Reinventing liberalism for the 21st century
IN SEPTEMBER 1843 James Wilson, a hatmaker from Scotland, founded this newspaper. His purpose was simple: to champion free trade, free markets and limited government. They were the central principles of a new political philosophy to which Wilson adhered and to which The Economisthas been committed ever since. That cause was liberalism.
The Economist magazine is marking its 175th birthday with a special issuethat looks back on its history and speculates about the future. It is a sobering exercise, highlighting the present breakdown in the world’s political order, a collapse made worse by President Trump but not caused by him.
When the magazine was founded in 1843 by James Wilson, a Scottish hatmaker, the British were locked in a bitter debate over the “Corn Laws” — tariffs on grain (“corn”) imports. On the one side was a “mass movement . . . [of] well-to-do liberal thinkers and progressive businessmen [and] the poor.” On the other were landowners, defending tariffs that “kept up the price of grain.”
The repeal of the tariffs in 1846 marked a huge victory for the then-concept of “liberalism,” which — far from favoring bigger and more powerful government — championed “free trade, free markets and limited government,” notes the magazine.
Government’s limited role rationalized the Economist’s support for some positions that now would be regarded as reactionary: opposition to public schools and to women’s suffrage, being two. Over the years, the staunch individualism gradually gave way to a mushier liberalism that called upon government to stabilize the economy and, through an expanding welfare state, provide economic security.
The Economist rightly sees itself as occupying a middle ground between the old liberalism, with its emphasis on economic and political freedom, and the new, with its faith that collective actions can bring collective good. It observes:
“Our founders would be astonished at how life today compares with the poverty and the misery of the 1840s. Global life expectancy in the past 175 years has risen from a little under 30 years to over 70. The share of people living below the threshold of extreme poverty has fallen from about 80% to 8% . . . . Literacy rates are up more than fivefold, to over 80%. Civil rights and the rule of law are incomparably more robust than . . . only a few decades ago.”
Obviously, the Economist didn’t single-handedly engineer this transformation. But it played an important supporting role, providing intellectual and political legitimacy to the ideas that shaped modern economies, especially after World War II.
The problem is not the past. It’s the future. There’s a huge backlash, as almost everyone knows. Trump is the poster child for this shift, but he isn’t alone. Says the Economist:
“Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal elites, who are seen as self-serving and unable, or unwilling, to solve the problems of ordinary people. Elsewhere a 25-year shift towards freedom and open markets has gone into reverse, even as China . . . shows that dictatorships can thrive.”
Trump and others have exploited the dissatisfaction. But the underlying discontents are not of their making. At least three frustrating trends increasingly define politics.
1. Economic integration has outrun political integration .
The explosion of trade, migration and cross-border money flows have made it harder for nation-states to shape their domestic economic and social conditions. As long as economic growth was rapid, these intrusions seemed tolerable or desirable. But slower economic growth has stoked nationalistic and cultural differences. Trump is not alone in his pushbacks against immigration, trade (China) and capital flows. Think Brexit.
2. Massive welfare states have discredited governments and established leaders .
Efforts to rein in large government deficits are inherently unpopular, because they involve raising taxes or cutting benefits (in the United States — Social Security, government health insurance and the “safety net”). The aging of most wealthy societies compounds the pressure on the welfare state.
3. Technology isn’t always benign .
A widespread, though often unstated, assumption of post-World War II policies was that technologies would solve important national problems. Companies would be more productive, raising living standards. The environment would be improved. Health-care advances would conquer disease. But technology also threatens us. Global warming is a product, at least partially, of industrialization. The Internet exposes us to cyberattacks. Expensive health-care advances add to costs, often with little therapeutic gain.
To poison the political climate further — at least in the United States — some of the most incendiary issues (abortion, guns, global warming, health care) are cast in highly moralistic terms. Adversaries view each other not simply as opponents who disagree but as sinister and stupid advocates of immoral goals. Debate becomes arduous.
Certainly, some policies can be improved. But none promises an easy exit from these difficult dilemmas. The basic purpose of politics is to resolve conflicts, but the choices are being evaded. The political systems of many advanced countries have broken down — or are in the process of doing so.
Politicians prefer stalemate to the hard work of constructing a Liberalism 3.0. That’s not the message the Economist intended, but it is the one it sent.
Read more from Robert Samuelson’s archive.