What the summer book choices of elites reveal about politics

Janan Ganesh: Powerlessness of governments against human foibles is common theme

Nigel Farage poses in front of a pro-Brexit campaign poster in Clacton-on-Sea days before the referendum in June 2016. Photograph: Justin Tallis/ AFP/Getty Images

Nigel Farage poses in front of a pro-Brexit campaign poster in Clacton-on-Sea days before the referendum in June 2016. Photograph: Justin Tallis/ AFP/Getty Images

 

Each summer, newspapers invite eminent people to name the books they will read over the break. Whether or not you take the answers at face value – what elevated tastes our betters seem to have – they are telling in their consistency. When the same few titles recur, you at least know what the elites want to be seen to read. You have a sense of the intellectual fashion.

Three books dominate this summer and, if you read closely enough, a single idea connects them. Destined for War is less fatalist than its name but it envisages a violent showdown between America and China on the balance of historic precedents. Its author, Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard, sifted 16 cases of an emergent power challenging an established one. War resulted in 12 of them. What he calls the Thucydides trap has ensnared societies as dissimilar as Edwardian England and the 16th-century Habsburgs. Even when the belligerents had the statecraft and goodwill to avoid war, the internal logic of big-power competition told in the end.

In The Great Leveller, this low view of what leaders can do against impersonal forces is taken beyond the battle field to the whole of organised human life. Walter Scheidel, a Stanford historian, sees material inequality as the default in societies since the dawn of agriculture, periodically checked by four events: disease, violent revolution, state failure, war.

Stratification

The leveller is mass death. Next to this, fiscal transfers and other egalitarian policies at best slow an ineluctable trend to stratification. Scheidel’s evidence is so persuasive that readers will find themselves cheering on the Black Death as a boost to median wages.

Of the three books, The Undoing Project is the least argumentative. Michael Lewis, that clarifier of opaque worlds, does not espouse an idea so much as explore the bond between two academics who did. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky helped to invent behavioural economics, which discredited the classical version’s premise of human rationality. Governments had tailored welfare states, public health campaigns and financial regulations to a homo economicus whose sole flaw was his non-existence in real time and space.

The Israeli psychologists exposed the enduring primitiveness of a species that leans on unreliable rules of thumb to make decisions and prefers stories to numbers. The implications for government – for society’s limits as a perfectible thing – are still being absorbed.

These books vary in subject and style but converge on the relative powerlessness of government (or big business, or any organisational centre) against structural realities and human foibles. They put the people who purport to read them in their place.

It is not the elites, though, who stand to gain from the lesson. It is the voter. Attempts to explain the electoral anger in Britain, America and elsewhere tend to dwell on misrule – on the supply-side of government. The Iraq war and the crash were corroborating examples of a ruling class with more self-regard than technical competence.

Less scrutiny

Out of a well-meaning customer-is-always-right politesse, the demand side receives less scrutiny. It should not. Some Americans saw in Donald Trump the restoration of the well-paid industrial work their grandparents had known. Automated plants and wage competition from the other end of the planet would yield to political will.

The British have even higher hopes of government: national sovereignty and international trade, low immigration at no economic cost, continental public services and Anglo-Saxon taxes. When these fail to materialise, their reflex is not an adjustment of expectations. It is the howl of betrayal.

Perversely, the anti-elite movement invests the elite with heroic talents. It sees a world of obvious social improvements waiting to be made if only the negligent masters would snap out of their stupor. The deficit of trust flows from a surplus of faith.

In the Brexit campaign’s potent slogan – Take Back Control – the word “control” does a lot of work. All that stands between us and the good life, it implies, is the wrong people in executive office. This credulity is not unique to the angry right. It was there in Barack Obama’s messianic bid for the presidency in 2008. It is there in most forms of protest politics.

That government has inherent limits, that difficult trade-offs outnumber solvable problems, that millennia of evolutionary coding is stronger than technocratic fiat – these are painful propositions to entertain because they do not let us dream. The books of the day cannot work as political manifestos.

Manage Your Expectations makes for a useless slogan. It just has the compensating virtue of truth.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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