Like beauty, populism often seems to be in the eye of the beholder. Politicians often use the term to describe the policies of their opponents that have strong popular support. Is it possible to distinguish policy proposals that are populist from other policy proposals that have strong popular support? Given that political parties exist to compete for popular support, is the term populism ever more than just a term of abuse?
In reading the Benjamin Friedman’s book, The moral consequences of economic growth, I was reminded that politicians have not always shied away from the populist label. For example, in the U.S. in the late 1800s the People’s Party was unashamedly populist. Among other things this populist movement advocated an easier monetary policy, preservation of the way of life based on the small town economy, reduced immigration, and denial of voting rights to blacks. Friedman argues that this populist movement was in large part an expression of the anxieties and frustrations created by the hard economic times that persisted for nearly a generation leading up to the mid-1890s (p121).
At around that time there similar political sentiments were popular in Australia, for example opposition to Asian immigration and trade protectionism.
In my view the distinguishing characteristic of populist policies is their appeal to tribal instincts rather than to reason and cosmopolitan ethics (which provides the basis on which people who do not know each other can live in peace).
The first tribal instinct is that if something bad happens, blame some other tribe. So, for example, it appears obvious that the tribe should be suspicious of members of other tribes who are living in their territory, particularly when game is becoming scarce. Populists don’t seem to appreciate that immigration and international trade involve different issues than those involved in trespass and poaching.
The second instinct that comes into play when something bad happens is for leaders to take the most obvious action to ensure that members of the tribe share the pain. So, for example, if reserves of water are diminishing, the obvious solution to ensure fair distribution would be for tribal leaders to regulate how the available water could be used. Populists don’t seem to appreciate that the most obvious solution is not necessarily the best solution. They oppose the use of markets to allocate scarce resources to highest value uses.
The third instinct is that economic order has to be imposed by tribal leaders. Populists don’t understand the concept of spontaneous order emerging from the interactions of individuals, each pursuing their own interests.
The fourth instinct is to oppose any attempt to suggest that the workings of the modern world are more complex than the tribal model implies. Populists don’t like the idea of their objectives being questioned and their proposals being subjected to public scrutiny through independent analyses conducted by competent professionals.
In my view the best defence against populism is an electorate which expects policy proposals to be put through a lengthy process allowing independent public scrutiny prior to implementation. Recent events in Australia suggest to me that many voters tend to become uneasy when they see politicians avoiding established procedures to implement policies that will be popular with particular interest groups.
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