There’s a situation I observe that has a strange symmetry.
Very often I’ll read someone on the left lamenting a series of endless surrenders to the right, such that officially left wing parties now embrace policies that once were considered right wing. They point to privatisation, immigration laws and casualisation of labour and say that forty years ago Jeremy Corbyn’s policies would be considered fairly moderate. And at the same time, I’ll often read someone on the right lamenting a series of endless surrenders to the left. They’ll point to identity politics, the rise of the nanny state and increasing business regulation and say that current right-wing parties take positions that would have been considered left-wing forty years.
These laments aren’t just political posturing; they appear to be heart-felt, genuinely believed and in some cases despairing. So is one side just wrong or, if not, how can they both be true?
The conventional wisdom is that the right won the economic war and the left the socio-cultural war. And there’s a bit of truth in that: certainly, if your biggest concern is opposing privatisation or gay rights, the last three decades haven’t been good ones for you. But I don’t think this simple dichotonomy is really as true as it seems.
For one thing, the left has had a number of significant victories on the economic front. Minimum wage and significantly enhanced annual and parental leave are all clearly left-wing policies that are now firmly embedded across all the mainstream political parties. Tax credits don’t have quite as much consensus, but they still have broad enough support that they’re still here (though reduced) more than eight years into a Conservative-led government. The right has perhaps had fewer victories on the socio-cultural front, but at least one of those it has had, Brexit, is of a colossal scale.
So what’s going on? Clearly the Overton Window in not just a few, but a large number of policy areas has been moving steadily in a certain direction for decades. Sometimes this has marched broadly in step with popular opinion (e.g. gay rights) and sometimes it has been opposed to it (e.g. privatisation or immigration increases). To try to choose examples that aren’t at the heart of the culture wars, it says something that our norms have shifted so far that Labour’s most radical tax proposal is to increase income tax by 5 percentage points on people earning over £85,000, or that a Conservative government imposes fines on parents whose children miss school for a day. Why is this the case, and what’s really happening in our public policy arena?
Unfortunately, I don’t have a single answer, but I will present some hypotheses, along with some of the reasons why none of them seem fully satisfactory.
a) The situation has changed. In other words, because something external has changed, we’re comparing apples with oranges. To give an example, on immigration, we have both significantly higher levels of net migration and objectively tougher immigration laws than we had a few decades ago. Neither side is happy and both those who want low immigration and those who want few restrictions have reason to be upset. But it’s not that one side has ‘won’ or ‘surrendered’, it’s that the situation has altered and we can’t have what we used to.
Cost disease is a big driver of this. To quote Scott Alexander in his excellent essay on the subject, “Look, really our main problem is that all the most important things cost ten times as much as they used to for no reason, plus they seem to be going down in quality, and nobody knows why, and we’re mostly just desperately flailing around looking for solutions here.“
This hypothesis certainly has a lot going for it. In some areas, it’s clearly a main driver. But does it really explain everything? Can it all be to do with external factors changing? And aren’t technological improvement and GDP growth meant to make people feel things are getting better, rather than that their political faction is in ‘endless surrender’? It seems there must be something more going on.
b) Loss of democratic control. Under this hypothesis, the explanation is that we’ve handed too many decisions over to unaccountable bodies, including the EU, WTO, arms-length bodies, unelected judges and similar. Without democratic oversight or accountability, these bodies simply keep pursuing their own agenda, regardless of public opinion.
Certainly there are a small number of areas where such bodies have a lot of sway. The EU obviously prevents countries from controlling immigration from other member states; in countries subject to bailouts, the IMF tends to impose an assortment of broadly right wing reforms.
But there are lots of areas where this simply isn’t the case. No-one made us keep our highest rate of tax no higher than 50%, or forced us to keep sending more and more people to university. Certainly, these bodies often contribute to a broader network of bodies and thinkers that shape the Overton Window, but that’s different from having direct control.
So while I do think we’ve ceded too many decisions to unelected bodies (domestic and international), I don’t think that really explains this phenomenon.
c) ‘Establishment policy‘. This hypothesis has some similarity with (b), but instead of unelected bodies, simply has our governing classes pursuing ‘Establishment Policy’ (essentially economically liberal, socially liberal; the policies of The Economist) rather than right-wing or left-wing policy. Both traditional right and left supporters end up feeling betrayed. This doesn’t require a grand conspiracy theory, but can rest on issues such as the growth of a professional political class; the narrowing of elite networks around politics, big business, think tanks and academia; the inertia of the civil service; the collapse of former routes into politics such as through the union movement; and a big dollop of unconscious bias that fails to notice the ‘correct’ answers always seem to benefit them.
This hypothesis has a lot going for it, including the (until recently) narrowing of the gap between the major parties, the fact that the direction of travel in most of these areas does seem to benefit those at the top of society and the fact that on many issues, the majority of voters lie to the right of the Conservatives or to the left of Labour (Dominic Cummings observes that the typical voter supports higher taxes on the rich than Labour and tougher action on criminal justice than the Conservatives, for example). It’s also the case that on a diverse range of policies, from tuition fees to Brexit, it’s the wings of both main parties joining up against the centre.
