The politicians we deserve?

June 29, 2009

Laurence CopelandLaurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School and a co-author of “Verdict on the Crash” published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own. –

The unending saga of MPs’ expenses has to be seen in perspective. Of all the dishonest things that politicians do, inflating their expenses is about the least damaging. At their worst, they lie to us whenever they think it politic to do so and knowingly favour policies which suit their own interests rather than those of the country. How can this happen? After all, in a democracy the interests of government are supposed to be aligned with those of the electorate, aren’t they?

It might work if we were all rational, but alas, we are not. Only too often, we want the best of both worlds. Nobody is offering us endless sunshine with no hosepipe bans. But there are always politicians prepared to tell us we can have low taxes without reducing government spending, longer sentences without overcrowded jails, near-total job security without high unemployment (the French are especially keen on this), and so on. Why do democratic politicians repeatedly make these promises which they know to be impossible? And why do we keep believing them, election after election, in spite of the repeated failure of politicians to deliver the impossible?

The question is as topical now as ever. In spite of their frightening levels of indebtedness, neither the UK nor the U.S. government has yet said how it proposes to pay off debts in the future – in fact, Gordon Brown is adamant that spending will carry on more or less unaffected. Yet surely voters on both sides of the Atlantic can see that at some point they will have to pay higher taxes and/or accept substantial cuts in Government spending? If so, why do politicians persist with the charade?

The answer lies, I believe, in the nature of the competitive process through which politicians appeal to the electorate. Suppose 80 percent of the electorate know that a choice has to be made – we cannot have both spending and lower taxes. If, say, half of these “informed” voters favour lower taxes and cuts in government spending if necessary, it is fair to assume they also predominantly support the right wing party (Conservative or Republican, for example). Similarly, the other informed segment of the electorate prefer higher taxes and will overwhelmingly vote Labour or Democrat.

Now it is axiomatic that a two party system is a battle for the centre ground, inhabited by the floating voter. In the example here, it is a fight for the 20 percent of the electorate who either still cling to the hope that we can have the best of both worlds or, possibly, who know we cannot, but nonetheless cannot face the decision (and who may have the same attitude to their own credit card bills). In order to capture their votes, politicians must continue to offer pipe dreams. If they can include a reassuring wink to their own side (“when the crunch comes we’ll do the right thing”), so much the better.

At some point, the process must come to an end, as more and more voters realise the truth – that neither they, nor the Government can go on borrowing indefinitely. The game is over when, either the segment of the electorate still in denial has dwindled into insignificance, or maybe when politicians risk alienating their own supporters by the patent dishonesty of their pitch. If the reports are to be believed, Prime Minister Gordon Brown thinks we are still some way from this point, while Chancellor Alistair Darling begs to differ.


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Thank you Sir,
The most succinct and coherent piece of political commentary I have read to date this year. Admittedly comedy is more my usual genre, but this is because I generally find comedy comes closer to the truth than political commentary.
As an Englishman resident abroad, I do not have to pay the expenses of UK Members of Parliament, I do however recognise farce when I come across it!

As Professor Copeland writes; ‘Of all the dishonest things that politicians do, inflating their expenses is about the least damaging.’

Don’t let them get away with taking us from behind ‘Royal Fashion’ saimply because they have been cooking the books again! It reminds me rather of those comforting occasions when I go to my favourite global news portal only to be greeted by headlines about some cuddly baby animal in some far away zoo… clearly no news of any import today!


Posted by Bill | Report as abusive

If you go to this page at the Treasury Web Site index.htm

you can view (PDF Format) all the budgetary data produced by this government since 1999. The documents contain official government material, not spin, not opinion.

These documents show, for each year, the total amount of tax revenue received and the total amount of money spent by the government. There are three very interesting conclusions that can be drawn from these documents:

1. With I think one exception, the current government has spent more money than it has earned, every year, since they came to power. This means that each year the people of Britain are being pushed further and further into debt – a debt that will have to be repaid in future taxes for years to come.

2. The amount of money spent servicing that debt is, roughly speaking, the same amount of money spent by the government on the defense budget each year. When you think how much the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts and new Aircraft Carriers will cost, you realise just how much money the government has squandered on interest payments.

3. Despite all the verbal nonsense and claims being traded by the main political parties at the moment, there is one simple fact that cannot be evaded – Great Britain is facing the biggest ever debt burden, in real terms, that we have likely ever had to deal with.

If a businessman ran a company, or if a family ran a home budget, in the way that this government has run the nation’s finances for the last 10-11 years, then they would have been declared bankrupt and the banks would have foreclosed on them – year ago.

The terrifying thing is that we haven’t foreclosed on this government, and they are merrily digging the grave deeper all the while.

Posted by Fred | Report as abusive

Professor Copeland, you have stated the problem eloquently, so now what is the solution.

The problem can be summarized very swiftly. Who would employ a politician to run a local corner sweet shop, let alone a whole economy. The problem is down in the depths of their egos. Politics attracts the wrong people to start with – period.

A politician once told me that all politicians are liars. So where does that leave us mortals?

Posted by David | Report as abusive