ONE hundred and sixty five years ago, a Scottish businessman set out his plans for a newspaper. James Wilson’s starting point was “a melancholy reflection”: “while wealth and capital have been rapidly increasing” and science and art “working the most surprising miracles”, all classes of people were marked “by characters of uncertainty and insecurity”. Wilson’s solution was freedom. He committed his venture to the struggle not just against the protectionist corn laws but against attempts to raise up “barriers to intercourse, jealousies, animosities and heartburnings between individuals and classes in this country, and again between this country and all others”. Ever since, The Economist has been on the side of economic liberty.
Now economic liberty is under attack and capitalism, the system which embodies it, is at bay. This week Britain, the birthplace of modern privatisation, nationalised much of its banking industry; meanwhile, amid talk of the end of the Thatcher-Reagan era, the American government has promised to put $250 billion into its banks. Other governments are re-regulating their financial systems. Asians point out that the West appears to be moving towards their more dirigiste model: “The teachers have some problems,” a Chinese leader recently said. Interventionists are in full cry: “Self-regulation is finished,” claims France’s Nicolas Sarkozy. “Laissez-faire is finished.” Not all criticisms are that unsubtle (the more pointed ones focus on increasing the state’s role only in finance), but all the signs are pointing in the same direction: a larger role for the state, and a smaller and more constrained private sector.