Liberalism according to The Economist

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

In Liberalism at Large Alexander Zevin explores the world according to the Economist:

He shows how its editors and contributors pioneered the revolving doors that link media, politics, business, and finance—alumni have gone on to such jobs as deputy governor of the Bank of England, Prime Minister of Britain, and President of Italy—and how such people have defined, at crucial moments in history, liberalism’s ever-changing relationship with capitalism, imperialism, democracy, and war.

A capsule version of this thesis can be found in the career of James Wilson, The Economist’s founder and first editor. Wilson, who was born in Scotland and became the owner of a struggling hatmaking business, intended his journal to develop and disseminate the doctrine of laissez-faire—“nothing but pure principles,” as he put it. He was particularly vociferous in his opposition to the Corn Laws, agricultural tariffs that were unpopular with merchants. The Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, three years after the magazine first appeared, and Wilson began to proselytize more energetically for free trade and the increasingly prominent discipline of economics. He became a Member of Parliament and held several positions in the British government. He also founded a pan-Asian bank, now known as Standard Chartered, which expanded fast on the back of the opium trade with China. In 1859, Wilson became Chancellor of the Indian Exchequer. He died in India the following year, trying to reconfigure the country’s financial system.

During his short career as a journalist-cum-crusader, Wilson briskly clarified what he meant by “pure principles.” He opposed a ban on trading with slaveholding countries on the ground that it would punish slaves as well as British consumers. In the eighteen-forties, when Ireland was struck with famine, which was largely caused by free trade—the British insisted on exporting Irish food, despite catastrophic crop failure—Wilson called for a homeopathic remedy: more free trade. With Irish intransigence becoming a nuisance, he advised the British to respond with “powerful, resolute, but just repression.” Wilson was equally stern with those suffering from rising inequality at home. In his view, the government was wrong to oblige rail companies to provide better service for working-class passengers, who were hitherto forced to travel in exposed freight cars: “Where the most profit is made, the public is best served. Limit the profit, and you limit the exertion of ingenuity in a thousand ways.” A factory bill limiting women to a twelve-hour workday was deemed equally pernicious. As for public schooling, common people should be “left to provide education as they provide food for themselves.”


  1. Graham says:

    This passage alone suggests a surprising insight for a passage from the New Yorker;

    ” liberalism’s ever-changing relationship with capitalism, imperialism, democracy, and war”

    Open to multiple interpretations, but still.

    The Economist may have updated it with each generation, but its agenda is still Whiggism in Arms.

    I’m as torn on the pros and cons as my Scottish working class ancestors likely were- Presbyterian moralist, bootstrap types, if my grandparents generation was any guide, but still working class and Scots, so unclear whether they would have been much fans of unrestrained capital, globalization, and so on. And probably not liberal social values.

  2. Senexada says:

    Graham, the good Scotsman Thomas Carlyle recorded some thoughts about unrestrained globalization:

    “The saddest news is, that we should find our National Existence, as I sometimes hear it said, depend on selling manufactured cotton at a farthing an ell cheaper than any other People. A most narrow stand for a great Nation to base itself on! A stand which, with all the Corn-Law Abrogations conceivable, I do not think will be capable of enduring.

    “My friends, suppose we quitted that stand; suppose we came honestly down from it, and said: ‘This is our minimum of cottonprices. We care not, for the present, to make cotton any cheaper’ [...] I do not see the use of underselling them. Cotton-cloth is already two-pence a yard or lower; and yet bare backs were never more numerous among us. Let inventive men cease to spend their existence incessantly contriving how cotton can be made cheaper; and try to invent, a little, how cotton at its present cheapness could be somewhat justlier divided among us!

    “Let inventive men consider, Whether the Secret of this Universe, and of Man’s Life there, does, after all, as we rashly fancy it, consist in making money? There is One God, just, supreme, almighty: but is Mammon the name of him?—With a Hell which means ‘Failing to make money,’ I do not think there is any Heaven possible that would suit one well; nor so much as an Earth that can be habitable long! In brief, all this Mammon-Gospel, of Supply-and-demand, Competition, Laissez-faire, and Devil take the hindmost, begins to be one of the shabbiest Gospels ever preached on Earth. [..] At the best, as we say, a somewhat despicable, unvenerable thing, this same ‘Laissez-faire;’ and now, at the worst, fast growing an altogether detestable one!

