The new political divide
By Scott Sumner
The Economist has a very good article describing how the 20th century’s left/right political divide is now being replaced by a split between those who favor and oppose an open society:
IS POLAND’S government right-wing or left-wing? Its leaders revere the Catholic church, vow to protect Poles from terrorism by not accepting any Muslim refugees and fulminate against “gender ideology” (by which they mean the notion that men can become women or marry other men).
Yet the ruling Law and Justice party also rails against banks and foreign-owned businesses, and wants to cut the retirement age despite a rapidly ageing population. It offers budget-busting handouts to parents who have more than one child. These will partly be paid for with a tax on big supermarkets, which it insists will somehow not raise the price of groceries.
“The old left-right divide in this country has gone,” laments Rafal Trzaskowski, a liberal politician. Law and Justice plucks popular policies from all over the political spectrum and stirs them into a nationalist stew. Unlike any previous post-communist regime, it eyes most outsiders with suspicion (though it enthusiastically supports the right of Poles to work in Britain).
From Warsaw to Washington, the political divide that matters is less and less between left and right, and more and more between open and closed. Debates between tax-cutting conservatives and free-spending social democrats have not gone away. But issues that cross traditional party lines have grown more potent. Welcome immigrants or keep them out? Open up to foreign trade or protect domestic industries? Embrace cultural change, or resist it?
Of course in America we see this with Trump, running on a platform with both right wing views (anti-immigration, distrust of Muslims) and left wing views (anti-trade, pro-deficit spending.)
I also see this as a move back closer to the politics of 200 years ago, when people called “liberals” (now “classical liberals”) tended to hold views that modern Americans would view as right wing on economic issues, while also holding views that were to the left of their contemporaries on many non-economics issues. When people ask me why I don’t support one of the major parties, I respond, “Because I don’t live in Poland, where the choice is stark.”
And this also explains why I chose to oppose Brexit, even though some classical liberals made powerful arguments in support. In the end, I concluded that Brexit was going to push Britain a bit more in the closed society direction.
Some people argued that if Britain was freed of EU regulations, it could liberalize its economy. I was skeptical; partly because when countries join the EU they are forced to liberalize their economies as a condition of membership. But mostly because the UK already has vast powers to liberalize its economy, even within the EU. Yet the Conservative government was recently taking steps such as a very large increase in the minimum wage rate.
Others said that even if Britain didn’t opt for a more open model, there was an important principle involved; the British had a right to make their own decisions. Within the EU, decisions about policy are made by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. That’s a good argument in my view, but it’s a question of degree. Does the good of the EU (free trade and labor mobility) outweigh the bad? Let’s look at the early returns. Here’s The Economist:
IF MAKING the gaffe-prone Boris Johnson foreign secretary was Theresa May’s most eyebrow-raising cabinet appointment, probably her most visible policy pronouncement since taking office on July 13th has been to signal the return of an “industrial strategy”.
Merely to mention the phrase in Conservative Party circles has amounted to heresy since the days when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. She made it a test of ideological purity to reject the muddled state-interventionism of her predecessors, both Labour and Tory; there was to be no return to the disastrous meddling in, or nationalisation of, companies like British Leyland under the Iron Lady. Yet Mrs May has broken the taboo. She made a “proper industrial strategy” part of her pitch to be party leader in a speech in Birmingham on July 11th. And now in Downing Street she has created a new ministry with the phrase at the top of the bill: the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, headed by Greg Clarke.
And here’s the Financial Times:
When David Cameron left Downing Street this month, his aides and supporters emphasised that Theresa May would continue with his policies — but early evidence already suggests a very different picture.
Mrs May’s decision to delay the final go-ahead for the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant is the latest in a series of shifts that, taken together, indicate that she is sweeping away Mr Cameron’s legacy across a range of policy areas.
The changes are “reflective of the fact that this is a new government”, one Tory aide said. “Some people see this as being a continuity Cameron government but that is not the case.”
During her leadership campaign Mrs May called for a “strong, new and positive vision for the future of our country”.
She signalled that she planned to make changes in areas including economic policy — watering down George Osborne’s austerity economics and seeking to rein in capitalist excess — and putting less emphasis on the former chancellor’s Northern Powerhouse. Instead the government would work to develop the economies of cities around the UK, she said.
The government has dropped Mr Osborne’s target of seeking a surplus on the public finances by 2019-20 . . .
I see two things to worry about if you are a classical liberal supporter of Brexit. First, Theresa May’s instincts are clearly in favor of bigger government over a wide array of policy areas, not just “industrial policy”.
More importantly, note what the FT said about this being a “new government” not a continuation of the Cameron government. Also note that the British public did not elect this new government; they elected the Cameron government, in 2015. Also note that Theresa May was not chosen to be leader of the Conservatives by the voters, and hence her new policies have not been endorsed by the voters. But no worries, the next election is only . . . oh wait; it’s 4 years away.
Thus one irony of the Brexit vote that was supposed to “give the British people back their government”, is that the vote has resulted in an unelected government (leadership) for a period of 4 years, by which time hugely consequential decisions will be made about Britain’s future.
Yes, the backbenchers were elected, but they don’t make the big decisions. And yes, I know that this is how parliamentary systems work. And I understand that after 4 years the British voters may indeed have more power than before Brexit. But I would emphasize, “may” (pun intended). Keep in mind that protest votes can have lots of unintended consequences. We are still very early in the Brexit process, and we still don’t know how those will play out. Indeed we don’t even know whether the UK will fully leave the EU, or leave in name only, while striking a Norway-type deal that forces it to adopt EU regulations. So it’s way too soon to say that the British voters have successfully struck a blow for freedom. All we know is that the early returns show a UK that is less free, and less democratically accountable than just a few months ago.
The bigger issue here is the global rise of nationalism. I hope that classical liberals don’t make a “pact with the devil”, and assume that the nationalists will support greater freedom over a wide range of issues. History provides dozens of examples of exactly the opposite.