The World The Economist Made – The New Republic

Posted: December 18, 2019 at 9:43 pm

A senior editor once told a nervous new recruit that to write likeTheEconomist, you just pretend you are God.

Wilson, who died of dysentery in 1860, is less remembered than his son-in-law and successor asEconomisteditor, 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 bookThe 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 powera 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.

Bagehots belief in the British ruling classs 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 Economistcelebrated 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 TheEconomists 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 Hirsts 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 calledThe Socialist Casein 1937 while on staff.The Economisthardly 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 Economisteven 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.

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The World The Economist Made - The New Republic

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