Thursday, October 29, 2015

Why the West is looking to more radical candidates

We are seeing an interesting political trend across the globe at the moment and that is the rise of more radical political candidates. It started with the surge of UKIP in Great Britain and the libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul in the United States, and more recently has seen the election of the Marxist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the UK Labour Party and Socialist Bernie Sanders' candidacy for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. You could say Donald Trump is part of the trend, but Trump is less radical than any of the others (although he does represent an anti-establishment sentiment in the Republican Party). While we have yet to see the support for these more radical candidates translate into real political office, it is entirely possible one of them may end up leading their country in the next few years.

So what is happening here? Is it a hardening of "divisive politics" as Barack Obama would have us believe? Well, I guess you could call it that. What I think it is more precisely is a retreat from centrist politics.

If we look at major political shifts in the Western world since the Second World War, it is fair to say that there has been some significant swings. There was definitely a swing to the left up until the late 1970s. Britain, most of Europe, and even the United States saw a huge expansion of the role of the state, the rapid growth of welfare, and a corresponding increase in income taxes until they were at exorbitant levels (e.g. marginal rates of more than 90% in Britain). Then came Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and, here in New Zealand, the Lange-Douglas Labour Government. These leaders hauled back the expansion of the state and reduced taxes. Since 1990 most Western countries have been retreating from the more libertarian policies of Thatcher, Reagan, et al, and we have seen the rise of the 'third way' (as Tony Blair dubbed it), supposedly a middle ground between rampant socialism and hard-edged capitalism.

In reality, the so-called third way was really no way, at least in a philosophical sense. It represented the lack of a political philosophy, an anything-goes (or more precisely anything-that-can-win-an-election) approach to policy making. John Key's government here in New Zealand is the epitome of it and David Cameron in Britain is another archetype. They see themselves as pragmatists and believe everything should be a compromise.

The truth is that most people have a basic political belief system. It might not be very well-defined but they can tell you whether they think the state is too big or whether it should care more for the poor, whether we should raise or lower taxes, whether abortion and gay marriage should be legal, etc. They often hold strong views on these issues and don't like to compromise those views. The politics of compromise actually satisfies no one.

One of the problems for those of us on the classical liberal side of the political spectrum is, as Mark Steyn is fond of saying, we've lost the culture war. When almost every university lecturer, musician, film star, writer and other public figure is parroting the socialist-environmentalist mantra, there is only one side of the debate that is expected to compromise. You see this when President Obama talks about divisive politics - he's not talking about Democrats failing to compromise, is he?

The other problem that we've got is what James Delingpole so poetically calls the 'dog-shit-yoghurt problem'. If I like yoghurt and you like eating dog shit, the pragmatist says we should both eat dog-shit-yoghurt. I'm sure you can see the problem with this compromise, particularly for the yoghurt lover. Libertarians essentially want the government to leave us alone to get on with our lives. We don't need to force our beliefs on anyone else - we just need effective constraints on others forcing us to do things. Socialists want the government to interfere with everyone's lives, not just their own, because socialism doesn't work if it's only for those who want it. So they are always more willing to use force.

I think the polarisation of politics is not a bad thing for libertarians because it forces people to examine the arguments and decide what they really believe. When people have had no choice but to eat dog-shit-yoghurt for years, it is not a bad thing for the yoghurt seller when they are forced to choose between the two dishes.

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