How to close the gap between people and elites?
Talk at the Free Market Road Show 2017,
American University in Bulgaria,
March 23th, Blagoevgrad
All standard definitions of populism include:
· - opposing people to the elites;
· - populist politicians claiming to speak on behalf of the people, voicing their «authentic» concerns, even anger, against the corrupt elites;
· - prioritizing «the sovereign» and its interests (in my mind the word that defines the current populist age) over the individual with her rights and interests.
This claim to speak on behalf of the sovereign is often translated into policies that aim to get immediate public acclaim rather than be correct (and correct policies in my mind are those that promote the public interest in the longer run).
The populist politicians are thus followers of the mood of the crowd here and now rather than leaders, people with a vision for the future and mission to bring about better future which might, however, need painful policies now. Populist politicians are rarely genuine leaders.
Democracy - with its short election cycle and the imperative to win the majority of votes, in order to get the chance to rule, seems particularly hospitable to populism and populist politicians.
The question, thus, is not why such a strong wave of populism now. Rather, it is why such a strong wave of populism only now?
Two deviations here:
1.We should bear in mind, however, that the type of regime introduced and practiced around the globe is not simply democracy, but liberal democracy: the peculiar mix of popular rule through representation, combined with a rule of law, respect for individual right and competitive free markets. This mix of elements is neither easy nor even intuitive, but has survived and served so well to become the dominant, until recently unchallenged, type of government not just in the Western world, but around the globe.
2. Most radical types of populism do no rest calm with just speaking on behalf of the people. They come with a more radical claim – to altogether dismantle liberal democracy as being against the interests of the sovereign, as it imposes breaks on the popular will – such as individual rights and rule of law.
The question, to come back to it, is not why populism now, but why populism just now.
Many factors contribute to the rise of populism:
· - dissatisfaction with the breaks the regime puts on the popular will: majorities feel powerless as they cannot change policies not in their control - decided by anonymous, external to them powerful others (the global markets, the top world bankers, corporations.....);
· - for a long period, free trade, effective individual rights protection and liberal democracy more generally were perceived as bulwarks of peace, stability and prosperity that characterized the post WWII world. With fading of the memory of the war and the turbulence of the financial crisis and the biggest recession since WWII, skepticism towards liberal democracy grows;
· - there is growing distrust towards the elites in these regimes – seen in surveys around the globe. Elites are distrusted as they are seen as self-interested, opportunistic uprooted cosmopolitans, who feel at home in the world rather than in their own nations, are seen as ready to betray national interests for their personal advantage, or simply leave when something more interesting comes up;…..etc.
Recently Ivan Krastev raised an intriguing further hypothesis to explain the rise of populism: the populist backlash against the elites is closely associated with a backlash against another feature of liberal democracies and the way the elites are recruited there: egalitarian meritocracy.
Let me be clear here: Meritocracy seems the best – both ex ante (as the most fair – as all have equal opportunity to try) and ex post - producing the best results - way to recruit elites. Not inheritance but personal achievement must surely be the only ground to succeed.
Indeed, members of meritocratic elites are usually (believed to be) self-made high achievers, who through hard work (in highly selective schools, universities and beyond) successfully climbed up the social ladder. And there is nothing wrong about that – just the opposite.
The psychological profile of the meritocratic elites, however, is the interesting thing here and may bear on the recent rise of populism. The representatives of such elites are taking the full credit for their success in life - they live with the conviction that they do not owe anything to anyone, even to their compatriots. Traditional national elites, in contrast, were much more closely connected to their people, sharing (or successfully pretending to share) a common fate with them. As meritocratic elites are denying the existence of any thicker bond to their compatriots, it is not surprising that the less successful in life common people mistrust them as not being part of them. They develop aversion towards the cosmopolitan elite, claiming it betrays their unique shared identity and even threatens their world.
Yet what people resent most seems to be the arrogance of the meritocratic elites who claim the right to rule them without sharing their fate, sharing their identity, their hopes and fears, without being part of them.
This accusation of the «arrogance» of the elites is probably the most wide spread, rallying cry of populism. And not too rarely, we must admit, it is well deserved.
The way to bridge the gap?
The irony with populist's claim to speak on behalf of the people on the ground that they are part of them, and thus are able to voice their authentic claims, is that populists are almost always parts of the elite, and if not, soon become such (and we do not need to know the intricacies of the «iron low of oligarchy» of Roberto Michels to know this).
As the Italian elitists have taught us the simple truth is that it is always the elites that rule. But this fact, contra Michels, does not mean that democracy is impossible. Just the opposite: representative democracy is a good form of government (remember that for neither Plato nor Aristotle democracy was a good, even tolerable form of government and only since 18th century we have looked more favourably to democracy – if only under the name of «republicanism»). Democracy is a good regime precisely because it produces better results for its citizens than the alternatives. And better results need knowledge and expertise to be brought about. Meritocracy is indeed the best way to recruit elites that can produce good results. Yet the challenge for the meritocratic elites is to not succumb to the arrogance described above.
Another prominent theorist of the elites– the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter (writing in 1942!) also believed that democracy, despite the fact that it was put in the defensive by authoritarian rulers, will nevertheless survive. He is best known in political theory for his «new theory of democracy», further developed by Anthony Downs and the public choice school as «the economic theory of democracy» to become a mainstream theory of democracy in contemporary political theory. Schumpeter described democracy as a market-like competition between members of the elite to get the right to rule, granted them by the citizens on the basis of the services those elites offer the citizens.
To survive, however, democracy needs responsible elites, who adhere to strict conventional codes of conduct, preventing them from developing the lethal for democracy arrogance of the elites.