Radical Thoughts Indeed
By A.D. Freudenheim

9 July 2003

In an astounding series of commentaries under the heading "Radical birthday thoughts," timed with the celebration of its 160th birthday – astounding not only for the clarity of the writing, but for the honesty of the thinking – The Economist suggests that many of the problems of global and American capitalism can be attributed to a level of managerial corruption, which has gone largely unchallenged and unpunished, particularly in the US. Following in the footsteps of the magazine’s first issue, the editors write that this “survey will ... be a polemical essay in favour of liberalism but also against the abuse of capitalism and of democracy in the country that is seen ... as the highway to greatness.”[1]

This set of articles is valuable for its well-crafted, well-intended breadth. Not comfortable merely with pointing to one or two faults in the ebb-and-flow of capitalism in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, The Economist has done as its name suggests, tackling the scope of issues from free trade to government oversight to taxes and tax breaks, and on into the corrupting influence that business can have on government, and vice-versa. For example, with sections featuring titles like “Pigs, pay, and power” or “Pro-market, not pro-business,” there is no mistaking the clarity of purpose behind these essays. Likewise, the editors are not afraid to level charges at those to blame for many recent business disasters. In the section titled “Liberty’s great advance,” the magazine notes that the U.S. was not only the location of a massive economic boom, which brought tremendous benefits around the world, but that it was also where the “extremes of misbehaviour” were seen; where executive compensation packages were ridiculously overdone, while those same executives were “faking corporate accounts, manipulating equity offerings, and granting each other vast piles of share options, among other abuses.” And, “more outrageously still, [where] many of those benefiting from this flow of cash managed successfully to lobby Congress and the White House to reject reforms that could have stemmed some of the abuse.”[2]

Likewise, they write that as a result of American discontent with corporate shenanigans, “the worst possibility is that anger at capitalist abuses will tip the balance in domestic politics towards protectionism, as a misguided way to help the weak and vulnerable, and to pander to suspicion of markets and business.”[3] If you, dear reader, are a protectionist, perhaps this sounds good – but I feel confident saying that this kind of crunch on the marketplace will not affect the actual scope of corporate malfeasance. Rather, it will just channel it into new areas of opportunity, as it has historically.

More importantly – and more sadly – is the fact that such a thorough, thoughtful, wide-ranging, and honest analysis is unlikely to appear in any American newspaper or magazine; if so, it would be incomplete, tackling some business issues, perhaps political issues, but largely ignoring the underlying philosophical concerns. The American approach to economic and business reporting has become dominated by the same star-based methodology that affects every other element of American media: the heroes or villains attract all the attention, but scant effort is dedicated to the true detail underlying changes in the world economy. Meanwhile, the prized “objectivity” of the American news media clouds any effort to provide reporting that either acknowledges (or even articulates) a particular philosophy, business or otherwise.

The Economist’s “survey” is a terrific integration and application of the philosophy of liberalism to the current world economy – and yet it manages to remain accessible and readable to a more general audience. The English are to be envied that such credibility exists over their side of the Atlantic.

[1] “Radical birthday thoughts,” The Economist, 28 June 2003, P. 4
[2] “Liberty’s great advance,” The Economist, 28 June 2003, P. 6-7
[3] “Liberty’s great advance,” The Economist, 28 June 2003, P. 7
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