  3. Kirk says:

    The point that Carlyle missed was that the almighty dollar is but a symbolic representation of work-effort, a convenience for the sake of accounting ease.

    The dislocation he decried was not because of Mammon; it was due to a series of inequities built up over years due to the fact that we’d lost sight of what money actually is–An informal enforcement mechanism for ensuring that each member of society contributes. In the old days, it was pretty easy–Grog no hunt, no bring home meat, Grog no get place at fire or food, unless Grog do something else useful, like knap flint or watch for predators over the women gathering fruit and veg…

    More sophisticated ways of living require more symbolic means of ensuring that Grog not lay on lazy ass and live off fat of other people’s work. So… Mediums of exchange sprang up that could store value for times when Grog’s area of expertise was not needed. Obviously, Grog’s flint-knapping isn’t needed, when we’re not hunting or processing game, sooooo… It is convenient for Grog to have on hand a bunch of pretty-pretty cowrie shells, when time come to get stored meat in the middle of winter.

    The whole thing is a game, and it’s best to treat it as such. Some people are better at the abstraction part of it, and they’re the ones who do finance. Unfortunately, we’ve let the tail start wagging the dog, and the money men have gained a lot of the upper hand in today’s world, but the final analysis is that money is always going to be with us.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    Let inventive men consider whether cotton is, or ought to be, one’s only export commodity.

    The problem with pure principles is no one is smart enough to discern the pure principles upon which the actual world runs. At best we can come up with rules of thumb that work most of the time. There’s something very silly about making an absolute principle out of a rule of thumb. Theology and ideology both make this mistake – it’s the same mindset.

  5. Albion says:

    Interesting point made by Kirk, though when it comes to money I always think it is essentially a confidence issue. Now that the vast majority of money does not involve precious metals, and today is either digital pulses as well as paper and base metals made in a certain form, it requires our confidence that the promise of its stated value will be honoured.

    Bank of England notes say “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of…” but it relies on our collective confidence that the people in the bank will honour that promise. If we lose that confidence, the money begins to become worthless.

  6. Graham says:

    Albion- it’s worse even than that. Since Britain is not on any metal standard, that promise is openly artificial. By that standard, the US dollar is more honest in its promises.

    Harry Jones- A solid, clarifying point. I’d only add that sometimes I want to oppose even when I think I have discovered them. And would want nations to do so. In this case, the free traders could well be right if the goal is to maximize the aggregate wealth of humanity and the maximum possible even spread of resources and people. I’d much rather hold it at a lower, even if unstable, level of integration, since the price would be the end of my, and all other, nations. At best, they’d be competing administrative and business units.

    Senexada- Excellent citations- I have no Carlyle committed to memory at all and am just aware of him. It’s nice to have a Scotsman to put in the ring against Adam Smith. Ideally, to remain opposed and in dynamic tension for all time.

  7. L. C. Rees says:

    No true Scotsman would put Carlyle in the ring against Smith. Smith’s Pozzo de Borgo was James Steuart.

  8. Lucklucky says:

    “In the eighteen-forties, when Ireland was struck with famine, which was largely caused by free trade”

    Lies. Potato disease. If there was free trade why food wasn’t imported?

    “Graham, the good Scotsman Thomas Carlyle recorded some thoughts about unrestrained globalization”

    Good?! A slavery defender?

  9. Kirk says:

    Ireland produced more than enough food to feed itself during the Great Famine. The problem was that the Irish laborers themselves subsisted on the potato, while the remainder of the island’s food crops were earmarked for export.

    The reality was that when other European nations in similar situations were hit with the blight, they banned food exports and managed to feed themselves. Alone of the European victims, Ireland kept exporting food to England and other places, to the tune of 4,000 shiploads of it during the height of the famine. They actually managed to increase exports on several commodity items, like beef and other sorts of meat.

    The reason the Irish starved was due to the fact that the vast majority could afford no other food besides the potato, and that the English landlords did nothing to prevent their tenants from starving. Starvation was a policy they set on, so as not to lose money.

