The World The Economist Made

How a 170-year-old magazine has struggled to uphold liberal capitalism

Warnings of a crisis of liberalism have become commonplace, as it is assailed by an illiberal right on the one side and a socialist left on the other. The situation is plain, and it is at least partially self-inflicted. Liberalism has missed opportunity after opportunity. It is not merely the tepid response to the financial crisis. One critic warns that already in the ’80s there were “fresh and full disclosures of poverty” and “the decay of rural industry and population,” yet liberals made no serious proposals for reform. “The old laissez faire individualism,” he reasons, “was still too dominant.” Nevertheless, he holds, there is the possibility of renewal. The cause of liberty can be advanced through social reform, through a more robust welfare state, through attacks on monopolies and unearned property. The writer is the social scientist J.A. Hobson. The year is 1909.


Today, Hobson is best remembered for his 1902 work Imperialism, the major thesis of which was cribbed by Lenin. (They agreed that the drive for empire was caused by the search for profits under capitalism.) Yet the parallels between Hobson’s analysis and the widespread “crisis of liberalism” literature of our own times are striking. Hobson’s ’80s were not the Reagan years but the 1880s, of course, but his complaints about laissez-faire individualism find their echoes in today’s critiques of neoliberalism. Even his eventual refuge feels contemporary: After trying to convince liberals to include more socially protective programs, Hobson eventually gave up and became a socialist.

That this 110-year-old complaint seems to speak to our own times is a testament both to the longevity of liberalism and to the difficulty—perhaps impossibility—of resolving its tensions. In his book Liberalism at Large, Alexander Zevin seeks to trace this history through a study of a single publication: The Economist, which still describes itself as a newspaper rather than a magazine. Published continuously since 1843, The Economist is deeply identified with the liberal project, and has long proved influential throughout the world. Its readers have ranged from Karl Marx to Benito Mussolini, from Franklin Roosevelt to Angela Merkel. Even today, when it is harder and harder to make journalism pay, it remains profitable and widely circulated, whistling past the graveyard of many a mangled media property. It has more than a million subscribers, despite being the most expensive weekly in the United States. Unlike most magazines, it de-emphasizes individual authors, only occasionally posting bylines and relying instead on a strong institutional voice and a dry wit.

Zevin, who is an editor at the New Left Review, regards The Economist as one imagines an antelope might regard a crocodile—impressed by its longevity and power, suspicious of its habitat, and wary of its bite. Parts of the liberal program have been incorporated across the political spectrum: As Zevin describes it, liberalism “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.” But it has also been closely associated, at least in the dominant version represented by The Economist, with financial power. Zevin argues that The Economist’s unabashed pro-market position and its close relationship to the City of London (the United Kingdom’s equivalent of Wall Street) explain its influence, its importance, and its blind spots. For over 150 years, he writes, The Economist has been “offering up the sort of political advice that markets themselves might, if only they could speak.”

For Zevin, this is the core of the problem. The bankers and businesspeople who read it are treated to capsule summaries of world affairs and charts, presented with an air of knowing superiority. A senior editor once told a nervous new recruit that to write like The Economist, you just “pretend you are God.” But markets are human institutions, not divine ones. As one writer for the paper put it, The Economist was the place where you could “hear the bourgeoisie talking to itself, and it could talk quite frankly.” What Zevin finds is a frequently unreflective conversation. His Economist is an institution that has too often been unable to confront, or resolve, liberalism’s troubled relationships with democracy, empire, and the expanding power of finance itself. 

The Economist was born out of the British economic crisis of 1837. That financial panic produced both the Chartists, a primarily working-class movement for universal male suffrage, and the Anti-Corn Law League, led by the manufacturing middle class. The Corn Laws imposed tariffs on foreign wheat, raising the price of bread to protect domestic agriculture. The Anti-Corn Law League demanded their repeal and their substitution with a policy of free trade. It was this campaign that The Economist was created to support.

Its founder, James Wilson, was born in 1805 to a wealthy Quaker family. As a young man, he received a substantial gift from his father: 2,000 pounds, equivalent to at least $250,000 in 2019. But in 1837 he lost most of his accumulated wealth by betting on the price of indigo. Removing volatility in the trade cycle would have saved him a great deal of money. And that would be part of what free trade could do, he reasoned in an 1839 pamphlet. Trade restrictions were unnatural, and their removal would benefit all classes. He became a regular speaker at Anti-Corn Law events, known for using statistics to make his case, and political doors began to open for him. In 1843, he established The Economist (the word’s meaning at the time referred to thriftiness, rather than professional standing in the field of economics). He sought readers among Corn Law opponents, and by the 1850s his newspaper was read in influential circles.

