“The fundamental problem of the political left seems to be that the real world does not fit their preconceptions,” once said Thomas Sowell. “Therefore they see the real world as what is wrong, and what needs to be changed, since apparently their preconceptions cannot be wrong.”
I was reminded of this quote when reading a blog post by Oxford economist Simon Wren-Lewis yesterday evening. See, Simon is seeking to explain the phenomenon of the rise and actions of the Tea Party right in the US and the Eurosceptic right in the UK. And he has an interesting thesis for each country.
In the US, Simon cites Jared Bernstein, who suggests that stagnant median incomes and the economy leaving many people behind makes this period “ripe for demagogues”. And these demagogues have deep pockets which can buy up think-tank reports and media presence and polarise politics (oh, and of course there’s a hat-tip to this really being about race, with a link to a Guardian article). Big business interests that started this process of fuelling a rabid right-wing media have created a beast that is out-of-control (see the debt ceiling stand-off) and which is even pushing back against their interests by advocating economic policies that are anti-big businesses.
In the UK, Simon says that something similar is happening with regards to euroscepticism. The rabid Eurosceptic press, long funded by big business interests, has apparently helped fuel the rise of UKIP and forced the Conservative party to offer a referendum that “big business” doesn’t really want. So it’s really the over-powerful press that is shaping the agenda, fuelling public mistrust. No doubt, if the people were just enlightened, our relationship with the European Union would all be fine and dandy.
I find Simon’s outlook insulting. It implies that many individuals’ views, including my own, are not formed by their own weighting of competing arguments, but by being brainwashed by an irrational media (which is odd, given most people get their news from the BBC…). I also find it bizarre that Simon has only just noticed that, contrary to what you read from the likes of George Monbiot in the Guardian, the broad free-market and Eurosceptic end of conservatism has never been about the interests of “big business”. In fact, we tend to be the most vocal critics of industrial policies and strategies which existing big businesses tend to favour. We’re opposed to EU-federalism, which many big multinational companies are in favour of. And our consistent critique of big government is that it leads to corporatism and cronyism with incumbent-favouring regulation and legislation, restraints on competition, and the stifling of entrepreneurs. Sometimes this broadly pro-market position means our viewpoint is close to that of business, other times not so much. It’s noticeable, however, that Simon does not apply the same sort of vested interests test on those with pro-EU views - many research organisations and think-tanks who advocate a maintained EU membership obtain substantial EU funds and commission fees.
Maybe I have been brainwashed by an anti-EU press. But might Simon acknowledge that I, along with many other UK voters, may have legitimate reasons to be eurosceptic? For example:
In other words, there are many voters with many legitimate reasons to question our EU membership, without being considered gullible idiots parroting a tabloid fed line. The fact that Simon places so much weight on the role of the press speaks volumes about his views on the intelligence of the British people, and indeed his own ideological priors about democracy, nation states and immigration policy. The only logical conclusion from his piece is that public expression of conservative eurosceptic opinion results largely from the malign influence of crazed partisan hacks. Yet some people genuinely believe, both here and in the US, that we’d be best served by nation state democracy, limited government, liberty under the law and control of our own borders. It might be comforting for Simon to think that nobody would hold these views without being brainwashed, but he’d be wrong.
UPDATE: 25th October
Professor Wren-Lewis has replied to my original blog post in a postscript here. He says that I am wrong to suggest that his view insults the intelligence of Eurosceptic voters, because he is merely pointing out that information matters and that, presumably, the right-wing press is providing distorting information to its readers. Plus, he notes that we recently published a paper on BBC Bias, so we must think that this information transmission channel matters. He then finishes by suggesting I have made unjustified assumptions about his own views.
Let me take each of these criticisms in turn, because this is an important debate.
First, Professor Wren-Lewis well knows that in media bias economic analysis, information absorption is shaped by your preconceptions of the paper/broadcaster’s editorial line. Were the Daily Telegraph to present a case for more liberal immigration policy, people would sit up and take notice more than if the Guardian did the same. Why? Because people know the Guardian’s priors are left-leaning, and the Telegraph’s are conservative leaning. Likewise, we can expect the same with Eurosceptic and non-eurosceptic sources on EU matters. People really aren’t suckers for all they read – yet Simon’s defence of his piece implies that people aren’t able to effectively judge the information they are given, or the way information is framed according to its source, when making judgements.
What we do know is that people get most of their news from the BBC. On the economy, for example, 76% of people say they get economics news from the BBC compared to just 14% for Red Top newspapers and 22% for mid-market newspapers. This is important: the BBC is presented as an impartial, non-partisan news outlet. So people’s preconceptions of it are that it will provide accurate, non-slanted information. This shapes its funding model, and its protected position. For what it’s worth, I think it is virtually impossible for news to really be “impartial”, because editors have to make judgements on what stories to run, who is asked to comment and how the discussion is framed. Nevertheless, our work was carried out to examine whether the preconceptions were justified given that context. When it’s such an important news source, and people’s preconceptions of it are as they are, it does matter that the Beeb is presenting a full picture. For what’s it’s worth, it has investigated its own coverage of how the EU debate and was severely lacking in providing objectivity in the 1990s euro debate.
The important point of my blog though was to highlight that Professor Wren-Lewis clearly suggested that he believed the Prime Minister had made his referendum pledge because of the right-wing press and its role in the rise of UKIP. Given that Professor Wren-Lewis’s blog is a transmitter of information itself, and he was clearly attributing motive to the Prime Minister’s actions and indeed about the reason why people are Eurosceptic, this seemed a pretty baseless claim. That’s why I presented numerous other reasons why people might be Eurosceptic. Given Professor Wren-Lewis chose not to examine reasons other than that people have swallowed distorted information, his conclusion suggested that if only people had the right information, there would be far fewer eurosceptics. Again, given the events of recent years, this is remarkable.
I don’t know Professor Wren-Lewis’s full views, but I do know he thinks a referendum on our EU membership is a bad idea despite: a) the clear disaster of the politically-motivated euro project, b) the undemocratic tendencies of the EU on Lisbon and the Greek/Italian governments, c) the clear constitutional question of where sovereignty should reside.
So perhaps Professor Wren-Lewis might care to take this opportunity to enlighten us on his views, so we know where we stand when reading future blog posts on these issues. Perhaps he can tell us whether he thinks “bloc theory” is an economic and political argument we should take seriously? Perhaps he can tell us what his ideological priors are on what the correct level of democracy is (nation states or something different)? On whether identity and nation states matter? On whether a harmonised social market model is the optimum economic system? On whether the EU’s euro project was economically flawed? And whether the ignoring of referendums on the EU constitution was justifiable? In other words, outline his views so that we know what it would take for Professor Wren-Lewis to reassess his position that a referendum on Britain’s relationship is “dangerous” as opposed to justified.
People up and down this country will have different levels of tolerance and outlooks on these questions. That’s fine. But Professor Wren-Lewis does a disservice to members of UKIP and other eurosceptics to assume the primary reason for their outlook is the idea they’re swallowing distorted information.