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20 September 2013

Heresy of the week: There’s only one political divide that really matters and you’re probably on the wrong side of it

Is the Economist rightwing or leftwing? On its website, the magazine – or newspaper as it prefers to style itself – tries to clear up the confusion:

In other words, the publication is both economically and socially liberal. Nothing remarkable about that – it is an increasingly common political stance these days, especially among the chattering classes where it provides the only socially acceptable alternative to lefty liberalism.

What annoys many on the right, however, is that the magazine sometimes endorses parties and politicians of the centre-left over perfectly respectable centre-right alternatives. For instance, Tim Montgomerie (in a diary for the Australian edition of the Spectator) had this to say when the Economist backed Kevin Rudd over Tony Abbott:

The Economist’s own account is that it is “drawn to centrist politicians and parties who appear to combine the best of both sides, such as Tony Blair, whose combination of social and economic liberalism persuaded it to endorse him at the 2001 and the 2005 elections.”

Well, that seems reasonable. If your values are primarily liberal, rather than primarily leftwing or rightwing, why shouldn’t you opt for the candidate you believe to be closest to your values?

Yet this lofty evenhandedness presumes an equivalence between the ‘unreliability’ of the mainstream right on social liberalism and that of the mainstream left on economic liberalism. This won’t wash. Across the western world all societies are heading towards greater license and away from traditional moral norms. Not even the Republicans in America are going to change that. By way of contrast, economic liberalism most certainly is under threat – not from the old left’s fondness for nationalisation, but from the new left’s drive towards an evermore indebted public sector.

To get what’s really going on with the Economist, we have to consider the most important political divide of them all – which is between those who believe that humanity is fallible in every respect (proper conservatives) and those who don’t (everybody else).

Only conservatism – true conservatism, that is – sees that the flaws in human nature compromise everything that we do and think. This is a hard truth to accept, which is why almost all of us carve out exceptions and place them on a pedestal they don’t deserve. For leftwingers the exception is the state. For rightwingers the exceptions might include the market, the ‘wisdom of crowds’ or the limitless exploitability of the environment. For refined liberals, however, the state and the market are mere tools – to be used and set aside according to rational criteria.

Therefore, to understand the Economist you need to realise that the thing it places on the pedestal isn’t the market, but human reason. Certainly this explains why the magazine should be so instinctively hostile to the presence of real conservatism, which empties the pedestal of all human endeavour.


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