Sunday, 29 July 2012

We have met the enemy and he is us

Political economists divide politics into “special interest” and “general interest”. Special interest politics is about how relatively narrow, sectional interests like the arms industry, nuclear power, or the universities affect political outcomes. It is the analysis of smoke-filled rooms, expensive dinners, consulting jobs for ex-Ministers and so on; at the bottom end, we come to brown envelopes and the local councillor with a swimming pool on his patio after the new shopping centre is approved. Hobbes called these things “worms in the body politic”. (Yes, the seventeenth century had its own Public Choice theory.)

If special interest politics is parasitology, general interest politics is more like plate tectonics. It deals with the clash of great, broad strata: the rich versus the poor, business versus unions in general, and the neverending campaign for the median voter. Think cheering crowds, newspaper headlines, and MPs coming back to Westminster cowed by their angry constituents.

Special interest politics are the big problem for most countries. In these countries, politics is more or less corrupt, and the unorganized majority is held back by the interests of entrenched minorities, in the way Mancur Olson talked about. Special interest politics are a big source of problems in all countries: you cannot eradicate the power of small, well-organized interest groups, any more than you can eradicate all a body’s parasites. So on a global scale special interest politics is what matters.

But I think that the storms on Western countries’ horizons come from general interest politics. Take two examples: social security and global warming.

Nobody likes welfare benefits. They breed scroungers (just ask the Daily Mail) and they cost a lot. Every political party for the past 30 years has wanted to reform welfare, and slowly it is being reformed. The problem for European democracies, though, is not handouts to the feckless poor. It is pensions. Nobody would dare say, or be daft enough to think, that pensioners are feckless. No politician dares cut pensions. They are the third rail even in conservative America. Mess with them and you will make the median voter angry. Unfortunately, the huge black hole – composed of off-balance-sheet dark matter – in European and American budgets is made up of public pensions.

Global warming is the biggest danger to the human race, but as an issue in the Presidential campaign it’s non-existent. You could blame Big Oil. But think about the threat to the ozone layer from CFCs. That problem appeared about the same time as global warming, we solved it rather fast, and Big White Goods couldn’t stop it. Ultimately, the economic power of oil comes down to the fact that it drives a huge chunk our economy, and the political power of the anti-global warming movement comes down to our great capacity for kidding ourselves. Dealing with global warming would mean uncomfortable lifestyle changes for all of us. Of course, that would be impossible, so it must be unnecessary, and global warming must be a fraud.*

Most of the world is still struggling against privileged minorities. In the West we have really solved that problem, as much as it can be solved. A lot can still be got away with, but really egregious abuses result in a public outcry and Something is Done even if it takes a quarter-century to do it. Our biggest danger is the privileged majority, which does not even believe it is privileged, and will be angry if you tell it different. We Have Met The Enemy, and He Is Us.

* If you want to know more about global warming, then there are some good websites. is my favourite. and seem to be the best of the deniers. I don't think climate scientists are saints or geniuses, and I am dubious about their computer modelling; but the skeptics seem much worse. For books, I liked The Hot Topic and Storms of my Grandchildren; I confess to not having read any skeptical books. Go and make up your own mind.