“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote” – Benjamin Franklin.
Instinctive Liberals find themselves taking anti-populist stances on so many issues that a perfectly reasonable opponent could be forgiven on occasion for thinking that it stems from outright contrariness. Of course, it doesn’t – this owes more to the fact that authoritarian angles and policies, both on questions of economics and in the personal or social sphere, are inherently populist. Price-fixing and clattering the rich will raise a cheer from the mob, as will saying “no more immigration” and giving preferable treatment through state action to what are perceived as ‘traditional’ values, family arrangements and lifestyles. This is why, in the rigid tribal setting, both a ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ form of rabble-rousing populism emerge.
Something that I’ve never forgotten having read about it several years ago was Bill Clinton’s famous rule of fifty-one percent. This involved getting out onto the White House lawn whenever there was a major, topical issue in America, and publicly declaring that he was on the side of the majority, regardless of what Bill may or may not have personally believed. Clinton was of course cited as a major influence on both the politics and presentational style of a certain Anthony Blair, who possessed a unique penchant for both agreeing with everything and everybody, while believing in absolutely nothing. However, three election victories on the spin tells you that he understood something most people did not.
Bill’s ‘rule’ touches upon the key misunderstanding that underpins populism, something I have mentioned previously in a piece about the death penalty. The fact that a sincerely held opinion is held by the majority of a population at any given moment in time does not confer upon it any innate sense of rectitude or moral superiority to a view which is diametrically opposed. If we accept that one person can be wrong, and convert a billion others to their flawed logic, then we must also acknowledge that the sheer number of people who believe something has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not it is actually true.
For instance, an overwhelming majority thought for centuries that the world was flat, that diseases like the plague were sent to earth by a vengeful god and nothing whatsoever to do with rat-fleas. Need we continue? The problem in a democracy is that voters tend to conflate (yes, that appears to have become my new favourite word) what is right with state action that places them in the fortunate fifty-one as opposed to the fucked over forty-nine, putting more money in their pocket or granting them a sense of state-sponsored affirmation, regardless of the economic or personal cost incurred by others as a result.
This is why anti-liberal, authoritarian policies based on collectivism tend also to be immensely popular.
“A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul” – George Bernard Shaw.
Functioning on a one-dimensional basis as it does, populism also necessitates either flat-out denial or total ignorance of the law of unintended consequences, that any intrusive state action will result in both an expected and an unexpected result. Announcing an energy price freeze on day x will simply lead to a hike from providers shortly beforehand. Minimum wages sound like a solution to poverty, but while benefiting a relatively small number in low-paid work, the ‘squeezed middle’ suffer from the inflationary effect, while unskilled young people find themselves priced out of gainful employment altogether. Immigration freezes only exacerbate skills shortages and shift the contributor vs dependant demographic in a negative direction.
A perfunctory skim-read of modern history is all that is required to understand what happens when appeals to populism become the sole basis on which a government is formed. Off the top of my head, Moa Tse Tung, Lenin, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, I could carry this on for quite a while but I must be boring you. With a track record like this, you wonder why many intelligent people fail to make the connection between mass populism and its logical consequences, and why it remains, er, popular. Perhaps the polar opposite can be found in the likes of Ben Franklin, whose observation about majority tyranny seemed as good an introduction to this piece as any.
Wary of the dangers presented by mass movements and gerrymandering in democracy, the founding fathers of the United States had the wisdom to put two significant checks in place – the clear separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary, allied to a written constitution which guaranteed individual rights which were far bigger than whoever was in office at the time. It has taken over two centuries of almost constant attack from neo-socialist and neo-con populists alike to weaken the essence of perhaps the most significant document in political history. That it has eventually been compromised in too many ways should not detract from the virtue of its original aims.
I can’t think of anything more anti-populist, and yet it’s just about the only form of government worth voting for – take it easy.