I fell in love with the Economist magazine 30-plus years ago when my dad bought me a subscription. That subscription has never lapsed, even as I got married and moved from Canada to London to New Zealand to Australia.
Back then I loved the clever puns, the sections devoted to economics, business and science, and the amazing obituaries.
That’s not all that was attractive about this publication. There was also the rather quirky and charming practice of not running any bylines. Even the method and practice of selecting a new editor was shrouded in secrecy.
And best of all were those editorials that were consistently in favour of small and limited government. The Economist seemed so open-minded, so anchored in an attractive worldview.
Sure, it could be impossibly time- consuming to read from cover to cover, and it could be at times a tad sanctimonious. But I quickly fell in love with the Economist.
Alas, it pains me to say that I no longer love it. Yes, I still subscribe and read it. But it’s more out of 30 years of habit. Laziness is what stops me from giving up my subscription.
So what’s happened to 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. With an astonishing insouciance about the dangers of increased judicial power, the Economist’s support for this innovation read more like religious doctrine than its regular hard-nosed analysis. And despite mounting evidence that this innovation has had far more costs than benefits, she has yet to apologise for her keen advocacy and support back then.
The same went for her call for Britain to become a republic. Where was the Walter Bagehot-style sentiment-free cost-benefit analysis that weighed up whether replacing a virtually powerless head of state with some sort of US or Irish-style set-up was really a good idea?
And then came the Economist’s support for invading Iraq. Not long after that, when no weapons of mass destruction were found, there seemed to be a real sea change at the magazine, possibly after suffering some sort of crise de conscience.
First was 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 middle ground, even walk on water.
Again, where was the ruthless scepticism and contrarianism of the sort the Economist displayed towards the mass hysteria surrounding the cult of Lady Diana and her death?
It continues to be gone. The Economist, virtually alone outside hardcore Democratic ranks, still seems to see President Obama as a centrist despite the American voting public’s views in the 2010 midterms and the President’s casting of political opponents as wicked or uninformed rather than simply those with differing views and values.
Then there are the reports from Australia. I read them and wonder if they were written by the ABC or the Australian Labor Party, so self-consciously politically ‘progressive’ are they, not to mention in favour of any and all stimulus spending.
And then in its 28 May 2011 special feature on Australia, the Economist opined that the Howard government achieved little after 2003 (which might be a defensible judgment were it not for that fact that the magazine was on balance positive about the Blair/Brown UK government, whose accomplishments seem pretty much invisible from that date onwards). It claims the Liberal Party of Australia 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.
Oh, and it hates Tony Abbott in a way it clearly does not even dislike centre-left and even hard-left leaders in the democratic world, making what for the Economist’s newly progressive editors is the biting claim that ‘Mr Abbott is socially conservative but above all populist’. And of course there is no higher criticism of an elected politician in the new Economist mindset than trying to be popular, unless that politician is Obama, or Blair, or Gillard, 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.
Now that might not be so bad save that we all know there are many, many top economists out there who reject this Keynesian medicine. 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 mooting the possibility of a non-Keynesian approach? Invisible.
And politicians who worry more than the magazine about the ballooning size of government, people like Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, well, they’re more or less likened to dinosaurs.
Then there’s the Emissions Trading Schemes flowing from global warming. The Economist I remember would be asking how this man-made ETS market can possibly function when China and India and other big developing economies are not party to the restrictions and when carbon-creating manufacturing can be moved to these places in the blink of an eye.
It’s more religion and being part of the progressive consensus, as far as I can tell.
Oh, and who can forget the Economist’s half-hearted support for Sharia law in the West (16 October 2010)? Certainly contrarian, but I’m not sure how it fits with the libertarian tradition.
Likewise there has been lukewarm support from the Economist for hate-speech laws, laws which ought to rankle with lovers of individual liberty.
Heck, the Economist is so ‘right on’ these days that it can’t even bring itself to see that there is a pretty strong case against actually letting Turkey into the European Union. The same goes for its Pollyannaish support for the clearly democratically deficient EU project.
And who could read the post-Royal Wedding Bagehot column (23 April 2011) without cringing at the undergraduate-level arguments in favour of a republic and the sneering, sanctimonious tone?
No, today’s Economist is a very different beast than it was for many of the years I’ve been reading it. Sure, I’m tempted to send her off to a nursing home for the self-styled ‘progressive’ elect. I even feel betrayed at times, as though some Keynesian, Democrat human rights barrister had engineered some sort of hostile takeover of my magazine. But I’m probably too lazy to do what I should and cancel that subscription.
James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland. This is an edited version of a longer essay that first appeared in the July issue of Quadrant.