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Against retail politics

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How did we get into this mess? The story is of course a long one, in which I would argue that austerity plays a big part. But there’s another strand I want to pick out. It’s the rise of a conception of politics as being just another consumer service and the eclipsing of Burke’s notion that MPs should place their judgment above the opinion of voters. It was this “customer is king” idea of democracy that led Cameron to call the referendum and which allowed May last night to pose as being on the side of voters against MPs. And it lays behind the anger of some Leavers at not getting what they’ve voted for: they see it as being like Amazon not delivering the items they’ve ordered. Quite why this idea emerged is another story. Some of you might blame “neoliberalism” for promoting the idea

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How did we get into this mess? The story is of course a long one, in which I would argue that austerity plays a big part. But there’s another strand I want to pick out. It’s the rise of a conception of politics as being just another consumer service and the eclipsing of Burke’s notion that MPs should place their judgment above the opinion of voters.

It was this “customer is king” idea of democracy that led Cameron to call the referendum and which allowed May last night to pose as being on the side of voters against MPs. And it lays behind the anger of some Leavers at not getting what they’ve voted for: they see it as being like Amazon not delivering the items they’ve ordered. May

Quite why this idea emerged is another story. Some of you might blame “neoliberalism” for promoting the idea that politics should be just another market place. Others might blame the MPs' expenses affair for diminishing trust in parliament.

Whatever the cause, there’s a basic problem here. Politics is not – and cannot be – just another domain in which consumer sovereignty holds. I say so for three reasons.

First, in ordinary customer markets people have to pay to exercise their choices. This forces them to think, because if you buy rubbish you lose money. Our votes, however, carry no such cost. Which gives us no incentive to think properly. The result is that, as Jason Brennan says “when it comes to politics, smart doesn’t pay, and dumb doesn’t hurt.”

The second difference is that in most situations customers make regular choices and so can learn from experience; if they buy overpriced rubbish they don’t return to the store. In fact, with sufficient skill and experience and a bit of luck, you can even sometimes buy a drinkable pint at Wetherspoons. In politics, however, it is often otherwise. The choices we face are new, one-off ones where we have no experience and so we lack one vital source of learning. We've never had Brexit before, so even the tiny minority of people who know some history had no experience to guide them. .

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, your political choices impose externalities onto others. If you choose to spend you money on worthless tat it makes no difference to me. Your vote, however, does. As Brennan says:

When a democratic majority picks a policy, this is not akin to you picking a sandwich from a menu. When the majority chooses, it chooses not only for itself, but for dissenting voters, children, foreigners, nonvoters and others who have no choice but to bear the consequence

This, he says, means that an ill-informed vote or – worse still – one based upon vicious motives might be a form of injustice. We have a right to expect that decisions which affect us will be taken properly. Bad voters thus violate our rights.

In these respects, politics very different from most consumer behaviour. In fact, not only are there differences on the demand side, but there are also big differences on the supply-side too. Shops do not ignore the preferences of 48% of their customers. Nor do they expect us to choose a job lot of groceries in advance only once every few years. And nor do they regard increased demand as a problem: we don’t hear the boss of Tesco complain that immigrants are putting pressure upon Tesco’s services.

For all these reasons, politics cannot be just another market place. It must be a separate sphere requiring different rules. We need, therefore, to rethink the very basics of politics: what is a good democratic decision? What institutions must be in place for such decisions to be likely?

A few good people are asking these (pdf) questions. Most partisan politicians, however, are not. They are like bad parents in a bitter divorce: they are fighting for control of the child whilst completely neglecting its well-being.  

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