Since the enlightenment era, statistics have been crucial in political discourse. Providing authoritative facts, numbers can validate a judgment in a manner which is hard to replicate. Quantitative data acts as a central tool for telling a story about the way society is structured while enabling us to identify where policy changes need to be implemented.
However, the authority of numbers has waned in recent years. Alarmingly, 68 per cent of Donald Trump supporters
This poses a major problem for neoliberals. Their approach tends to be policy-driven. Often adopting a consequentialist moral philosophy, maximising utility is at the forefront of any policy programme. But at a time where data’s persuasiveness dwindles, neoliberals need to rethink how they can get the public on side. To do this, we need to first understand why such a historically successful way of viewing the world is now in the gutter.
Statistics are a pivotal component in the toolkit of expertise. Central to the apparatus of the technocratic elite, authoritative data has been commanded by the likes of economists, politicians, and political pundits for decades. But in recent years, the data espoused by those in power
Enter the era of “post-truth”. Identity politics is now the preferred weapon of combat, as opposed to the scientific method. Data analysis is dismissed as the confusing concoction of a snake-oil salesman, with negative emotion now driving the discussion. Michael Gove’s famous 2016 phrase that “we’ve had enough of experts” served as a message for two of the biggest anti-establishment events in the 21st century: Brexit and Trump.
Neoliberalism does not operate on these terms. Attempting to deviate away from identity politics, the philosophy of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek sought to use the state to construct markets in the most effective manner. For them, the market mechanism conveyed the total sum information of all individuals, creating an efficient allocation of resources in the process.
Nevertheless, with productivity stagnation and a housing crisis, even the staunchest of neoliberals wouldn’t claim that the British economic system is working properly at the moment. But this doesn’t mean that they need to abandon their position and embrace millennial socialism. Indeed, neoliberals argue that the root of these problems is statism and the absence of freedom in the economy.
But, in order to win this argument, neoliberals needs to engage in emotional politics too. An Opinium poll demonstrated that the best way to persuade people about the positive benefits of immigration is through emotional stories, whereas they are sceptical about the economic benefits that are brought.
Countless times I have seen neoliberals defending immigration through an economic lens. While this may be effective on wonkish circles on Twitter, throwing numbers at the electorate about the contribution to the exchequer doesn’t wash. The Labour party’s Dennis Skinner spoke of his “United Nations heart bypass” carried out by a Syrian cardiologist, a Malaysian surgeon, and Nigerian registrar. This narrative can have a strong emotional resonance, helping to refashion society in
Ultimately, economic policies have to deliver for people too. The 2018 Edelman trust barometer highlighted how 67 per cent of Britons believe that the government does not deliver on policy promises to protect average people. Tackling productivity and working to end the housing and environmental crises must be the forefront of the neoliberal agenda – with the emotional case made too. Capitalism shouldn’t crumble because of a stubborn refusal to play to the heart as well as the head.
Reforming linguistics is another key part of regaining trust. The Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, has pushed for a common financial language, claiming that economic and political discussion is often saturated with pointless technical jargon. This discourages many people from engaging in policy discussion. An unintended consequence of this is that the technocracy is held to account much less, and are therefore less likely to be more precise with their use of data. If economic knowledge can become more accessible, everybody wins.
As Jack Powell and Matt Gillow outlined for 1828, none of the major British parties seems to currently favour economic liberalism. And this lack of establishment support leaves the future of Britain in a precarious state. But neoliberals shouldn’t stick their heads in the sand and repeat the mistakes of the past. They must dwell on the populist screams they hear and filter out the noise to provide a coherent, politically sound message.
Markets can hold emotional sway without abandoning a scientific approach. But if neoliberals don’t act soon, populists will continue to have shock victories, and liberalism will remain confined to the political wilderness for years to come.