Wilson set the template for many of The Economist’s future editors. Engaged with the issues of their time, they wrote books and pamphlets alongside their contributions to the publication. They were politically connected—Wilson himself was elected to Parliament in 1847. He was also stubbornly committed to principle, identifying the cause of capital with the cause of all humankind. His newspaper opposed laws that would have limited workday hours, arguing that the interests of workers and employers were identical. There was no productive role for class conflict in Wilson’s worldview, nor indeed for public education, charity schools, or town sanitation. “If the pursuit of self-interest, left equally free for all, does not lead to the general welfare,” the paper declared, “no system of government can accomplish it.”

Wilson, who died of dysentery in 1860, is less remembered than his son-in-law and successor as Economist editor, Walter Bagehot. Zevin does not share a sentimental view of this prolific writer and editor as the “greatest Victorian” (as the historian Jacques Barzun described him). More pragmatic than Wilson, Bagehot did favor a permanent graduated income tax and, in his 1873 book Lombard Street, the idea of a central bank as a lender of last resort. But his love of finance clashed with democratic demands. He wanted a government that was maximally compatible with the needs of finance. (When he was feeling sad, Bagehot is reported to have made a habit of going to the bank to run his hands through heaps of coins.) The thesis of his book The English Constitution, written in 1867, was that the British government worked not because of the separation of powers, but because the real work of governing was done by the Cabinet while the monarchy put on a performance of governing to please what he called “the vacant many.” “Every person has a right to so much power,” wrote Bagehot, “as he can exercise without impeding any other person who would more fitly exercise such power”—a view far more aristocratic than libertarian. “In all cases it must be remembered,” he declared, “that a political combination of the lower classes as such and for their own objects, is an evil of the first magnitude.”

Bagehot’s belief in the British ruling class’s special fitness also extended to questions of empire. Both Wilson and Bagehot were broadly believers in liberal empire, and Wilson approved, for example, of the opening of China by violence. (In 1857, the paper wrote, “We may regret war … but we cannot deny that great advances have followed in its wake.”) Bagehot, for his part, thought the British the “most enterprising, the most successful, and in most respects the best, colonists on the face of the earth.” The Economist celebrated British imperialism above others, assuming its good intentions and that it worked to promote trade. But it rarely criticized: It stayed silent on the discovery of British-run concentration camps in the Second Boer War, for example. Zevin argues that The Economist’s pro-finance position necessarily made it a cheerleader for empire, since empire was the framework within which wealth was being created.

But liberalism has many currents, and in response to imperial abuses and demands for social reform, in the early twentieth century The Economist entered a new period. Its editorial line acted as a kind of barometer of liberal conventional wisdom, responding to the atmospheric pressure of world events. Editor Francis Hirst, who took the top job in 1907, held, much like Hobson, that the scramble for Africa was the result of “financial imperialism,” rather than the means to pass on the supposed blessings of civilization. Hirst condemned military aggression, arguing that reducing spending on arms was the only way to carry out needed social reforms while keeping taxes low. Perhaps Hirst’s statement that the British Constitution was “only a mask over the face of plutocracy” was not so analytically distinct from Bagehot, but Hirst at least meant it as a criticism.

Hirst was ultimately let go for his opposition to World War I, but the publication continued to reflect the rising influence of the Labour Party, and the more radical demands of its time. Many students of Keynes wrote for the paper during the Great Depression, and Douglas Jay, later a Labour member of Parliament, even wrote a book called The Socialist Case in 1937 while on staff. The Economist hardly abandoned its free-trade principles: It felt that, under the circumstances, it was essential to help ensure that the Labour Party understood the needs of the bankers, and how they might be properly integrated into a mixed economy. The Economist even endorsed the Beveridge Report in 1942, which laid the foundations for the postwar welfare state and the National Health Service in Britain. It was in this period, from 1938 to 1956, under the editorship of Geoffrey Crowther, that the readership expanded significantly, and the paper developed its signature style: witty and pragmatic, staking out what Crowther described as the “extreme center.”

As postwar turned to Cold War, The Economist swung back toward positions that resembled its early years. Defending the liberal project now became synonymous with defending American empire, and attacking socialism wherever it occurred. The paper cheered the Marshall Plan and Truman’s commitment to an anti-communism in Greece, Turkey, and Korea. Espionage entered the newsroom. Notorious Soviet spy Kim Philby served as the Middle East correspondent for a time, where he turned in blandly anti-communist articles to maintain his cover. East Asia correspondent Brian Crozier also took over the bulletin known as the Foreign Report, where he regularly reprinted content from the CIA and the U.K.’s own propaganda outfit, the Information Research Department. The magazine followed U.S. propaganda closely in places like Vietnam and Chile. The Chile correspondent danced down the hallways of The Economist shouting “My enemy is dead!” when news of the coup against socialist Salvador Allende reached him in 1973.

