July 23, 2017

‘Take back control’ proved an effective slogan for the Leave side in the Brexit referendum campaign. Arguably, it is the core message for populist movements across the western world. But there is a counter-narrative which is that we can’t take back control because we never had it in the first place. No country, not even a super power is truly sovereign – all states are subject to global forces beyond their control.

One of the smartest arguments to this end  is made  by Jacob T Levy in an essay for the Niskanen Centre:

“No state can legislate away the existence of changes in relative prices. Neither can a state just decide to have technological innovations or productivity increases, to say nothing of whether there are such innovations elsewhere that have positive spillover effects, or that hurt a local sector by competition.”

Because states cannot simply specify how strong their economies are, their options are consequently limited:

“…even the things that states do govern about their economies, they have never sovereignly controlled. The public budget, the tax system, public debt, monetary and exchange policy: these have always been constrained by international actors.”

Public debt is a particularly good example. A government can’t carry on borrowing if no one is willing to lend to it. Levy’s key argument is that if people buy into the myth of untrammelled national sovereignty (whether in the economic or other spheres), then – when things go wrong – they become susceptible to populist narratives:

“I suggest that the sense of control that is often attributed to voters in the olden days was really a sense of satisfaction with outcomes. Long years of economic growth in the West, broadly shared in, and in excess of the expectations of people who had lived through wars and economic collapse, propelled this satisfaction.”

“Things look rather different when expectations are suddenly, sharply disappointed, as in the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath. It’s all too easy for opportunistic politicians in such moments to tell the story: the reason why things went so badly is that control was taken away from you — whether by faceless international bureaucrats, greedy financiers, or alien others…”

One can see why this explanation of recent events is attractive to pro-establishment liberals: it portrays the populist revolt as being wrong not only in its demands, but in its complaints too. However Levy’s account of the “sovereign myth”, as he calls it, has a few flaws of its own.

For a start it overlooks a number of cases where control clearly has been taken away from national electorates. For instance, control over monetary policy (because it has been surrendered to the Eurozone); or control over immigration policy (because it has been surrendered to the Single Market).  These things actually happened and the voters have noticed.

One also has to doubt whether many voters truly expect their governments to be omnipotent. Most of us understand that nations must steer as best they can across the cold ocean of economic reality – and that whether economies sink or swim is down to a combination of (in)competence and luck. Personal experience of everyday life teaches you two very basic lessons: that actions have consequences and that sh*t happens.

If, in the wake of the financial crisis, voters were radicalised is not because their expectations were “suddenly sharply disappointed”, it is because while they themselves took the consequences of bad decision-making and bad luck, the elites were given special protection. To take just three examples (and there are many more): bailouts for bankers, executive pay-rises divorced from executive performance, and the share price subsidy scheme otherwise known as quantitative easing.

Far from voting against reality, electorates are voting to share it around more fairly:

Sh*t and consequences for everyone!

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