De afscheidstoespraak van de hoofdredacteur van The Economist, John Micklethwait. (Als er een betaalmuur tussenzit, dan kunt u ook hieronder kijken waar ik de tekst heb geplakt. Bij wijze van uitzondering.) Westerse democratiën zijn nauwelijks nog een rolmodel; economisch liberalisme likt zijn wonden. Hoe kan een liberaal nog hoopvol zijn? 

An editor’s farewell

The case for liberal optimism

John Micklethwait, who has edited this newspaper since 2006, leaves today. These are his parting thoughts

THIS newspaper churlishly deprives its editors of the egocentric adornments of our trade. Tragically, these pages include no weekly “editor’s letter” to readers, underneath a beaming, air-brushed picture. Online, there is a weekly e-mail, but that comes from your “desk”, not you. As editor, you spend your time in deplorable obscurity, consoled merely by the fact you have the nicest job in journalism. But there are two indulgent exceptions: a brief mention when you are appointed; and this valedictory leader, which attempts to sum up the world that has hurtled across your desk.

It starts on the first day, and never lets up. There are elections, coups, wars, bankruptcies and tsunamis. Science throws up discoveries and ideas. A pantomime of Putinesque villains and Berlusconi-style clowns force themselves onto the cover. But for the things this newspaper cares about, the past nine years have been a battle, one that has left me in a state of paranoid optimism. Paranoia because so much remains under threat; optimism because, for the most part, the creed this newspaper lives by is strong enough to survive.

That applies first to The Economist itself. One of my earliest covers asked “Who killed the newspaper?” (August 24th 2006), and this newspaper has arguably faced more change in the past nine years than it did in the previous century. On April Fool’s Day 2006, when, appropriately, I began this job, Twitter was ten days old, our print advertising was growing and social media was something to do with a very good lunch.

So any modern editor who is not paranoid is a fool. But my optimism remains greater, both about The Economist and the future of independent journalism. That is partly because technology gives us ever more ways to reach our audience. In 2006 our circulation was 1.1m, all in print. Now it is 1.6m in print, digital and audio. Already half a million of you have downloaded our new Espresso app; we are adding over 70,000 Twitter followers each week. Media is not the race to the bottom that pessimists forecast. People want to read about the Kurds, Keynes and kokumi (see article) as well as the Kardashians. Ever more go to university, travel abroad and need ideas to stay employable—and will pay for an impartial view of the world, one where the editor, whatever his faults (or from now on, her virtues), is in nobody’s pocket.

Fighting new battles

The same guarded hopefulness applies to an Economist editor’s only true master: the liberal credo of open markets and individual freedom. That liberalism, which stretches back to our founding by James Wilson in 1843, has been attacked from all sides over the past nine years. In 2006 it was still easy to convince yourself that history was ending—that the “Washington consensus” of democracy and capitalism would liberate the world. But freedom’s momentum has sadly stalled.

Democracy is no longer the presumed destination. Countries that looked mildly hopeful nine years ago, such as Russia and Turkey, have acquired tsars and sultans. The Arab spring has turned to winter. Above all, authoritarians have found a new model in China—in which power revolves at the top every decade and economic growth is organised at the bottom. China’s income per person has risen at twice the rate of democratic India’s since 2006.

Western democracy, too, looks ever less exemplary. Barack Obama may have stopped his predecessor’s waterboarding of American values, but Washington remains synonymous with gridlock. In every year of my editorship a clear majority of Americans have told Gallup that they are dissatisfied with the way they are governed. America’s money politics, the target of another editor’s valedictory in 1993, looks ever grubbier and more feudal, with a Bush v Clinton contest beckoning in 2016.

The only way to feel good about American democracy is to set it beside Brussels. Woefully unaccountable and ineffective, the European Union is often held together only by the woman who has somehow managed to be both the West’s most impressive politician and its greatest ditherer, Angela Merkel. But to what end? The near-permanent euro crisis has proved a classic exercise in shambolic decision-making, consisting mostly of agreeing to kick the can down the road.

If liberal politics are rightly attacked, the blows that have rained down on liberal economics have perhaps been even more painful. It is now a commonplace to blame the dominant event of this editorship, the 2007-08 financial crisis, on unfettered capitalism. This is mostly a calumny: the epicentre was the American mortgage market, one of the most regulated industries on Earth, and Leviathan’s hand was all over much of the mess that followed. But part of the charge against capitalism was true, and it hurts. No liberal can justify a system in which huge banks’ balance-sheets teetered on tiny amounts of capital. In 2006 too much of finance was gambling, pure and simple; and too much of the bill ended up with taxpayers.

This helps explain why a feeling of unfairness lingers across the West—visible in the streets of Athens, but also in the pages of Thomas Piketty. People blame liberalism for much of what they fear: whether large-scale immigration, technological change, or just what the French callmondialisation.

Such a reaction is not unreasonable. Globalisation has indeed brought problems in its wake. But it has also done an incredible job in reducing want. Since 1990, nearly 1 billion people have been hauled out of extreme poverty; and the 75m people who bought an iPhone in the last quarter of 2014 were not all plutocrats. Moreover, open markets could do more, not least in the West. Free-trade pacts across the Atlantic and the Pacific would spur growth, while Mrs Merkel could open up Europe’s single market in services. The magic still works, and liberals should be far bolder in making that optimistic case.

But that is not enough. Two great debates are forming that will redefine liberalism. The first is to do with inequality. A more open society, where global markets increase the rewards for the talented, is fast becoming a less equal one. As this newspaper pointed out last week, the clever are marrying the clever and manically educating their children, making it ever harder for the poor to catch up. Liberals should resist the left’s inclination to punish the talented and somehow to mandate equality. But in the name of equal opportunity, progressives need to hack away at unnecessary privileges (like university places for children of alumni) and wage war on crony capitalism. Private equity and Exxon are both clever enough not to need special tax breaks. Four times as much public money goes to the wealthiest 20% of Americans in mortgage-interest deductions than is spent on social housing for the poorest fifth.

These were causes that motivated Wilson, John Stuart Mill, William Gladstone and the great liberals of the 19th century, who waged war on “the old corruption” of aristocratic patronage and protection for the rich, such as the corn laws this newspaper was set up to oppose. But they were progressives who also believed in a smaller state. This is the second debate forming around liberalism, and a dilemma: for although this newspaper wants government’s role to be limited, some of the remedies for inequality involve the state doing more, not less. Early education is one example. Only 28% of American four-year-olds attend state-funded pre-school; China is hoping to put 70% of its children through pre-school by 2020.

Planting liberalism’s standard

The answer is to scale down government, but to direct it more narrowly and intensely. In Europe, America and Japan the state still tries to do too much, and therefore does it badly. Leviathan has sprawled, invading our privacy, dictating the curve of a banana and producing tax codes of biblical length. With each tax break for the already rich and with each subsidy to this business or that pressure group, another lobby is formed, and democracy suffers.

Lessons lie in the private sector. It is often several decades ahead of the public sector in the West. Some of the answer is just good management: if Singapore can pay good teachers more and fire bad ones, so can Stuttgart and Seattle. Other answers lie in experiments at lower levels of government, as among America’s states, and outside the West—in India’s giant heart hospitals and Brazil’s conditional-cash-transfer system.

The battle for the future of the state is an area where modern liberalism should plant its standard and fight, just as the founders of the creed did. Because, in the end, free markets and free minds will win. Liberalism has economic logic and technology on its side—as well as this wonderful newspaper, which I now hand over into excellent hands. And that is my last, best reason for optimism.