Nicholas Wapshott is a British author, journalist, and content consultant, specializing in politics and economics. He has written several biographies, including “Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics” in 2011 and “Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage” in 2007. A graduate of the University of York, he has journalistic and editorial experience both in England and the United States, including with The Times (London), The Observer, and The Daily Beast. He is an editor at Newsweek and a politics and economics columnist for Thomson Reuters. On Sunday, he gave a lecture on John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek for the Ludwig von Mises Center for Constructive Alternatives seminar.
What are your thoughts on President-elect Donald Trump’s economic policy?
The Republicans’ very strict ideological checklist of things that if you are to be Republican candidate you would have to agree with has all been blown out the window — their basic tenets like free trade, which Hayek would enjoy, and also fiscal spending on the infrastructure, which is pure Keynes. Trump is talking about a trillion dollars spent on bridges and roads and tunnels. That’s a real switch; it’s going to be very interesting to see how the Republican majority in the House and Senate manage to cope with someone who’s been overwhelmingly elected by the people to run a sort of renegade, maverick outfit which doesn’t fit the ideological norms. It’s a Keynes-Hayek soap opera.
Can you talk a little about your book about Reagan and Thatcher? What can leaders today learn from their leadership?
I joined the London Times the same year Margaret Thatcher was elected the leader of the Conservative Party. I was fascinated to see what she was doing to the Conservative Party, which was very different from anyone else, and the same was true with Reagan. They both read books, they read Hayek, they read conservative masters, and they intended to introduce theory into the Republican Party and the Conservative Party, when, in fact, both of those parties were highly pragmatic parties, which, until then, had been rather skeptical of theory altogether.
When Thatcher and Reagan first met, they finished each other’s sentences, and that close bond lasted for the next dozen years when they then both came to be the leaders of their countries. Mrs. Thatcher offered a very useful role to Ronald Reagan. People, rather like they will be with Donald Trump, were rather skeptical whether this B-movie actor was really a serious player. And she put them in their place. She said, “This is the leader of the free world, and you will treat him seriously, because he’s a serious man.” This affection for each other was hugely important in the eight years of Reagan’s presidency. Interesting, too, Reagan was much older than his government, rather like Trump, and there was a distance between him and the others. He used Thatcher as sort of a sounding board. He relied upon her. They were very, very devoted.
How do the British view Trump?
They consider him a sort of TV idiot. They debated in the House of Commons not allowing him into the country. He’s someone they are not interested in having represent the free world. The Brits are not alone; I think Europeans in general are very anxious about it. And the things that he says about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization turn out to be true — if he starts interfering with treaties that have preserved peace in Europe since 1945 — there will be great problems between the heads of state and Trump.
What economic principles do Hayek and von Mises have to offer that you think are most relevant today?
I think that von Mises’ book on socialism gets to a real truth about the problems of intervening in a free market. Although I know more about Hayek than von Mises, I find Hayek’s economics less than convincing. I think a lot of it is wishful thinking; a lot of it is theory for its own sake. He tended to focus and dig down, when actually a broader understanding of the way economics works would have helped more. People like Milton Friedman felt exactly the same about Hayek. His economics can sometimes be a bit inadequate; it doesn’t describe what’s genuinely happening.
As a journalist, what do you think about the American media’s treatment of the whole election cycle?
Trump was a creation of the cable news industry. I think that they were so happy with the vast audience that he brought and so enjoyed seeing the embarrassment of the other Republican nominees that they didn’t ask him the dirty questions early enough. They didn’t do due diligence. This was someone who wanted to be the president of the United States, and I think he deserved more attention than just people shrugging their shoulders and laughing when he said something which struck people as out of the ordinary. The print is different; I think the print has done a much better job at trying to get some due diligence, just putting some electricity through it and also digging up his past. As for Mrs. Clinton, I think it’s almost the opposite of that. The Clintons have provided a fantastic exercise in the fact that, as I think Warren Buffet said, if a policeman follows you for 500 miles in a car, you’ll get a ticket. The fact is that there have been 30 years worth of exploration of something criminal in the lives of the Clintons, and there’s yet to be a criminal charge. I don’t say that Mrs. Clinton’s emails shouldn’t have been explored, but, my goodness, were they boring. There’s very little new news.
How has your experience as a biographer shaped the way you write your columns?
As someone who’s interested in political and economic theory, I learned very early on that if you could personify an argument, then you were three quarters of the way to explaining it. I don’t think anyone would be very interested to read a book about how Reagan and Thatcher’s economic and other political theories were similar. But if you write a joint biography and introduce them in flesh and blood and get them talking about these issues, then you can hope that the people will stay with you and take an interest. And that’s certainly true of Keynes and Hayek. The joy of Keynes and Hayek was that, not only were they opposed to each other, but they met and fell out with each other and then became good friends with each other.