I’ve been thinking a good deal about how inefficient the events of the past few years have made politics seem.
Brexit was a major example. To try, finally, to quell the political movement that argued for leaving the European Union, they allowed people to express themselves directly on the question, quite certain that they knew the answer already. Certainly they were shocked to discover the inefficiency of their information-gathering on how people felt when Leave won by a four-point gap. But I think the inefficiency-discovering hasn’t ended. I think there are undiscovered effects of our societal wealth upon politics. Let me illustrate.
Back in January Megan McArdle wrote that the best solution to Brexit would be “leave, good and hard”, a reference to H. L. Mencken’s famous quote that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it, good and hard”. “For the record,” McArdle wrote, “I think the outcome of Brexit is likely to be quite unhappy for Britain and for the ‘Leave’ voters who expect it to improve their lives.”
But Henry Louis Mencken coined that saying over a century ago (in 1916’s A Little Book in C Major), when, to take a few major examples, food was a much higher percentage of a household’s budget and most people had no car (as opposed to today’s ponderings about whether we’ve reached “peak car”) or electronic entertainment. Society was much less wealthy. As I’ve also argued, it’s societal wealth– the number of hours needed to work to acquire the basics to live– that pushes people further up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. How much increase in the cost of living, then, is needed to lower them down again to the point where they suffer? It’s rather surprising that McArdle, who is one of the rare observers of today’s world who can usually be counted on to ask, “How much?” and “When?” rather than merely “What?” did not ask them here. She did not question the assumption of elite policy-setters that tariffs will cause the cost of living to increase so much that ordinary dwellers in the United Kingdom will a.) notice and b.) decide that on average, it wasn’t worth trading it for regaining control over their own borders and affairs.
They certainly might do both, though elites underestimated the degree to which the latter is a retail issue for people, not a luxury issue. Where I differ from the columnist is that I see no reason to assume it. Overall, politicians still don’t know about the majority of things that people care about, much less how much they care about each. We are wallowing so much in a sea of billions of people, tens of billions of their degrees of opinion, and trillions of dollars, that no one has a very good idea what’s going on. People vote with their feet, they vote with their pocketbooks, and the tiny minority who answer polling calls vote with their answers to prephrased questions, leaving politicians looking like anthropologists trying to use the archaeological record to figure out mating rituals among the ancient Aztecs. And in turn, people don’t know or care about the vast majority of the actions that government takes, and you can’t argue to voters that they’ll miss something you’ve done that they hadn’t even realized existed.
How cheap things are explains a lot of this. There’s a sort of marginal utility to cheapness, a point of diminishing returns past which the increase in the value people put on cheapness is lower and lower in terms of political significance. This works in both directions of wealth. The tariffs involved in Brexit and the trade hardball that Donald Trump has been playing with Mexico and China will cause the price of goods to rise, but it is going to take a while before people feel it enough to alter their political behavior. Trash cans and thrift stores are alike swamped with secondhand but still perfectly useable goods. These goods are like a folk heuristic for the cost of living; they’re a measure of slack in the economic line. How many fewer cargo containers of cheap goods will the U.K. be able to afford before its citizens notice? Maybe not that many, but how many before they value cheap things more than sovereignty and democracy? Hopefully, politicians will be paying close attention to the answer to that question.