Populism: rational political ignorance or will of the people?


Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, ponders some economic conundrums

This post was inspired by one over at Sam Glover’s blog, which also sparked a decent discussion over on /r/ukpolitics. Well, I say “inspired” — really it’s a topic I have been touching on in my essays here, but one which I find fascinating enough to continue exploring.

There’s a lot of texture to the interface between populism and rational political ignorance because it branches off into a number of different subjects. Economics, law and social psychology are all relevant here. But let’s start at the top level, looking at what rational political ignorance is and how this relates to populism generally.

Rational ignorance is an economic concept that links the cost of acquiring knowledge with neoclassical notions of the quintessential rational actor, homo economicus. Economic man is a utilitarian being who’s assumed to be (at least) mostly rational in his endeavours. Rational ignorance is the idea that in some situations, it makes perfect sense not to become informed on a topic because the costs/benefit analysis of doing so is effectively prohibitive.

Modern society is so complex that Adam Smith’s adage comes to mind. The division of labour would lead to such degrees of specialisation that you’d be unlikely to understand what someone at a party does for a living merely by them giving you their job title. What hope, then, is there for the average voter to not only be able to understand macro-economics, but be willing to invest the time to do so for elections that occur every 5 years?

Not much. But ordinarily this isn’t really a problem, and it’s a big part of the rationale behind representative democracy — we elect (i.e. delegate) to professional politicians to become informed on these issues and argue our side(s) for a living so we don’t have to. [Tangential point: it’s worth bearing in mind that representing someone’s interests is not the same thing as mirroring their views on every (or even most) issues.] MPs don’t make around £70k plus expenses for their time and service to the communities and nation they represent for no reason. This is a difficult and demanding job that I think many of the public underestimate.

However, I think that with the surge in populist politicians across the western world the issue warrants some scrutiny.

Populism is closely linked with demagoguery, which I’ve written about here before. Because in a democracy power is ultimately vested in the people, there is nothing to stop the people giving power to someone who panders to the lowest common denominator, – that is to say your average, rationally ignorant voter. There’s a great post by a classics professor on populism and demagoguery here.

In the words of Plato:

Popular acclaim will attend on the man who tells the people what they want to hear rather than what truly benefits them.

Naturally I found this quote in The Economist, which, as a newspaper that sees itself as the citadel of Enlightenment rationalism, is understandably rather disapproving of pitchfork, anti-establishment populism. It’s a good article, available here.

I don’t have a concrete answer to the title of this post, but it is important to think about. If forced to give a conclusion, I’d say that I think the current balance is wrong — we are hearing a bit too much about “people power” and how people need to have more influence, typically supported by arguments of how the internet changes everything and allows people to become better informed. It’s presented almost as if people are currently irrelevant to the democratic process, which is false, and only really forms a cornerstone of populist rhetoric. The public are constantly consulted (in, well, “public consultations”) before an authority implements almost any policy of major significance.

I know because on a law degree you get to read the reports on these open consultations as relevant to the area of the law you are studying. How else does one analyse the efficacy of a measure or law? Academic papers and theories, too, of course, but law isn’t 100% moral and political philosophy. It’s a bit more practical in general (though it is also a rich source of inquiry into those areas as well).

Issue is that in this rhetorical framework all elites are the same. Intellectuals with academic backgrounds are not entirely safe from being classed as elites, proponents of the status quo or whatever rhetoric desired — particularly if they have insights that don’t accord to the popular narrative being peddled by the “anti-elites” — and there are close ties between populism and anti-intellectualism. Somewhat incoherently though, some have formed panels of elite economic advisers to suggest policy. That’s not quite the democratic populism proposed, but rather a more technocratic approach.

Further, one only has to take a quick look at the policy statements and manifestos produced by the Green party to realise what direct democracy and excessive “people power” leads to: an incoherent and rambling set of proposals that would mostly be self-defeating and not achieve their stated aims. Policy seems generated off the back of headlines, and young left wing forms of identity politics. A set of proposals that are heavy on rhetoric and “doing what you believe” is the necessary result rather than what might actually work. It’s pretty clear people don’t have the time or interest to go through party political policy statements. Easier to just go off whatever nice-sounding vision is being proposed and shared by likeminded people in their internet networks.

To wrap up, I highly recommend this short piece by Cas Mudde, a political scientist who focuses on populism. In short, populism is a narrow and insular view of modern democracy that necessarily rejects more favourable conceptions such as pluralism (even if it claims to be of the “open” “left-wing” or “multicultural” variant it palpably isn’t — it’s only open and accepting to views it sympathises with, and rejects anything else as “neoliberal” “corporate” “elite” “media” or similar). I leave the question of whether it is an accurate expression of the will of the people or just rational ignorance manifest (or maybe a bit of both?) up to you.




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