Promising the moon
Politicians keep making promises they cannot keep when we urgently need straight talk
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In democratic politics, there is often a wide chasm between what makes for good campaigning and what makes for good governance. Political hopefuls are tempted to win the allegiance of voters by making outlandish promises, telling voters what they want to hear and vowing to enact policies that sound good in a stump speech, however unrealistic they may be in practice. Once in office, it is reality they have to deal with, not voters, and reality can be rather harder to hoodwink.
The rise and fall of Liz Truss, the shortest-serving Prime Minister in British history, offers a stark object lesson in the need for politicians to be careful what they promise.
When Boris Johnson’s government collapsed in scandal, Truss, who had served as foreign secretary during the final months of his administration, quickly emerged as a leading candidate to succeed him as leader of the Conservative Party and thus prime minister. (In British politics, a candidate need not win a general election to become prime minister, so long as they secure leadership of the party that won the last general election.) To be sure, Truss was not the front-runner; that status belonged to Rishi Sunak, who, as chancellor of the Exchequer (effectively, secretary of the Treasury) for the past two years, was seen as better positioned to help Britain navigate the economic storm of surging inflation and pending recession. Sunak won the support of the largest number of his colleagues in Parliament, but Truss went on to beat him decisively among the rank-and-file of the party, assuming office on Sept. 6.
Although Sunak was widely regarded as an out-of-touch snob, what really did him in was his insistence on economic realism. Eyeing the delicate state of Britain’s finances, Sunak demurred to cut taxes until inflation was well under control. Truss, on the other hand, branding herself as a modern-day Margaret Thatcher, vowed to resurrect 1980s-style “trickle-down economics” with sweeping cuts on taxes across the board, but especially for corporations and high earners. Confronted with the choice between a high-tax candidate and a low-tax candidate, voters predictably enough chose the latter.
But promising was one thing, delivering was another, and the world had changed since Thatcher’s day. For one, British public debt when Thatcher took office in 1979 was just 45% of GDP. This year, it stood at 96%, with projections that it would rise to an impossible 320% in coming decades without big changes. For another, Thatcher also cut public spending, something Truss felt unable to do as British households faced soaring energy costs. Accordingly, when Truss and her lieutenant, Kwasi Kwarteng, unveiled the “mini-budget” of upcoming tax cuts and spending proposals, with no clear explanation of how the United Kingdom would ever be able to pay its bills, financial markets panicked. The pound fell to its lowest-ever rate against the US dollar ($1.03), and the Bank of England had to step in with emergency measures to stabilize the currency.
After floundering between half-hearted promises to courageously stay the course and embarrassing reversals, Truss sacked Kwarteng but watched her approval rating fall to just 10%, the lowest in history. The shame of her ignominious resignation on Oct. 20, after just 45 days in office, was compounded by the swift coronation of her formal rival, Rishi Sunak, to take over as prime minister and hopefully clean up the mess.
Although the chaotic drama of recent UK politics may seem like little more than amusing entertainment from our side of the Atlantic, it offers a stark reminder of the difficult task facing our political class today. In an age of high political passions and viral memes, the easiest path to political power—on both the Left and the Right—is to pander to voters’ emotions, and promise short-term handouts or tax cuts at the expense of long-term stability. For many years, cheap credit made it easy enough for politicians to promise now and pay later, but with interest rates surging, and pandemic-fueled government debt at all-time highs, many Western leaders find themselves faced with no good options once in office.
Under such conditions, we urgently need leaders with the courage and conviction to give it to voters straight—to honestly face up to the difficult economic conditions and the deep roots of these problems. Of course, we get the leaders we deserve, and we will only get courageous, far-sighted leaders if we as voters are willing to hear hard words and accept difficult trade-offs. There are no easy fixes right now, and anyone promising them runs the risk of becoming the next Liz Truss.
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