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Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Thu, 11 Jul 2019, 2:03 PM

 

When failure succeeds

Author:   |    Publish date:   |  >> Read article in Blog website


In politics, failure sometimes works better than success. This is the message of this piece by Janan Ganesh, wherein he argues that it is in Trump's interest to fail on his promise to control immigration, because if he does so it will remain a big issue which will attract voters to him. Janan says:

It is perverse, I know, that a president could make so little progress on his number-one priority during four years in office, only to be rewarded for it.

Maybe not so perverse. There are other examples.

One, as he says, is Brexit. If Brexiters get their way, voters will see that it is in fact no solution to our problems. And Farage would then lose his schtick of being able to claim that the political class is out of touch with the people. If you are practicing the politics of grievance, the last thing you want is for the grievance to disappear.

But there are other examples. Authoritarian governments use crime, unrest or terrorism as excuses for removing freedoms. For them, failing to suppress crime works better than succeeding. Technocrats and managerialists need to maintain the prospect of further incremental improvements, which requires them to maintain a gap between the actual and the feasible best.

And rightists have sometimes accused leftist parties of wanting to create a "dependency culture" and to maintain inequality and poverty, because doing so ensures the continuation of a constituency that will vote for them. As Gilles Saint-Paul and colleagues write:

Policies that reduce the income of the poor relative to the average income, such as failing to upgrade the skills of the workers and preventing their erosion by new, skill-biased, technologies, paradoxically consolidates the political power of the Left. This is because these policies make the natural constituency of a left-wing party endogenously more dependent on it.

The converse is also true. Success can be failure. Post-war social democracy worked well in raising real wages; it was one of the greatest peacetime policy successes in history. But this helped to foster individualist consumerism which supplanted class consciousness and reduced support for collectivist institutions. As Nye Bevan wrote in 1952, in anticipation of J.K.Galbraith's theory of "private affluence, public squalor":

As modern industry produces new and attractive forms of private consumption, the individual citizen is made all the more reluctant to see his income taken away from him for remote purposes. (In Place of Fear, p134 in my copy)

As Avner Offer has written more recently:

Towards the end of the 1960s, attitudes began a slow shift away from the common welfare and public services as sources of well-being, and towards private benefits...The choice to "go private", which is widely perceived as a driver of affluence, is perhaps one of the consequences of affluence. (The Challenge of Affluence, p7-8)

In the same vein, the creation of high-quality council houses created a constituency with a strong interest in buying them cheaply from Thatcher. 1968-the-scaffold-lily-the-pink-1353318874-view-0

In these ways, social democrats' success was also their failure. Corbynomics might suffer the same fate. If it succeeds in the medium-term, it will enable young people to buy houses - but this will create a client base of older property-owners in future who'll have an incentive to support the status quo.

My point here is a simple one. We flatter ourselves that we live in a meritocracy in which success is rewarded and failure punished. But in many cases, this is a myth. Sometimes we live instead in the world of snake-oil salesmen as brilliantly described (pdf) by Werner Troesken, in which it is failure that is rewarded. Our economic and political institutions are all selection mechanisms, and sometimes they select not for success but for failure.

Note: my target audience is discerning enough to understand the picture reference.

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