Business leaders’ support for Tories is a threat to democracy

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One of my occasional co-authors has been Andrew Baker from Queen's University Belfast, whose work in the sphere of political economy I much admire. He has an article on The Conversation under the above title and since such articles can be shared I do so here:

Much has been made of the 100-plus business figures who came out in support of the Conservative Party.

A letter published on the front page of The Daily Telegraph and the huge amount of debate it has provoked, has implicitly suggested that the views of these “business leaders” are of disproportionate importance and should be listened to above others. But what are the sources of this elevation and are they justified?

What distinguishes these individuals is their personal success in running businesses. They will have no doubt made good investment decisions for individual businesses and in some cases successfully navigated corporate structures to rise to the top of their organisations. Their status comes from these achievements and the office and personal wealth that comes with this.

It is this status that enables these individuals to have their personal views on the outcome of the general election and its impact on the economy, published in a national newspaper. In this case, elite status equals access.

The problem is that that all of the 103 names on the list do not live ordinary lives. Indeed, enhanced access and elevated voice indicate that they lead rarefied existences, divorced from the everyday lives of most of the UK electorate. On representative and democratic grounds, they should be somewhere at the back of the queue in terms of voice, precisely because their experiences are so unrepresentative and far removed from the rest of the population.

Yet in the UK presently, exactly the opposite situation prevails – these business leaders have a disproportionate capacity to obtain exposure for their views. The result is that that unrepresentative and already powerful few enjoy a skewed domination over public debate.

Fallacies of composition

If the enhanced weight given to their opinions is democratically questionable, maybe there are reasons to pay extra attention on grounds of expertise? However, none of the 103 individuals in the Telegraph letter regularly engages in any form of specialist analysis of macro-economic trends, processes, or dynamics that are at the core of public policy making. They are too busy running individual businesses.

Their successful track records come from the very restricted vantage point of what is best for their individual businesses. This does not necessarily translate into a good sense of what is the best outcome for the system and the nation as a whole.

In macroeconomics the concept of fallacies of composition captures this problem. It holds that what is true for individual agents is not necessarily true for the system as a whole. This means that drawing on individual preferences and experiences to make conclusions about what is best for the wider social whole has in the past led to bad systemic outcomes. This was one of the lessons of the financial crash of 2008.

It should also be noted that on the same day that the letter was published and discussed, a number of the country’s top economists said that the Coalition’s austerity policies had harmed the economy. This was given only a fraction of the air time of the prognosis of the business leaders.

Assertion vs evidence

The Telegraph letter itself contained a mere seven sentences. It cited only two figures – the new, reduced corporation tax rate of 20% and 1.85m new jobs. It contained no analysis or discussion of those figures. It asserted that the track record of the current government is good and that a change in course will threaten jobs and investment.

The letter was not based on analysis, data or argument, but pronouncement and assertion. There is no evidence of expertise or analysis. In the absence of this, status and social standing was the reason for the elevation of the personal opinions contained in the letter.

When invoked in favour of political and policy positions, business figures are frequently portrayed as impartial non-political figures, from a range of backgrounds, with a keen sense of the collective public interest. Yet many of the individuals concerned are paid up members or funders of the Conservative Party.

In such instances, social status and privileged access are being used for enhanced voice and to sway other individuals’ private choices in the context of a general election. Yet when social status rather than substantive content or expertise are the reasons for the elevation of opinions and views, we have reasons to be concerned.

Such practices are corrosive of democratic politics and principles. They solidify and consolidate our elite driven politics, that increasingly revolves around status, access and wealth’s disproportionate capacity to set agendas.