One of the cruelties of keeping your faculties while growing old is seeing so much more that is wrong and having steadily less energy to stop it.
One of the palliatives is to accept some portion of the pipe dreams that hold the wrong-headed in thrall. The Economist’s greatest editor, Walter Bagehot, was charitable but never fooled by this expedient. He depreciated his own acceptance of the British crown with a shrug: “We must not let daylight in upon the magic.” He assumed that good political economists die with few friends, and warned that: “One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.”
Bagehot’s legacy of unrelenting skepticism and hope has been a rock of certainty for rational people everywhere. It has defended its big idea—free markets and free societies—against optimists, moralizers, and engineers on the right and left. It uses the social sciences and great writing to promote workable solutions and scorn futile gestures.
American greatness has always been a workable idea to this English magazine. So, it had few problems with the early enthusiasms of Reagan conservative reformers.
However, over the last 20 years—the years young Paul Ryan has spent in Washington—it has found that its concerns and its rigor have less and less to offer ambitious Republicans that still read international opinion magazines. Whether it be about climate change, tax reform, gay rights, religion in politics, structural deficits and the social safety net, it found the Republicans to be either hysterical or in denial.
It has looked beyond what Republicans say is in their hearts—but this week, with Paul Ryan, The Economist blinked.
In its editorial “The Man with the Plan” and in its wonderful politics column “Lexington," it enthused, calling Paul Ryan an athletic, brainy, forthright, down-to-earth, charismatic, outspoken, daring, and fearless truth-teller. Really!
Ryan could be all those things, and be a politician, too—and still not challenge a single one of the Republican pieties that has offended The Economist over the last two decades.
In its editorial, it includes a caveat for its own future protection, if not for the benefit of the American voter:
“He says that his tax reforms will be revenue-neutral, because he will sweep away exemptions to offset the cost of his cuts, of around $500 billion a year.
“In principle, this is laudable; but there is a worrying gap in Mr. Ryan’s plan. His blueprint does not begin to spell out which exemptions will go, which will stay and which will be means-tested; and exemptions are notoriously hard to get rid of. Until he is more specific, the fear must remain that the Republicans will deliver the spoonful of sugar but not the medicine, as they did under George W.”
The fear must remain? Until pigs learn to bike.
This is pardonable cleverness for a naïve political observer—but not for the English-speaking world’s most influential journal of political economy.
The Economist knows that you can’t find $500 billion dollars without talking to Americans about paying more taxes, that even the term “revenue-neutral” is itself a candy lie.
A modern, honest conservative republican leader has yet emerged to tell the truth: Fellow Americans, we aren’t paying for the goods and services that even the most efficient and most responsible governments will have to keep providing.