James Grant – Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian

James Grant – Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian

Grant finally settles the question of how to pronounce Walter Bagehot’s name (BADGE-it). Maddeningly, he does not do this until the end of the book, leaving the reader unsure to pronounce it in their head for more than 300 pages. Even so, he has written an excellent biography of Bagehot, a prominent 19th-century English banker and economist who favored free trade. He was not the founder of The Economist, though he became its longtime editor and made the newspaper (actually a magazine) into the prominent, and generally classically liberal publication it remains today.

At times Grant seems more interested in the history of English banking than in his ostensible subject, and at times the text bogs down because of it. But he still finds the time to give a good sense of what Bagehot was like as a person. His family life was mostly happy, though not entirely so. He also worked long hours at a frenetic pace, often writing 5,000 words or more per week, every week, on a wide variety of topics. This was in addition to editing and managing a newspaper, commissioning articles, and trying to have some semblance of a home life.

Unlike some of the grandiose, difficult personalities whose biographies I’ve been reading lately (Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Edison, Jay Gould, et al), Bagehot seems to have been a good person. He was overworked and often frazzled, but he was a decent family man and didn’t have an extravagant lifestyle, outsize ego, or a need to create drama.

Grant also puts Bagehot in his place as an important figure in the birth of modern finance, journalism, and economics; Bagehot had a place in all three. Only with the beginnings of the industrial revolution did the population become wealthy enough to support full-time journalists. Before, say, Samuel Johnson, writers typically required aristocratic support. They also wrote for a mainly aristocratic audience, spoke to their concerns, and often echoed their points of view. They also did not produce fresh product every week.

Johnson was one of the first to write for a lay audience, and one of the first to make a living from them. This meant smaller per-copy revenues, made up for by selling more copies. This required the ability to print at an industrial scale, and a large middle class that can afford pamphlets and newspapers. This stage of economic development also required modern finance to capitalize. Bagehot began as just such a banker, became a journalist struggling to generate enough copy to print The Economist regularly enough to pay the bills, and to sell it to as many subscribers as possible. Even in London, the financial capital of the world, Bagehot could only wrangle a few thousand subscribers.

Bagehot was also one of the most prolific and eloquent voices in the era’s defining economic debate—free trade vs. protectionism. Bagehot took the free-trade side alongside Richard Cobden and John Bright, and it is for this that Bagehot is chiefly remembered today. The Economist, which more than a century later flourishes on a global scale, still retains Bagehot’s mostly market-liberal editorial voice, and even has a weekly column named after him. In today’s tide of rising tide of protectionism, nationalism, and populism, the world could use more Bagehots advocating for free trade in both quality and quantity.

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