Books, Essays

Has The Economist Written the Future of Liberalism?

For some, an anniversary marks the time for wonderful nostalgia. Reliving the greatest hits can be invigorating, but for liberalism, it would be blind. Not to say that liberalism hasn’t produced plenty of great hits (they are impossible to count), rather those hits are no longer enough to sustain the momentum. As anyone who has read a line of political commentary in the past few years can tell you, liberalism is in crisis. Some would even say it’s on its deathbed.

But not The Economist. For its recent 175th anniversary, Editor-in-Chief Zanny Minton Beddoes wrote a 10,000-word essay articulating the paper’s ‘manifesto for renewing liberalism.’

I am insatiably attracted to policy and ideology, always interested in the thinking behind politics as well as its practicalities. So, does the essay hold up under scrutiny? Yes and no. A few dodgy ideas aside, Minton Beddoes puts forth a liberalism which is forward-facing, bold and radical, correctly diagnosing that the biggest threat to liberalism is not the forces which seek to destroy it, but its own complacency.

“Many liberals have, in truth, become conservative, fearful of advocating bold reform lest it upset a system from which they do better than most.”

Minton Beddoes puts into words what has been clear for many years now, particularly since 2016. Some liberals have indirectly subscribed to the ‘end of history’ philosophy, the notion that the post-1989 liberal socio-economic model is the golden paradigm of human achievement and will always lead to success. Others have departed from liberal tendencies (even if they do not admit it), arguing for modifications to freedom of speech.

Across the board, though, liberals have failed to win the politics of persuasion, leading to the election of Trump, the vote for Brexit, the rise of Marine Le Pen, the AfD, Rodrigo Duterte and more. How can liberals fight back against these forces, and win? Is it by doubling down on the fundamentals of liberalism, or offering a radical reinvention? In keeping with the ideology’s traditions, Minton Beddoes’ essay falls somewhere in the middle. On free markets, The Economist is adamant that “defending the existing trade system is a paramount goal,” but makes clear that reform must flow through dismantling dodgy campaign finance, breaking up monopolies, and land taxes.

This is a liberalism which understands the state and the market must be partners, not enemies; like yin and yang, they need each other. Unchecked laissez-faire economics have created a system of concentrated power, which stifles the core fundamental of competition, thus needing the state to step in. The tradition of modern liberalism has been kicking around for a while, which a majority of liberals would no doubt subscribe to (Jacob Rees-Mogg embodying the ‘classical liberal’ tradition). Minton Beddoes simply sets out how to make modern liberalism a little more, err, modern.

Margaret Thatcher, who ushered in an era of laissez-faire neoliberalism in 1980s Britain

Much to Thatcher’s likely chagrin, the essay presents a robust case for renewing the welfare state, a policy of socialist origins writ down in detail by liberals like William Beveridge. Minton Beddoes places particular emphasis on supporting those who are retired, a demographic faction who are often overshadowed by both the unemployed and impoverished workers. She cites OECD figures claiming that, by 2050, the ratio of working-age to retired people in rich countries will drop from 4:1 to 2:1.

Particularly in the UK, the ageing population is a ticking time bomb. Theresa May took a crack at social care policy in the 2017 General Election, but it exploded prematurely and helped cost her a majority. The British economy and welfare state faces attack on multiple fronts: the ageing population, rising life expectancy, skilled workers in medicine and education emigrating elsewhere, millions unable to escape poverty even in work, and the imminent end of free movement inevitably leading to a shortage of low-skilled workers. How can liberalism solve this?

Education. Education. Education. As Mr. Blair once put it.

The essay does not directly endorse it, but the mention of “lifetime vocational education” is reminiscent of Labour’s National Education Service policy. Whereas liberals have historically turned their heads to universities, The Economist argues for greater pre-school and post-school education. This would be a dramatic expansion of the welfare state, moving it from strictly financial support to the promotion of wellbeing and learning for all people in all stages of their life (getting to the meaning of the term ‘welfare’).

But, quite rightly, education shouldn’t be used to paper over financial cracks. Favourable words are given to universal basic income – the policy which has been heating up for years now – but an ultimate preference goes to a negative income tax. Think tax credits, but working on the basis there is a baseline minimum income (e.g. £7,000 per year) for somebody to live on, as the state would top up incomes under this minimum. What the essay does not answer is the implications for welfare benefits. Does this minimum become the maximum for the unemployed? What about those with disabilities, who will likely need a lot more to get by? Such answers are not provided, but Minton Beddoes is looking in the right direction. How can people exercise their freedoms if they have no money?

It is on the issue of immigration that the essay hits a stumbling block. Minton Beddoes articulates a good defence of open borders: “it removes barriers that keep people from the lives they want, it produces more diverse societies and it offers economic betterment to all … Economists estimate that, were the world able to accommodate the wishes of all those who wanted to migrate, global GDP would double.” Curious, then, that this is prefixed with the declaration that open borders are “rarely, if ever politically feasible,” going on to argue that liberals must “temper the most ambitious demands for immigration while finding ways to increase popular support for more moderate flows.” In short, more immigration – but not too much.

It is not that this is an inherently bad position, just that it is not well justified. In an essay brimming with strong reasoning for various radical reforms, it is odd that immigration receives what has effectively been the status quo for a long time in a lot of countries. Reasoning which works not just in its own practical right, but in terms of its liberalism too. Open borders do, technically, fit in with liberalism, because they enhance equality of opportunity and generate more economic growth for those opportunities to be taken, as Minton Beddoes writes.

The call for managed migration seems to come from liberalism’s reactive tendencies; because high immigration has led to conflict, the onus must be on restricting it rather than figuring out why the citizens of the country in question respond with conflict. The essay runs with this, articulating various policies which would no doubt prove deeply controversial. One such policy is that “individual citizens should be able to sponsor a migrant, taking a cut of their earnings in exchange for responsibility for their actions,” taken from the book ‘Radical Markets.’ Other-ing migrants even further, taking away the money they earn and making an innocent shoulder the blame if they break the law? I somehow doubt that would go down a treat.

All in all, where is liberalism headed next, according to The Economist? The vision feels most similar to President Woodrow Wilson’s idea for the liberal world order a century ago: a world of independent, democratic nation-states. Minton Beddoes pays heed to the late John McCain’s call for a ‘league of democracies’ to institutionally enshrine the values of liberal democracy. But when it comes to the issue of migration, it is clear that, for The Economist, liberals must support immigration and refrain from backing open borders. Would this necessitate reforming the EU’s commitment to freedom of movement?

Time will tell if this vision comes to pass, but if it does then it will be, by-and-large, welcome. The Economist is right: unless liberals reform, upgrading so-called modern liberalism, then liberalism will die. It’s the ideology which has proved most resilient and durable in the face of centuries of revolutions, war, and seismic technological upheaval. For the sake of all those who work at The Economist, make sure that this isn’t the last we see of it.

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