The Economist's moral blinkers

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. A few months ago, Bill Emmott, the editor of The Economist, retired after 13 years at the helm of the world's best news magazine. He was replaced by the US editor, John Micklethwait. There was a flurry of reports in the media and then their names disappeared under the blanketing snow of current affairs. As part of the 163-year-old tradition, no bylines appear in The Economist, not even the name of its editor. The next time Mr Micklethwait's name will appear could be his own retirement.
More than a magazine, The Economist is an institution – a relic of the Victorian era founded upon the economics of Adam Smith and the morals of John Stuart Mill which has adapted superbly to modern times. In the post-modern age of fragmentation and doubt its business is certitude. But with flair: its covers are often hilarious; its style sober, garnished with sly humour. Headlines in Latin pop up from time to time; allusions to Shakespeare and English poets pepper the text. It is supremely readable and entertaining.
Originally British, during Mr Emmott's watch, The Economist prospered across the Atlantic and turned a good reputation into an outstanding brand. Half of its circulation of one million is now in the United States. Mr Micklethwait will no doubt ensure the continuity of its free market philosophy and maintain its high standards of editing.
"I used to think. Now, I just read The Economist," Larry Ellison, CEO of IT giant Oracle Corporation, has admitted. The list of political and business luminaries who read it religiously is long and impressive. "The magazine I spend most of my days reading is The Economist," says Microsoft's Bill Gates. "An important part of my life support system," says Chris Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University. Even its rivals are glowing in their praise. Here's the International Herald Tribune: "This unique journal in which sheer intellect, backed by integrity and a bold welcoming of new ideas has held sway over statesman and governments." And Germany's Die Zeit: "The paper of the global ruling classes." And if you're still not convinced, Vanity Fair: "The magazine is probably read by more presidents, prime ministers, and chief executives around the world than any other... The positions it takes change the minds that matter."
Which makes it all the more disturbing when The Economist takes up the cudgels in favour of infant euthanasia. The UK's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has suggested that the rights and wrongs of actively killing disabled infants should be debated. It is hardly surprising that doctors paid to kill infants on one side of the birth canal should seek permission to kill them on the other side, too.
But it seems odd that the world's most respected magazine should swallow their arguments and drizzle them with treacly sentimentality: "Tiny babies do tug at the heartstrings but raising a severely impaired child is heartbreakingly hard. It is brave of doctors to dare to question whether they should save the life of each and every one. "
Brave? How about immoral? How about cowardly? How about inhuman? How could the world's best news magazine be so wrong-headed about killing babies? The Economist prides itself upon "its objective, factual writing, rather than... emotive journalism", but on nearly every important moral issue, the ghost of John Stuart Mill whispers that morality must be dismissed as an inconvenient superstition. Should the West shower Africa with condoms to prevent AIDS? Naturally -- "morality must take second place". Same sex marriage? Obviously -- "The case for allowing gays to marry begins with equality, pure and simple." Legalise prostitution? Why not? "What consenting adults do in private is their own business." Should Olympians take drugs? -- It is "shrill" and "intolerant" to suggest otherwise. And so on.
Despite the vast common sense and analytical clarity of its business and political analysis, The Economist wears the ideological blinkers of a Victorian free-thinker. It racks moral arguments on the Procrustean bed of Mill's libertarianism. For instance, the author of one of its excellent surveys defends the legalisation of illegal drugs by citing the great man: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."1 Like Mill, The Economist regards the person as an autonomous, self-sufficient individual who shapes his own good without reference to society. Furthermore, for The Economist, the market is not a way to achieve the good of society; it is the good of society. Any social policy which introduces a market or makes a market more efficient is to be praised. Any one which does not is to be censured as antiquated and moralistic.
It is hard to find a better example of how ideology colours the magazine's vaunted objectivity than its recent leader (The Economist has "leaders", not editorials) defending a market in which people could sell their kidneys for profit. It would be safer for patients and it would eliminate long waiting lists. "Instinct often trumps logic. Sometimes that's right.
But in this case, the instinct that selling bits of oneself is wrong leads to many premature deaths and much suffering. The logical answer, in this case, is the humane one."
But this is ideological, rather than logical. How does The Economist justify itself? By using as a case study a place where the sale of kidneys has been legalised, where donors are amply compensated and where waiting lists have been eliminated: Iran. It's perplexing to see a country with one of the world's worst records on human rights used to justify a policy which puts human rights at risk.
And the argument is not confined to the leader, but seeps into the news coverage as well. The contrary view -- that donors' health is compromised, that they will be exploited, that it will not stop the black market -- is ignored. Even though it admits that "there is little information on how donors ultimately fare," The Economist still accepts the glib assurances of the Iranian brokers that donors remain healthy. But isn't the ultimate health of the donors the central issue in the debate over selling kidneys? As often happens, The Economist's evidence often looks threadbare and its arguments unravel when they are teased apart.
The plausibility of a market for organs and other such proposals owes more to a team of brilliant editors than to logic and evidence. The Economist's reputation for omniscience and its tightly-written, sardonic style anaesthetise criticism. While bylines in other magazines and newspapers reveal the name of journalists and allow readers to imagine that bias and misinformation -- not to mention disinformation -- might be possible, its Olympian anonymity reinforces the myth that it has canvassed all points of view, sifted all the evidence and formed a dispassionate opinion.
This is nonsense, of course. All journalism reflects the ethical prejudices of an author – even at The Economist. Back in the late 50s, readers were probably not aware that its Middle East correspondent was Kim Philby, a spy who did incalculable damage to Britain and the United States and was eventually buried in Moscow with the honours of a KGB general. Had they known, perhaps they might have treated The Economist's pronouncements on the Middle East with just a bit more scepticism. As The Economist itself might put it, if you are thinking of trading in your brain for a subscription, caveat emptor. Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet. 1 Frances Cairncross. "Stumbling in the dark". The Economist. July 26, 2001. Surveys are one of the rare exceptions to The Economist's anonymity.


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