Left, right and Brexit

The British election now set for 12 December will be probably the most complex and unpredictable one in the better part of a century. So expect a plethora of articles and websites trying to interpret voting behavior and sort the British population in ways that would explain the pattern of support for the different parties.

But the one I looked at this week is actually a few months old: it’s at Martin Baxter’s site Electoral Calculus, and it’s called “Three-D Politics“. The basic idea is to plot people’s political views on three separate axes: economic, which runs from left-wing to right-wing; national, which runs from globalist to nationalist; and social, which runs from liberal to conservative.

You can do the quiz yourself to see where it locates you. (If you’re going to do this, it might be better to do it now before reading any further, since there are spoilers ahead. You’ll need a dummy UK postcode to get your results. Thanks to Stephen Davies for drawing the whole thing to my attention.)

As regular readers will know, I’m a free-market liberal, so I expected that I would end up near the “right-wing” end of the economic scale (“Lower taxes and spending, light regulation, private industry, competition and free markets”), and close to the extremes of globalism and social liberalism. That’s exactly what a couple of my Facebook acquaintances found.

But not so. I came out as 100% globalist and 93% socially liberal, as expected. But on the economic scale it put me in the moderate middle, in fact leaning slightly (8%) to the left.

This was a surprise. But not a total surprise, because while answering the questions it had struck me that there didn’t seem to be anything much on what I would consider typical economic issues, or things that might distinguish between free-marketers and their opponents.

Instead, you get statements like “Government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off,” and “Business always takes advantage of people.” I said “mildly agree” to both of those – modest redistribution is perfectly compatible with free markets, as is distrust of business.

In a similar vein, I mildly disagreed with the statements that “Ordinary working people get their fair share of the nation’s wealth” and “British institutions mostly don’t discriminate between rich and poor people.”

It seems clear to me that questions like that don’t tell you anything about whether or not someone is a supporter of free markets. Indeed, the reason I think that poor people in Britain (and most other places) get such a rough deal is precisely because markets are not free, but are corrupted by the rich and powerful.

Now, OK, it’s just one survey; I don’t want to over-intellectualise this. But it does seem to me to be symptomatic of the way that “left” and “right” play out a lot these days: that people who think of themselves as “left” or even “socialist” on economics are not actually hostile to “private industry, competition and free markets”, but rather are agitated about inequality, monopolies and cronyism.

And it may even be that this sort of conceptual confusion on the “economic” axis, where it’s not so easy for parties and voters to work out where they stand, may be adding to the salience of the other two axes (which pretty much coincide – liberal nationalists and conservative cosmopolitans are rare) and thus contributing to the pressure for a party realignment.

No-one knows how this will all play out next month. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn seems to have an old-school understanding of the economic debate (like mine, but from the opposite side). But it’s a sure bet that many of those who are drawn to him are motivated more by opposition to crony capitalism than by a belief in central economic planning.

On the other side, there are some among the Conservatives who see Brexit as an opportunity to implement a libertarian small-government program. The contradictions that involves are still mostly below the surface, but they will become apparent soon enough.

The experience of Trumpism has shown that nationalists end up in time as protectionists and defenders of monopoly. “Free movement of goods and capital but not labor” is not a sustainable position.

For the moment, however, it’s Britain’s voters that are going to have to make sense of the mess. Spare a thought for them.

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