Monday, 17 March 2014

Dysfunctional Politics Needs Economic Reforms

Politics typically operates like a badly run economy with unappetising choices between limited options

Current politics could be compared with the old Soviet economy – consumers frustrated due to few choices between ill-conceived products designed to fit what most people want but ultimately satisfying very few.  Replace “consumers” and “products” with “voters” and “parties” and this is an apt description of many Western democracies.  The analogy is even more appropriate in that the solution in both cases is the same – reforms to make participation easier for newcomers so as to create more competition.

How have things gone wrong?

Public perception of politicians seems worse than ever.  The aftermath of the global financial crisis has further exacerbated this.  Governments showed themselves to be inept in managing their finances before the crisis and misguided in their response to the ensuing economic slump.  Though elected to serve for the good of the country, governments often prove themselves unable or unwilling to do so.

A number of examples spring to mind.  The United States came to the brink of defaulting over its debt and almost triggered another global financial crisis due to a reluctance on the part of its politicians to compromise.  The nation states of Europe almost destroyed more than half a century of integration and spreading democracy across the continent by refusing to band together to help out the weaker EU members until the central bank stepped in.  The economic recoveries in many countries have also struggled to gain traction as government policies have been more of a hindrance than a help.

The argument could be made that this is not the Soviet Union and democracy gives us a choice of government.  But this choice is often an illusion and often times boils down to selecting the least worst option.  To take a more pessimistic view, the most common political strategy appears to be to make voters dislike the other party more than your own.  This only works when the electorate is faced with limited options as is typically the case in countries where two parties dominate.

Outflank the other party on a few key issues and the voters have no other choice but to tolerate your policies.  The UK Labour Party lost the public trust by overspending in the lead-up to the global financial crisis, thus giving the current Tory-led government a freer rein on its economic policy.  As a result, the British have been lumped with austerity despite the need for measures to boost aggregate demand.  In the US, the Tea Party has infiltrated the Republican Party making it unpalatable for most voters resulting in a second term for an Obama administration which has been slow to act and disappointing in delivering on its promises of change.  The results of the European elections in May 2014 are yet another example of how mainstream parties are failing voters.

Change is possible

An economy with such poor products on offer would collapse but our political system continues to stumble on with voters choosing to tune out instead.  Reforms more typical in economics provide an option for changing this – more competition.

One key area would be changes to the voting system.  Elections using the first-past-the-post format hamper change by ensuring a large number of safe seats for each party while preventing smaller parties from getting into power.  New political parties would shake up politics by bringing in ideas in contrast to the stale left and right divide that still dominates politics.  Coalition governments do not always work (such as in Italy), but are not a recipe for sclerosis in politics as the experiences of the UK government have shown over the past few years.

Such changes may not bring about anything as profound as the fall of the Berlin Wall, but any change from the status quo is likely to be an improvement.

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