    It’s notable that during a subsequent famine during the 1870s, Ireland was able to block the harbors and stop shipment of foodstuffs. No famine resulted, just a bit of economic suffering.

    If you go back even further, and look at what happened after Cromwell raped Ireland, you’ll find a population drop that’s yet to be “explained”, and which would indicated that somewhere near a million Irishmen and women were “exported” to the Caribbean as indentured slave labor, where their treatment was such that the Anglican church authorities there advocated for bringing in African slaves on the theory that if the plantation owners had to buy their labor, they would take better care of it…

    Before Cromwell’s depredations, there were something like 1.75 million Irish. After he was done, it was down below three-quarter of a million, and we really do not know where those people wound up for certain. The fantasy has long been that they made their way to the Americas via the Caribbean plantations, because that’s where they were transported to. The reality is that you can find no signs of such a thing having happened in the various registries and documentation of the Colonial-era authorities here in the US. Those Irish just vanished into the maw of the sugar plantations, and that’s it. To this day, the various governments of the Caribbean do not like people who go looking for the evidence, in the form of the plantation graveyards. You can’t get a permit to excavate or investigate–So far as they are concerned, the only people who were ever exploited there were the Africans.

  10. Lucklucky says:

    It is quite a bit difficult to vanish all that persons. Even if there is no excavations, there will be tales, there will written texts. Even the Spanish when arrived to central America had many tales and that was much earlier. There would be people that escaped and would tell. Or the number was much smaller or someone fudged the number or Irish people in Ireland, or maybe they immigrated elsewhere.

    My point is that you can not talk about free market when the ports are closed to import several products. I remember being in school about that period, we in Portugal had Industrial revolution period and i was surprised even as a teenager that they would use that terminology when it was more mercantilist than free market.

  11. Kirk says:

    That’s part of the point, Lucky: There’s nobody left to tell the tales.

    The population figures are fairly well-established through parish records and archaeology. Pre-Cromwell, close to 1.75 million. After? Below .75. The Brits kept pretty good records for what they shipped off to the Caribbean and other penal colonies. Most of the “missing Irish” vanished into the maw of the sugar industry, and for a long time, the Irish bought into the whole “…they’re in the Americas…” thing that the British told everyone who asked. Turns out, though, that there are no records and no historical verification for there being that large a transfer between the Caribbean and the various supposed “final destinations” for those Irish. Not in South America, not in North America, not in Central America. It’s the equivalent of the story your dad told you about little Sparky going off to the nice farm in the country…

    It’s not at all well-documented, but you can find the facts out if you are willing. I learned of this story from an Irish atheist who converted to Catholicism and became a priest; subject of his original studies were the “Irish Diaspora”, with an emphasis on tracing out the lives of those Irish who’d been transported to the Caribbean. The accepted line, for a very long time, was that they’d migrated on to the various colonial areas in the Americas, but… When he went to look, he could find no evidence for that, aside from a token one or two like that poor old woman who got hung as a witch at Salem. The numbers that should have been there in the time frame that this should have been going on are simply not there, not in any records, and not in any other historical evidence. It’s just about as bad as what the Turks did to the various Christian ethnicities, and entirely forgotten. The English ought to be held up as outstanding genocide conductors, because they’re completely forgiven for all of this. Hell of a trick, too…

    It’s amazing when you go back and discover that one of the key reasons that the Anglican Church was advocating for black slavery was that they thought that the plantation owners would take better care of labor they had to buy, rather than just sign for down at the docks. It also didn’t hurt that the landowners in Ireland were beginning to complain of labor shortages…

  12. Lucklucky says:

    Sorry, but I don’t buy it, certainly not those numbers. We were in the 19th Century, not some Roman times, and even then… Construction or heavy rain would have made large graves appear. People would get children even from locals, people would escape. What you tell me is a Bermuda Triangle of a million persons.

  13. Bruce says:

    Luckylucky: “what you tell me of is a Bermuda Triangle of a million persons”

    Lots of people sank in the old wooden ships.

  14. Lucklucky says:

    You telling me that most of these Irish persons drowned in the Atlantic? If so, what were the ships’ names?

    There is no evidence for these 1 million victims.

  15. Lucklucky says:

    From a 1.75 M population? The number is so big that it needs more than hearsay.

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