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It's been puzzling me for a while that conservatives have a persistent reputation for economic competence, even though this is almost never deserved. I know this goes for Republicans in the USA, but I'm thinking mainly about Conservative Party in the UK, who came to power in 2010 (in coalition with the tame Liberal Democrats) promising to eliminate the deficit by 2015.

After five years of failing to do that, they were somehow elected as a majority government in 2015, with voters saying they trusted them over Labour to manage the economy by 42% to 29%. A couple of months after the election they pushed back their target for eliminating the deficit again, to 2020, and then gave up promising to eliminate it at any particular time after Osborne lost his job.

Throughout this time they were cutting back on public spending on things like public services, benefits, education and the health service. Making tough decisions, as they like to call it. Meanwhile the UK was undergoing the slowest recovery from a recession in history, with wages never recovering to pre-crash levels and rising employment figures masking the rise in underemployment and in-work poverty. More and more economists were lining up to point out that austerity simply wasn't working. This included those at the IMF, who were among those pushing it hardest in the first place, as well as others who'd been saying all along that it was a stupid idea.

In spite of all this, and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell publicly engaging professional economists in a way that the Tories never seem to, by the time Theresa May called a snap election in April 2017, the gap between people trusting the Tories over Labour on the economy had grown to 48 vs. 18%. So how do the Tories maintain this faith in their economic credibility?

I think the answer lies in those 'hard decisions' they like to take. In the same way that people will eat food or medicine that's disgusting and insist that it 'tastes like it's good for you', people will swallow economic 'medicine' like austerity precisely because it does people harm. I'm not suggesting this is because people wish each other ill, exactly, it's just that they think if it hurts, it must be doing some good. No pain no gain, right? What doesn't kill me only makes me stronger. Except when it doesn't.

We see the same thing in the evolution of religion. Priests will ritually sacrifice chickens, goats and occasionally people, to show that they're serious. You don't sacrifice perfectly good goats unless you really mean business. So presumably there's no way priests would ritually slaughter human beings unless it really achieved something. That would be stupid, callous and frankly unhinged, and we all know that our high priests have our best interests at heart, so there must be a good reason for it!

This seems to be a widespread cognitive bias, but as far as I can tell it's never been specifically studied or named. It's related to the 'Sunk Cost Fallacy', whereby we value things more if they cost us more, but it's not quite the same thing, and asceticism doesn't exactly capture it either. There's a hint of the 'Just World Hypothesis' there, too — if people are suffering, it must be because they deserve it, or because it makes things better overall. Tem42 proposes we name this tendency the Builds-Character Heuristic, which I think has a nice ring to it.

Of course, it's true that some things that hurt really are good for you; for example, medicinal plants are often bitter because our tongues evolved to identify poisons as bitter — and many of those poisons kill microbes long before they kill us, or they're biologically active in some subtler way. Similarly, every economic decision anyone makes usually harms someone, so if we hope to live with an economy that serves the needs of humans, we'll need to accept compromises. The question is more about what sorts of compromise are being made, and why.

While many religions emphasise the importance of sacrifice and the usefulness of suffering, in some this is just about encouraging individuals to take vows of poverty and self-denial to help achieve holiness. While I think there are problems with this approach, at least this kind of suffering is voluntary, and it may sometimes help people to gain insight into the suffering of those who do not choose it. Human sacrifice plays two very different roles. Firstly, of course, it appeases the gods, or at least people's sense that something must be done. Secondly, it helps enforce a rigid social hierarchy. 'By using human sacrifice to punish taboo violations, demoralise the underclass and instil fear of social elites, power elites were able to maintain and build social control,' as the author of a study published in Nature put it.

In the wake of the financial crash, we could have seen the government making tough decisions like raising taxes on the rich, holding bankers to account, and investing to help protect those who were hardest hit by the crisis through no fault of their own. Many economists argued for actions along these lines. Instead we saw the exact opposite, combined with a campaign to blame 'skivers' and disabled people for their own poverty, while shocking numbers of them died as a result of these policy decisions. Taboo violations were punished with sanctions on already-reduced benefits, while education and health suffered, police and fire services saw huge cuts, and bankers and property developers remained as unaccountable as ever. The gods of capital were appeased, but it has not worked. Perhaps we've been making the wrong kinds of sacrifice. Perhaps it's time to try something different?


This piece also appears on Medium.

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