Missing Something About Populism?
By Pierre Lemieux
Have we—“we” meaning students of social science and those who value individual liberty—learned something from the current populist movements in the world, and especially that which we observe with our own eyes right here in America? I suggest that we have, or should have, learned some already obvious lessons.
From the point of view of individual liberty, populism is good if it means having the people’s individual preferences respected; it is bad if it means being ruled by the people’s collective preferences. This distinction between the two concepts of populism is crucial. Many libertarians (including your humble servant for a long time) thought that populism was ordained to the first goal, or or at least could be deflected in that direction; we now realize that its meaning or natural slope lead to the second.
Respecting individual preferences mean that ordinary people—those who are supposedly the beneficiaries of populism—can live their lives as they want to, given the equal liberty of everybody else to do the same. What this implies in social and political life is more complicated than it appears, but the principle and direction are pretty clear.
Populism conceived, on the contrary, as “the people” imposing its preferences on everybody is a dangerous illusion. The first reason is that “collective preferences” do not exist. They are, at best, those of the majority and, at worst, those of cyclical majorities or the special minority interests that dominate collective action. This conclusion flows from social choice theory (see Kenneth Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values, 1951), public choice economics (see notably the writings of James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock), and the theory of collective action (see Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action, 1966).
A second reason, which partly follows from the first, is that populist leaders impose their own preferences or values (taking “values” as preferences regarding the state of the world). Conveniently for a populist leader, his values typically coincide with his own personal aggrandizement. Of course, he has to satisfy some of the individual preferences of the portion of the population whose support he needs, but this is easier than it appears.
No more than the general electorate does this faction knows about how to reconcile different individual preferences so as to promote peace and prosperity (which is a major topic in the fields of economics and politics). Its members are “rationally ignorant”: no individual member of the populist mob has any influence, so why would one spend resources to learn about the relevant subjects? Moreover, for whatever reason, some people are simply ignorant or dumb, that is, they face big cognitive limitations even when their personal interests are involved. The mob will often demand measures that will harm its own members; protectionism is a good example.
As a consequence, populist leaders can, at low political cost, invent facts, take pleasure in delusion, or lie. Appealing to nationalist emotions becomes a winning strategy. So is naming scapegoats.
Given all that, the workings of mob democracy or populism lead to bad consequences, as shown in Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy. To quote my review of this book in Regulation:
The consequence is that an ignorant electorate elects ignoramuses to coercively rule over us.
We are reminded that truth and the pursuit of truth have their importance.
What am I missing?