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When anyone describes themselves as being ‘neither rightwing nor leftwing’, what they usually mean is that they are either rightwing or leftwing, but they’d rather not be associated with certain other rightwingers/leftwingers.

In other words, what we have here is an exercise in nose-holding – and no one does it better than the Economist:

Thus the magazine (or newspaper as it prefers to style itself) is both economically and socially liberal. This is pretty unremarkable stuff – especially among the chattering classes, where it provides a socially acceptable alternative to lefty liberalism. So why should anyone be ‘bamboozled’ by it? Perhaps it’s because the Economist has on several occasions endorsed the centre-left party in a national election – Australia being the most recent example:

Such fickleness is deeply irritating to many on the right who expect free-market liberals of all descriptions to fall into line. But why shouldn’t the Economist exercise its judgement on a case-by-case basis? If you want unquestioning tribal loyalty then read the Daily Mirror.

Except that the magazine’s lofty even-handedness implies a deeply misguided assumption, which is  that there is some kind of equivalence between the ‘unreliability’ of the mainstream right on social liberalism and that of the mainstream left on economic liberalism. The truth is that throughout the western world, society is only heading in one direction – away from traditional norms. Not even the Republican Party in the United States is going to change this. However, on any reasonable definition, economic liberalism is under threat – not from the old left’s fondness for nationalisation, but from the new left’s drive towards an ever more bloated public sector. For all their flaws, the parties of the mainstream right provide the only hope of reform – and therefore deserve the backing of economic realists everywhere.

So what was the Economist doing backing the Australian Labor Party over the Aussie Liberals? In a diary for Australian edition of the Spectator, Tim Montgomerie offers the following explanation:

Such institutions, while clearly beneficial in their practical effects, draw upon forces that go much deeper than the rational – anathema to the Economist, dedicated as it is to the “severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” 

Like most other ideologies, the worldview represented by the Economist suffers from an incomplete acceptance of human fallibility. 

Only conservatism – true conservatism, that is – sees that that the flaws in human nature compromise everything that we do and think. This is a hard truth to accept, which is why we 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 clears the pedestal of all human endeavour.

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