Power? No thanks, I’m a decently paid and fulfilled megaphone

If you were designing a marketplace for ideas for policies to solve social problems, one thing you might hope is that it would incentivize people actually to take power and do things.  Only by doing things in government do problems get solved and lives altered.

If you are of a particular persuasion, the failure of the Labour Party to orient itself to obtaining power is remarkable.  A demonstration that the marketplace rules are not providing the right incentives.

But perhaps there is no puzzle.  Life as a campaigner and not a doer is not so bad.  At the top of the pile, you can expect a pretty decent salary.  MP’s earn £79k.  More than some Professors [less than others].  About 4/5 of that of a Head of Division in the Bank of England.  Compares well with local government, heads of charity, senior civil service salaries.  But there are other perks.  Fame!  The sofa circuit.  Public speaking at marches, rallies, constituency meetings, favoured campaigns.  Most of those who self-select to be an MP enjoy this.

Why spoil all this  by contaminating the process by actually seeking power?  Doing that involves compromise.  Falling out.  Banging heads together.  Or having your head banged.  Making specific promises and risking not delivering.  Figuring out the boring detail of what you need to do to actually do things.  Reading briefs.  Understanding them.  Forming a view.

For those in constituencies that are safe, you might prefer cultivating your own brand, doubling down on your views, gaining repute and TV time, shaping yourself for the book deal or the paid speaking circuit.

The incentives for the leftist outrider are even less oriented to achieving things and implementing policies.  These people are even more transparently Content Providers for a demographic that consume what they do in the same way that I consume fish and chips and the New Yorker.

Radical imagined futures that fill out newspaper columns and book length manifestos – compiled cheerfully by Owen Jones, Aaron Bastani, Grace Blakeley and others – fulfil the same purpose as literary fiction.  The survival of the value of this content depends on coverage and mentions, and these things are at best tenuously related to whether they describe workable solutions to problems that people face.

I’ve singled out the left tribe because of my relative familiarity with it;  but also because the pathology – not actually attaining power – seems more acute there.  Labour have not won a general election since the person that current tribal affiliations dictate it is necessary to deplore, Tony Blair, last won one in 2005.

But one can equally well apply the same critique to the cesspit of the right.

Dan Hannan’s net worth does not depend on whether he can recommend solutions to problems;  neither Matt Goodwin or Eric Kaufmann or David Goodhart or any of the actual office-holding politicians.  Their earnings also depend on attention.  There are limits, as Katie Hopkins’ career serves to remind everyone.  But provided you can tolerate not inciting legal action against you, the constraints are not that great.  You can and indeed perhaps must say things that are of no use to people:  you can tweet things about tariffs that are not true;  you can retweet material linking race to IQ;  you can selectively and incompetently celebrate things that seem to indicate your populist team are winning and were right all along.

The truth about problem solving does not lend itself to the politician/outrider industry.  It is probabilistic and multivariate.  Things may or may not work, or have worked, in concert with lots of other things.  It frequently will be discordant with the emotional resonance needed to maximise the entertainment value of an outrider piece.  You are not going to get a book deal with the pitch that we need a policy programme put together on an evidential case-by-case basis, updated in the light of data of imperfect and uncertain quality.  [Just to test this:   if anyone wants that book, I can write it.]

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2 Responses to Power? No thanks, I’m a decently paid and fulfilled megaphone

  1. Unfulfilled Megaphone says:

    This seems unconvincing. Everyone, whether left, right or centre faces a tradeoff (when choosing a policy programme, etc.) between the probability of getting power and the benefit from doing good things (as you see them) if you get power. There is no point in Labour getting power if they have to promise to do *exactly* the same thing as the Tories would if they get power. Conversely, there is no point having the perfect policy programme if that gives you zero probability of getting power and as a result you have no effect. So we surely agree there is a tradeoff, and now we’re just haggling over the price. The reason that leftists choose different political strategies than centrists is not that they deny that tradeoff or have no personal incentive to seek to win power and do good things. (Many leftists spent a lot of time knocking doors in the cold in the UK last November, or for that matter in New Hampshire today, and it wasn’t to promote their content online, it was because they wanted to win power.) Instead, it’s largely because (a) leftists have different goals from centrists (b) they have a different theory of what determines the probability of getting power (c) they put a different weight on the two objectives. The quality of the debate between left and centre would be improved if we argued about (a), (b) and (c).

    To the extent that your critique applies, it applies well about as well to centrist pro-Remain politicians, media personalities, etc. as it does to leftists – the centrists failed to get a second referendum (or even to soften Brexit in any way), the left failed to get Labour elected. So one could equally argue that the incentives for the pro-Remain centrists were distorted in a way that discouraged them from seeking compromise and actually doing the things necessary to stop or soften Brexit.

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