The Economist took a strong line against anti-globalization protests in the 1990s.Sion Touhig/Sygma/Getty

With the end of the Cold War, the newspaper has cheered and defended globalization and the power of unbridled markets. Norman Macrae, a longtime deputy editor, claimed to have coined the term “privatization.” After the protests accompanying the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in 1999, the newspaper put an Indian girl wearing a shawl on the cover, making her the face of “The real losers from Seattle.” If anti-globalization protesters got their way, it reasoned, she would lose her path out of poverty. Meanwhile, it mocked activists for having the temerity to protest in the city of globalized companies such as Microsoft and Boeing. Capitalism was still the only engine of wealth creation around, and those pointing out the damage that the late-twentieth-century version of globalization was doing to democracy or to industrial laborers were to be chided rather than taken seriously.

After the financial crisis of 2008, the paper called for minor adjustments to the global economic system rather than wholesale rethinking. “All the signs are pointing in the same direction,” it wrote: “a larger role for the state, and a smaller and more constrained private sector. This newspaper hopes profoundly that this will not happen.” Through all its changes, and over more than a century and a half, The Economist’s enthusiasm for free trade remains undiminished.

As a book, Liberalism at Large juggles several tasks. It is an institutional history of the paper, exploring the lives and personalities of its writers and editors. It is an account of the positions The Economist staked out on the major issues of the day. It is an argument that The Economist’s connections to power have made it a participant in the building of the liberal project rather than just a chronicler. And it is a critique of the paper’s way of looking at the world. There is so much to do that the book can feel simultaneously rushed and overlong.

Zevin’s critique, pronounced atop a formidable pile of research, is forceful and serious: The Economist, as the voice of finance capital, is too self-satisfied to see its own role in the world’s troubles. “Averting their gaze,” concludes Zevin, “liberals have scratched their heads at the political volatility of the present, unable to recognize their handiwork.” Placing the needs of capital above those of democracy has led to backlash; the paper may never have met an act of liberal imperialism of which it did not approve; and financialized capitalism has grown out of control. The paper may disapprove of Trump and Brexit (it endorsed Clinton in 2016 and favors remaining in the European Union), but backlash to the kind of globalization it has championed is one of the reasons that we now have to live with both. The Economist may be witty, it may be contrarian, it may be informative, but it is also implicated in many current problems. When markets speak for themselves, it turns out, they lack a culture of self-criticism. 

Underlying Zevin’s critique is the hope that, from the failures of liberal capitalism, a more just and egalitarian alternative will emerge. But the history relayed in the book does not necessarily align with those hopes. Zevin sees The Economist as representing the “dominant” strain of liberalism: the one that both gets to act upon the world and has to adapt to it. In the early twentieth century, when the paper grew closer to Labour and advocated serious expansions of the welfare state, it did so not out of charity but of necessity. Always eager to protect market economies, it saw that reform was essential to maintain popular support for the system it holds responsible for wealth creation.

If this reading of the newspaper’s trajectory is correct, then what is to be thought of the fact that The Economist has offered so few concessions after the financial crisis of 2008? In the wake of the financial crisis, it has made the rhetorical switch from defending “capitalism” to “liberalism.” But it can still report on the idea of a global wealth tax, for example, without feeling any need to endorse it. If Zevin is correct to read the magazine as a window into the mind of global capital, its current stance is probably evidence that The Economist believes liberalism is in a stronger position than ongoing discussions of the “crisis of liberalism” would imply. After all, Liberalism at Large can be read as an extended account of liberalism suffering periodic crises and managing to muddle on.

Many of the most urgent problems of our time and of the years to come—prominently including climate change and income inequality—seem to me to require putting markets firmly in their proper place: a subordinate one to other social necessities. Markets are tools, not masters. And the liberalism of political rights like freedom of speech can be decoupled from the liberalism of property rights exemplified by thinking in Wall Street or the City of London. That old laissez-faire individualism is, indeed, not adequate to the tasks we face in 2019. Still, if The Economist, the great barometer of capitalist thinking, can scoff at such sentiments, then it would seem that capitalism is not as imperiled as some might think. Liberalism may be in crisis, but with more than 150 years of experience, it is used to that.