Tag Archives: Emerson

On the Need for Consistency and the Avoidance of “U-Turns” in British Politics

In recent weeks I have devoted several blog posts to my disappointments in studying for a master’s degree at UCL in London. I now fear that I am presenting a misleadingly negative picture of an experience which has been relatively positive, whether if it is despite or because of the university. There are some real joys in my learning experience—allow me to share just one.

We had been learning about what causes European citizens to vote for far-right parties—obviously, a matter of topical interest.  One aspect of the analysis engaged in by theorists is to discern whether cultural views or perceived economic predicament were a better explanatory factor in judging the likelihood of individuals to vote this way. I had read a piece by Thomas Kurer and Briitta van Staalduinen (“Disappointed Expectations: Downward Mobility and Electoral Change.” American Political Science Review, 2022).  The authors described a concept called “status discordance”, which took into account a person’s reasonable life expectations based upon their original family situation and compared it to the reality of their economic achievement. For many decades in the West it had been taken for granted that each new generation will be better off than that of their parents.  This presumption has been severely undermined by economic realities.  Kurer and van Staalduinen contend that the greater the extent of this status discordance, the more aggrieved people will feel due to the economic gap in the realities of their lives and the more likely they are to vote for right wing parties (or, one might think, any extreme or non-mainstream party).  The statistical analysis they undertook seemed a bit complex to me, but in the end I became utterly convinced by their argument.

This certainty lasted about 20 minutes, when I followed it up by reading a piece by Yotam Margalit, who made precisely the opposite claim (“Economic Insecurity and Causes of Populism, Reconsidered.” Journal of European Perspectives, 2019). He critiqued (not Kurer and van Staalduinen individually), but their point of view that economic factors were dominant in the decision to support right wing parties.  For Margalit, this concentration on economic factors missed the importance of cultural ones, which he believed were ultimately the true causal factors, which are sometimes hidden due to the research methods used.

His piece was too long to describe at length, but he cited several studies which showed relatively weak relationships to economic factors once cultural factors were isolated.  Margalit argued that, “People may also view economics-based arguments against immigration as more socially acceptable than ones couched in cultural terms and thus may overreport the former as the justification for their stance.”  He gave an example from a 2010 study by Alexander Janus which tried to separate these factors by dividing a sample randomly into two groups.  He asked one group to read three pretty neutral statements and then asked if they agreed with the total number of statements (but without having to agree/disagree with each).  He then added a fourth statement (“Cutting off immigration to the United States”) and asked the second randomly chosen group if they agreed with all four.  The percentage agreeing dropped from 61% to 42%.  By hiding a statement which might be socially undesirable to object to amidst three others, Janus was able to identify the percentage likely to be opposed to immigration in a way that would pose no “social risks” to the respondent.  This is just one example of many used to by Margalit to make his point.  Although I began the article feeling very sceptical, by the end I was convinced, and my opinion had changed by 180 degrees!

Which position is factually correct is irrelevant to the point I wish to make. Instead, what I have learned is the utter joy of changing ones view on a dime when presented with countervailing evidence one finds compelling. At its best, academia provides pathways and methods to seek “the truth” and the freedom to shift about in pursuit of it.

I used to believe that philosophical consistency was of great value. What I have learned during the course of my study and in the example I have shared above is that there is something special about an environment that ought to and does permit this ideological wandering. At a much earlier point in my life I argued passionately concerning the intrinsic value of intellectual consistency. I was chided by a woman who quoted Emerson to me.  She said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”  She was right and I laughed out loud—and never forgot that line!  I have thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual knockabout and the constant shifting of views that my educational experience affords.  Long may it continue.

However, I was listening to the radio over the weekend, hearing about the sad saga of Tory ex-Health Secretary Matt Hancock, whose private WhatsApp messages have now been publicly disclosed. So much of this story is pathetic, humorous, disturbing, engrossing, or worrying, depending upon your point of view.  For readers who are not from the UK and have not been watching this story, I am pretty sure it’s not worth going into the gory details. Suffice it to say that a minister acted badly and got caught out—nothing new, really—a bit of sex, arrogance and wide-ranging incompetence.  The radio commentator had made one important point that UK government ministers seem to find it incredibly difficult to reverse a policy once it has been decided upon, even in the face of new information which suggests the policy may have been wrong. This is especially troubling during a pandemic when lives can be saved or lost based on policy responses to accurate evidence. 

But something in the UK make U-Turns particularly challenging manoeuvres.  Maybe it’s the influence of the press, or the enormous egos of some of our appalling leaders who have been “Peter Principled” right into the Cabinet.  I suggest Matt Hancock would have been far better off getting a masters degree than jetting off to participate in “I’m a Celebrity….Get me out of Here!”  But that would make for poor TV.

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—5 March 2023

I started my career in mainstream finance and shifted into impact investing before returning to my lifelong passion of politics in early 2021. This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from “proper jobs” in the investment world back into education to study politics after four decades. For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here. I welcome any comments