Murdoch misses the message

By Gerard Jackson
web posted January 8, 2001

Rupert MurdochRupert Murdoch is still shooting his mouth off, at least in private, on the subject of what he calls 'neo-socialism'. His comments give me the distinct impression that one of his problems is that he hires people who have no genuine feel for history and lack a historical perspective.

The phenomenon he describes as 'neo-socialism' is to be found in every civilisation, from the Code of Hammurabi to the edicts of Diocletian. John U. Nef's Industry and Government in France and England 1540-1640 describes in detail the then equivalent of Murdoch's creeping 'neo-socialism'. In France rules were piled upon rules so that, for instance, the number of regulations laid down for the textile industry between 1666 and 1730 needed to be printed on more than 2000 pages. (A not dissimilar situation prevails today in all advanced countries.)

The regulations were so rigorously applied that it took four years for weavers to persuade the government to allow them to introduce something as simple as blackwarp. And enforcement did not stop at bureaucratic direction and simple fines. Breaking rules could be a painful and bloody affair. In one notorious occasion in Valence 631 persons were sentenced to the galleys, 58 to be broken on the wheel and 77 to be hanged: Their crime was to break the government's economic laws governing printed calicoes. It has been estimated that around 16,000 people were either killed in armed clashes with government regulators or executed.

Yet while French monarchs were busy effectively putting France into an economic straitjacket, the very reverse was happening in England. Despite the efforts of the Stuarts to emulate French kings, they were frustrated by several factors, the most important of which was the reluctance of local officials to carry out the Kings' economic instructions. This reluctance had the support of Parliament which demonstrated its opposition to royal economic favours by abolishing monopolies in 1624. The English kings' economic writ was therefore limited by Parliament, trading interests and hostility of local officials. The result was that England experienced the first Industrial Revolution while France experienced the storming of Bastille and the guillotine.

What drove past regulatory expansions was the belief that governments had the right, the ability and even a duty to intervene in economic relations. This belief has never died. So what Murdoch, and many like him, have overlooked is that what he calls 'neo-socialism' is the creeping bureaucratisation of economic and social affairs that every civilised society has experienced, democratic or otherwise. Of course, this expansion is invariably aided by self-serving bureaucrats who will always become willing handmaidens to any group that wants to extend the role of the state for whatever purpose. Nevertheless, it needs to be emphasised that creeping bureaucratisation always needs a rationale, even though the atavistic belief that government needs to regulate economic affairs still has a strong following -- especially among academics and 'journalists.'

The current rationale for expanding strengthening regulatory regimes has come from new class activists who have ruthlessly exploited the ignorance and fear of the masses to impose regulatory measures that have done much to retard economic growth and so hold back living standards. Protecting the environment has been the usual excuse for these measure. Whether these people are motivated by an aristocratic or religious impulse is really neither here nor there for this article. (Personally, I'm inclined to the view that they are a pack of selfish, lying bastards.)

However, we have the advantage of having a vast store of experience from which to draw, not to mention the analytical weapons that economics has provided. The problem at the moment is a lack of resources. Murdoch would do much better for the cause he publicly claims to believe in if he sponsored several dedicated and well-informed web sites to wage ideological warfare -- and it is an ideological war -- against those who promote the policies he attacks as anti-social. He would get a miracle for what he would pay three journalists or what he spends on certain self-professed intellectuals. But this, I suspect, he would never do.

The irony is that while Murdoch is preaching in the US against "neo-socialism" his media empire tends to hire nothing but "neo-socialists." His Australian flagship The Australian is unbelievably left-wing in its 'reporting;' most of its journalists' are thoroughly anti-market, pro-green and deeply hostile to classical liberalism. The same can be said of the Melbourne Sunday Herald Sun, another of his papers.

The very least Murdoch should do is ensure that at least one columnist on each of his newspapers is thoroughly acquainted with free-market economics, economic history, the history of economic thought and classical liberal thought; these columnists should then be briefed to defend the market and genuine liberalism against all comers, including -- or should I say especially -- their fellow journalists. It would probably be better to syndicate two or three of these writers rather than try and put one on each paper and magazine. Of course, this is sheer fantasy. It makes far too much sense. Better to pour money into certain self-obsessed think tanks.

It is not the likes of Murdoch who are defending the market and genuine liberalism but scores of independent web sites. These are run by people with a genuine commitment to the cause of liberty. People who spend their own money and sacrifice their own time. They don't ask for anything but they give a lot. For them it is not a career, a job, an ego trip but a cause worth fight for. These are things I fear the likes of Murdoch simply do not understand. ESR

Gerard Jackson is the editor of the peerless The New Australian. Reprinted with the TNA's kind permission.

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