Politics is about story and narrative not economics

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Many believe that economics and the economy in general lead the political agenda. Economists have developed ever more complex mathematical theories in order to “prove” how society works and benefits from progress. Policy is formed from these economic insights.

But that is not how it works. Political parties have a set narrative and then seek justification for that narrative as a support to the story they want to tell. The story leads and facts and theories are sought to justify the policy narrative.

In the 80’s both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had a narrative based around small government and individualism. Little matter that the size of government grew substantially over the period the story that the electorate wanted to believe was the one projected. To support the policy academics such as Hayek, Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of economics were pressed into service to give the narrative some gravitas but their theories followed the dynamic of the storyline offered by the politicians. There were many opposing economic theories to the monetarism of the day which could have supported a counter narrative. In many respect the political narrative came from an intuitive belief held by the chief protagonists. It was a gut view not one supported by hard evidence.

More recently Donald Trump gained success based on a narrative reasserting former national greatness and the resurrection of rust belt industries aimed at reinvigorating working class fortunes. The story is enhanced by a form a scapegoating of foreigners as being the source for the decline in working class fortunes whether that is Mexican immigration or a story of Chinese manipulation of world trade to the detriment of the US. There is no factual basis for these assertions but that does not matter. What matters is that the narrative is believable to those to whom it is aimed at. Trump has not sort to justify his position with any intellectual rigour or economic theory. His Presidency relies solely on his story narrative.

In the UK too we have Brexit. The leave campaign told a narrative that appealed to a large portion of the electorate. This narrative was one, like Trump’s, based on a story of former greatness now lost due to the unwelcome embrace of foreign powers taking away the sovereignty of the nation. As humans we are more susceptible to a story narrative than something based around numbers. The remain campaign lead with dry numbers and economic data in an attempt to show that economically leaving would be a mistake. But this was a mistake. We are a species of story tellers not mathematicians. There can be little doubt that on balance leaving will be economically detrimental but for voters that didn’t matter. What mattered was the affirmation of national pride and the promotion of a golden future free from foreign interference. The fact that the world does not work in this way did not matter. The narrative of the story was something the voter wanted to believe in irrespective of any counter narrative based on purported facts or economic numbers. The leave campaign found it easy to bat away these facts as “project fear” a narrative easily understood by voters who supported the central story of lost national power and lost cultural identity caused by immigration.

The way forward for politicians is clear. Have a strong spoken narrative for your policies otherwise voters will not connect with the message however strong the academic evidence backing it up.

For economics too the need to project a strong narrative outweighs the cleverness of the mathematical proposition. Only when economists grasp the fact that their discipline is only useful if people understand the story will it become truly relevant to our society.

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