On the other hand, although it describes the situation, it doesn’t necessarily explain why it’s happened. Essentially it’s pointing out another form of democratic failure, in which the views of the governing classes become detached from those of the general population, but it doesn’t really explain why that should have happened now.
d) Banking gains. Essentially, people just remember their losses and forget their gains. They don’t remember what it was like before minimum wage, or with top rate taxes being over 80%, and so discount this in their calculation. Particularly if it’s something that someone wanted but doesn’t affect them very much on a day to day basis, I can imagine this being a strong effect.
I’m sure this hypothesis explains something about why both sides feel they’re losing, but it doesn’t really explain why certain policies have been marching in particular directions for so long.
e) It’s just the right answer. This argument runs simply: the reason why policies have moved consistently in a certain direction is because that’s the right one, and if public opinion disagrees it’s just because ordinary people haven’t yet worked it out yet. It’s the argument that some less thoughtful people like to lazily make against Brexit, caricaturing those that voted Leave as simply stupid, deceived or ill-informed, and it’s deployed equally facilely against those who might query privatisation, increasing university participation, high levels of immigration or globalisation.
This is the only hypothesis I’m sure is wrong – and that’s not just because it’s repugnant, elitist, anti-democratic and dismisses the views of most of the population. Firstly, it would be unjustifiably hubristic to assume that the currently held views of today’s political class just happened to be right, as opposed to all those of the past and future. Secondly, it’s fairly obvious that they’re not completely right. Both left and right could point to plenty of problems facing today’s society, but I’ll just stick with two big ones: the financial crisis and increasing societal polarisation.
f) Growth of special interest groups. The people who care most about something will tend to set up groups to lobby for action on it. This could be a trade association, a union, a think tank, a special campaign group or more. If it temporarily gets government support, it may even get government funding or status as a government body.
Once such organisations exist, they need to keep justifying their purpose, which they can only do by continuing to push further and further in that direction – a bit like the way a company I once worked for ended up putting up mirrors in the corridor to prevent people bumping into each other and spilling coffee, or ordering people to reprimand those who didn’t hold on to the banisters as a result of an initially sensible focus on health and safety.
Under this theory, the reason things keep moving further and further way from what ordinary people support is because the special interest groups keep pushing them. Teachers like fining parents whose children miss school, even if no-one else does, so they get their way; big business and city traders like privatisation; human rights lawyers like extending human rights into ever more area. The logic here is similar to the way in which trade economists explain why subsidies continue to exist, even when they’re obviously economically harmful: although removing the subsidy would have a net economic benefit, it would do so by benefiting lots of people by a very small amount – so none of them can be bothered to exert themselves about it – but would harm the group receiving subsidies a lot, and thus that group exerts itself and gets its way.
The obvious flaw in this hypothesis is that the government often does go against special interest groups, such as when Michael Gove took on the teachers. But maybe it could still be salvaged by arguing that, like entropy, policy tends to move in the direction of the special interest groups, and it’s only when government makes a herculean effort and uses lots of energy that it can roll it back.
g) Inconsistent values. Essentially, people’s expressed views are different from how they really react, and it’s the latter which drives public policy. To give an example, people may say they don’t like the nanny state but, if everything something bad happens – which, in a country of nearly 70 million it sometimes will – they demand that ‘something must be done’, they’ll end up with one. This is driven by the growth of national and 24 hour news, social media and other means of inciting outrage.
This seems to have a fair amount of explanatory power, though can’t explain everything.
h) 24 hour media / social media. This hypothesis argues that nothing has really changed, it’s just social media and the fragmented, 24 hour news cycle, in which people can easily only seek sources they agree with, which is making people feel like this.
I can believe that this has an effect, but it seems to ignore the reality that in a considerable number of areas the Overton window has shifted considerably. I’m more sympathetic to the idea that new media dynamics have contributed to driving that change (as in (g) ) than that i’s all just a figment of their imagination.
Eight hypotheses, no conclusive answers. Other than (e), I suspect all of the others have some truth in them, in certain circumstances. Those that suggest it’s all in people’s heads – (d) and (h) – however, even if true, seem to be missing an important part of the picture: it’s an objective fact that the Establishment consensus has diverged significantly in some areas from both traditional right and traditional left wing policies, in favour of a new paradigm.
Of the remaining five, my hunch is that (a), (c) and (g) – The Situation has Changed, Establishment Policy and Inconsistent Values (exacerbated by new media) – are the most important, with (b) and (f) contributing to an extend and then (d) and (h) making people feel worse about it.
This, unfortunately, doesn’t suggest an answer about what to do about it, but may go some way to explaining why both sides feel they are fighting the long defeat.