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Centrists against evidence

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In an excellent piece, Martin Sandbu says the state has more power to tax companies than we had thought, and calls for us to move away from “learnt helplessness in the face of inequality and stagnation”. What we need, he says, is “centrist radicalism”: That requires centrist politicians to move out of their incrementalist comfort zone and pursue policies that measure up to the scale of our problems. The challenges include the overhanging burden of past mismanaged economic crises and looming climate change disruption in the future. Populist snake oil from the right or the left will not solve these. Neither will centrist tweaks. This is a noble call. But one, I fear, that will fall in deaf ears. I say this because of a big paradox within centrism – that whilst it claims to be

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In an excellent piece, Martin Sandbu says the state has more power to tax companies than we had thought, and calls for us to move away from “learnt helplessness in the face of inequality and stagnation”. What we need, he says, is “centrist radicalism”:

That requires centrist politicians to move out of their incrementalist comfort zone and pursue policies that measure up to the scale of our problems. The challenges include the overhanging burden of past mismanaged economic crises and looming climate change disruption in the future. Populist snake oil from the right or the left will not solve these. Neither will centrist tweaks.

This is a noble call. But one, I fear, that will fall in deaf ears.

I say this because of a big paradox within centrism – that whilst it claims to be pragmatic and evidence-based, it in fact systematically ignores some of the strongest evidence of all.

In a paper (pdf) last year, Chris Leslie boasted that centrists believe in “evidence not ideology” and in “choosing an evidence-based rather than ideologically-driven approach to the world.”

However, the biggest evidence we’ve had in recent years was the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent decade-long (and counting) flatlining in productivity and real wages. This is powerful evidence that, left to itself, capitalism generates recession and stagnation. To fight these tendencies, the state must do more than merely provide a stable policy framework and light regulation as New Labour did.

Centrists, however, show no sign of acknowledging this. Leslie wrote that the crisis “fuelled cynicism about government and politicians”, but made no mention that it might – just might – require a rethinking of the relationship between the state and capitalism.

This was no idiosyncratic oversight. In an attack on Corbyn for taking Labour “out of the mainstream” Ian Austin ignored the possibility that the crisis requires Labour to do what Blair did in the 90s – to adapt policies to the new environment. Swinson

Similarly in its launch statement (pdf) earlier this year the Independent Group made no mention of austerity or stagnation but did speak of government’s “responsibility to ensure the sound stewardship of taxpayer’s money”, apparently oblivious to the evidence of negative real bond yields.

This trend continued this week. Jo Swinson justly attacked the “harsh, hostile politics” of populism in which liberal values such as openness and freedom are “are under attack.” She did not, however, address the question: is it really just a coincidence that intolerant politics should arise after economic stagnation? The answer is, of course, that it’s not. Ms Swinson, however, ignored the vast evidence accumulated by Ben Friedman which shows that stagnation fuels illiberalism.

Such blindness to evidence isn’t confined to British centrists. Aaron Timms has complained that Cass Sunstein has ignored lots of things we’ve learned since 2008:

We now know that in the arena of environmental regulation, nudges decrease support for the more ambitious policies that might be needed to avert an ecological catastrophe. We know that a technocratic, cost-benefit-focused approach to government works to the detriment of visionary change. We know that the old neoliberal binary—state bad, market good—is simplistic and no longer squares with a reality in which many of our greatest tyrannies emerge from a rapacious and meekly regulated private sector. Most importantly we know that the Obama presidency, the guiding hope to so many market-friendly liberals, ended with rising inequality, stalled social mobility, a spiraling climate disaster, and the Trumpian revolt against expertise.

There’s a pattern here. Centrists’ claim to be pragmatic and evidence-based is just sanctimonious self-delusion. Their views, like those of the rest of us – including us Marxists - are an admixture of ideology-led and evidence-led. The difference lies in which evidence we use and which we ignore.  

Of course, it is possible that a centrism will emerge that does learn from the past and have robust answers to stagnation, crisis and inequality. So far, though, there is less evidence that centrists are doing this than that the left is learning a new economics from the past failures of socialism. If centrists want me to think of them as a serious alternative to Corbyn, this will have to change.

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