Life & Liberty: Still Reading That Greasy Kid Stuff?


Back in 1982, I was still dutifully reading Time magazine every week. Yes, I was annoyed by its incessant editorializing disguised as reporting and its tendency to belabor the obvious and glorify the trivial. But even though I was already reading several daily papers and a number of monthly magazines, I still felt the need for a weekly distillation of current events and their significance.

Then I discovered The Economist. The year before, this venerable British newsweekly had begun publishing an American edition and promoting it heavily. I responded to a mailed solicitation and before long I was hooked. For about a year, I kept Time coming (and occasionally bought Newsweek for yet another comparison). But it was no contest; when Time came up for renewal, I let it lapse.

What is it that has attracted over 100,000 loyal American readers to The Economist during the past four years? It certainly can't be the small type, gray pages, and absence of color photos. And there are no cover stories on Madonna, cocaine, or Cabbage Patch Kids. What sells me on The Economist are its values, its world view, and its writing.

Founded in 1843 by noted economist writer Walter Bagehot, the magazine represented the full force of 19th-century classical liberalism—free minds and free markets, if you will. Its initial editorial "cause" was repeal of the Corn Laws (Britain's mercantilistic system of regulating the grain trade so as to protect farmers' incomes). The magazine today remains largely true to those values, championing not merely free markets but also individual liberties. Its editors evidently feel no need to pander to popular causes or constituencies.

The Economist's writing is clearly aimed higher than that of U.S. newsweeklies. Headlines and captions are often droll commentaries, puns, or double entendres. The magazine's 45 journalists (who, despite their lack of bylines, both report and write their own stories, unlike their counterparts at Newsweek and Time) all seem to have mastered the basics of economics and public choice theory—they understand the way the world works, as in these excerpts from a January article on India's economy:

"Economic policy making in India is sometimes portrayed as a struggle between old socialist diehards and new free-marketeers who came in with Mr. Gandhi. India does not work like that. Most members of the ruling Congress party have no ideology.…For them, socialism is a device for controlling the economy in the name of the people, and using that control to pursue their own ends."

Unsupported, this paragraph might be dismissed as ideological hand-waving. But the article goes on to back up this thesis with specifics: "They provide government money for regions, castes, farmers, trade unions, small industries, hand loom workers, and a multitude of others.…The friends of a minister or a senior politician are given industry and import licenses so that they may line their pockets.…Public enterprises are heavily overstaffed because every politician cajoles them to employ his friends and constituents."

This kind of euphemism-avoiding analysis is then used to explain what might otherwise seem an inexplicable phenomenon—the opening up of protectionist India to a wide variety of imports since 1977: "The share of government revenue accounted for by import duties has gone up from 11% in the early 1970s to 20% today. The liberal import policy has paid for the hand-outs, which is why it has remained politically acceptable."

One of the most important benefits of reading The Economist is getting a chance to view current events from other than a U.S.-centered perspective. A good example is last October 25's article on illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States. The Economist's piece was the only article I have read that looked at the situation from the Mexican point of view. Going beyond official pronouncements and government statistics, it pointed out that (usually untaxed) remittances from workers in the United States to their families in Mexico represent something like $2 billion a year. That total is comparable to receipts from the two largest official dollar-earners other than oil—tourism and free-trade-zone border factories.

Reading The Economist can tax an American's knowledge of "English." Some of its terms are simply indecipherable unless you have lived in Britain. Others, however, are readily understandable from the context. I figured out early on that "leaders" refers to the magazine's up-front editorials, while "this newspaper" means the magazine itself. Other Britishisms—"a familiar wheese," referring to a well-worn special pleading argument; "hived-off," meaning spun off or divested; "beavering away," meaning working diligently—have a certain charm all their own, while an occasional phrase reads quite peculiarly to Americans, "officer-cadets' passing-out ceremony," for example.

One of The Economist's specialties is the "survey." Surveys are in-depth sections, up to 30 pages long, that deal with a single country or issue—international banking, for example, or West Germany—and that appear in about every third issue. These surveys often tell you far more than you'd ever want to know about the subject at hand. But when they happen to cover a subject in which you have an abiding interest, they provide a gold-mine of information. (See, for example, "Privatisation: Everybody's Doing it, Differently," a minisurvey in the December 21, 1985, issue.)

Although the magazine has no gossip or pop-culture sections, it does have an excellent Science and Technology department. And its optimistic, rationalist outlook—stemming, no doubt, from its Scottish Enlightenment ancestry—finds its way into the editorials—excuse me, the leaders—from time to time.

For example, in January 1986, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Carl Benz's first automobile patent, a leader called "The Unfinished Revolution" sang a hymn in praise of the automobile as a great force for freedom: "In the centuries before 1886, most people even in Europe and Japan never moved more than 20 miles from their homes during their lives, except when pressed into marauding armies; they therefore had to remain subservient to the squire or the banker or the feudal landlord or the biggest employer in their district.…So long as the poor could commute and shop only on foot, there would never be really liberalized competition for their labour or for housewives' custom."

For all these words of praise, however, I would be remiss not to point out a few editorial blind spots. While properly skeptical of politicians and bureaucrats—even when it comes to defense projects—the magazine still takes a reflexively pro-NATO position. And for all its understanding of free markets, The Economist seems not to have caught up with the economics profession's rethinking of the wisdom of antitrust laws.

All in all, though, these quibbles are only nitpicks. For my money, a week just isn't complete without a regular dose of The Economist.

Robert W. Poole, Jr., is publisher of REASON.