Chris Dillow – What the people want

Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out

Chris Dillow is an economics writer at Investors Chronicle. He blogs at Stumbling and Mumbling, and is the author of New Labour and the End of Politics.

Cross-posted from Chris’s website Stumbling and Mumbling


Years ago, before the Great Forgetting, economists knew that people’s preferences often did not originate with themselves but were instead cultivated by producers themselves.

Inspired by Vance Packard’s best-selling 1957 book, The Hidden Persuaders, J.K. Galbraith wrote:

Production fills only a void that it has itself created…That wants are in fact the fruit of production wll now be denied by few serious scholars…The even more direct link between production and wants is provided by the institutions of modern advertising and salesmanship. These cannto be reconciled with the notion of independently determined desires, for their central function is to create desires – to bring into being wants that previously did not exist. (The Affluent Society, p 132-3)

This, he wrote, brings into doubt the question of why we should satisfy those preferences:

The individual who urges the importance of production to satisfy these wants is precisely in the position of the onlooker who applauds the efforts of the squirrel to keep abreast of the wheel that is propelled by his own efforts…The fact that wants can be synthesised by advertising, catalysed by salesmanship and shaped by the discreet manipulations of the persuaders shows that they are not very urgent. A man who is hungry need never be told of his need for food. (p132,35)

Not that Galbraith’s point was new. Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes made precisely the point that our wants are shaped by what we believe to be available. As G.K. Chesterton said: “no man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get” – a point developed in Jon Elster’s superb book.

Nor are our wants shaped only by others’ deliberate acts – as Aesop recognised. They are also determined by our peer group as Robert Frank has shown, or by our moods – unhappy people spend more and save less – or even by the weather; in the summer prices of houses with swimming pools and convertible cars are higher.

All of which has led psychologists to fear that what we want is a poor guide to what will make us happy. “People are systematically prone to make a variety of serious errors in the pursuit of happiness” says Daniel Haybron. And Christopher Hsee and Reid Hastie write:

People systematically fail to predict or choose what maximizes their happiness…These findings challenge a fundamental assumption that underlies popular support for consumer sovereignty…namely, the assumption that people are able to make choices in their own best interests.

This poses a question: might a similar thing be true in politics? Certainly, some of Galbraith’s near-contemporaries thought so. Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz argued (pdf) that one aspect of political power was that “some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out”:

Of course power is exercised when A participates in the making of decisions that affect B. But power is also exercised when A devotes his energies to creating or reinforcing social and political values and institutional practices that limit the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues which are comparatively innocuous to A.

Brexit is an example of this. Before 2015, less than ten per cent of voters thought the EU was the most important political issue, whereas after 2016 half did so. This change was the product of political activity: the people we now call Brexiteers successfully agitated to organize Brexit into politics. The demand to leave the EU was catalysed by salesmanship and shaped by the not-so discreet manipulations of the persuaders.

Such activity might also explain the oft-noted paradox that hostility to immigration is (with some exceptions) greater in areas of low migration. It’s because such hostility is manufactured, whilst those with actual lived experience of it can see it to be much less worrisome.

We might be seeing the same thing now. Politicians tell us it is possible to “stop the boats” but don’t tell us it’s possible to have economic democracy. Is it a surprise, therefore, that voters want one but not the other? It wouldn’t be to Aesop, Chesterton, Galbraith or Elster.

In fact, we have stronger reasons to question political preferences than consumer ones. In our everyday shopping we at least sometimes learn from experience whereas in politics this is harder because political issues are sometimes new, and certainly arise in different contexts. Yes some regret voting for Brexit, but – unlike consumer goods – you can’t take it back to the shop. And, of course, if we buy shoddy goods we lose money ourselves whereas with a bad vote the costs are spread across everybody, thus diluting our incentives to think carefully.

What’s more, there’s a powerful emergent process which shapes political preferences – that of adaptation. As Amartya Sen put it:

The deprived people tend to come to terms with their deprivation because of the sheer necessity of survival, and they may, as a result, lack the courage to demand any radical change, and may even adjust their desires and expectations to what they unambitiously see as feasible (Development as Freedom, p62-63)

Kris-Stella Trump has shown how this is true of inequality: the higher is inequality, she shows, the more likely people are to regard greater equality as legitimate. A plan to cut the post-tax incomes of the richest 1% by, say, one-third would seem very radical today – even though it would leave them better off relative to the rest of us than they were in the mid-80s. Such resignation to inequality means there is less demand for redistribution, even without any work by the media.

The converse of this is also true. The rich get an over-inflated sense of entitlement and so their minor peeves – such as not getting the precise type of Brexit they imagine in their fevered dreams – come to dominate political discourse.

So, yes, Galbraith’s point does apply to politics. Why then should we make a fetish of what the public wants? Suella Braverman says “the British people want us to stop the boats”. But why is this a reason for doing so?

For some thinkers, it’s not. Daniel Hausman has argued that it is only rarely the case that there is a good ethical reason to satisfy preferences, and thinkers such as Byan Caplan and Jason Brennan have argued for restricting democracy.

Such a view isn’t as radical as it seems. When Margaret Thatcher described referenda as “a device of dictators and demagogues” she was (deliberately) echoing Clement Attlee and Roy Jenkins. Parliamentary sovereignty is a different thing from popular sovereignty.

Thatcher, like her contemporaries in all parties, thought the job of politicians was not so much to sheepishly follow public opinion as to shape it. In her 1975 speech opposing the EU referendum, she approvingly cited a letter to the Evening Standard pointing out that if it had been left to the will of the people. “we would have no Race Relations Act, immigration would have been stopped, abortions would still be illegal and hanging still be in force.”

But why have politicians lost that conception of politics and replaced it with the “customer is king” approach?

The mere fact that they seem unaware of these contrasting positions is itself confirmation of Bachrach and Baratz’s point, that some questions are excluded from politics.

One possible answer is that we are indeed living in the dystopia described by Alasdair MacIntyre at the start of After Virtue: we’ve lost the ability to reason about moral and political issues because all we have are fragments of different, contradictory frameworks and traditions.

But there’s another possibility. It lies in the fact that our political system is failing. Politicians are regarded with contempt, not least because they have no coherent answers to the failures of British capitalism. In light of this, “parliamentary sovereignty” has lost its appeal. Why not, then, invoke the will of the people?

But of course, the likes of Braverman are selective in their love of this will, being much keener to cut migration than to tax the rich or nationalize utilities. That’s of course no surprise: the Tory party exists to support inequality and the status quo. What should concern us is that the Labour party also does so.

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