West (October 16, 2010)? Now that’s certainly contrarian; I’m just not sure how it fits in with the libertarian traditions of my old lover.

Likewise there has been a notable absence of scorn emanating from the Economist for hate-speech laws, all of which ought to rankle with lovers of individual liberty. Freedom to speak within the bounds of agreed opinion, good taste and generally perceived proper decorum doesn’t seem a very valuable sort of liberty to me. It doesn’t seem to carry with it any good consequences. The sort of liberty that counts, that might some day have good consequences, is the liberty to be offensive and to say the generally unsaid or the usually self-censored.

Hate-speech laws seem to value a world in which liberty is restricted to those who agree. Why the Economist would want to give even lukewarm support to such restrictions on personal liberty is hard for me to grasp. I don’t think the Economist of my youth would have done so. Nor, for that matter, would it have given qualified support to sharia law.

Heck, the Economist is these days so “right on” that it can’t even bring itself to see that there is a pretty strong case against letting Turkey into the European Union. I don’t say it’s a knock-out case. But it surely is a stronger and more powerful one than one would suppose from reading the pages of my old lover. The same goes for its Pollyanna-like broad support for the clearly democratically deficient EU project.

I suppose then that I find it’s not so much these days that we have the occasional squabble. That was always the case. No, today it’s more that we have quite distinct worldviews. We’ve gone our separate ways. I think she’s the one that’s changed. No doubt she’d claim it was me.

As I said, I’ll probably continue to keep her by me, whatever the temptation to send her off to a nursing home for the self-styled “progressive” elect. If nothing else she can sure make me angry, with the anger that comes of the spurned lover. I even feel betrayed at times, as though some Keynesian Democrat human rights barrister had engineered some sort of hostile takeover of my newspaper.

And then I just feel sad. I feel sad because I know deep down I will never give my son a subscription to the Economist when he turns eighteen.

James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is a frequent contributor to Quadrant and Quadrant Online.