April 23, 2019

Democracy is not political correct

By Barend ter Haar.

“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump said in 2015. At that time many people, including myself, dismissed this remark as just another sign of his lack of good manners.

It took some time to realise that Trump had expressed an uncomfortable truth. His election as President of the United States proved that about half the Americans preferred an incorrect and inexperienced man above a civilised woman with great experience.

This was not a typically American phenomenon. In referenda in several other Western countries more than half of the people voted “incorrectly” against international cooperation and in favour of narrow-minded nationalism. In most Western countries “politically incorrect” populist parties are now among the biggest political parties.

The initial reaction of the political elite was usually to isolate and ignore the populists, to portray the people that voted for them as ignorant and deplorable and, if necessary, to repeat a referendum until the “correct” answer was given.

This policy failed. Western elites cannot ignore that half or more of their fellow citizens do not support their globalist policies. But neither should anybody ignore how close these elites have come to Plato’s ideal of a philosopher-king. Thanks to this highly educated elite the quality of life in Western countries (public health, food safety, energy security etc.) has reached unprecedented levels. (For example, nobody wants to subject the safety rules for airplanes to a referendum.)

So why do so many people oppose the policies of these elites? The main reasons are probably the unequal distribution of the benefits and costs of globalisation and an underestimation of its social-cultural costs.

Although almost everybody is better off than his or her grandparents, the benefits of globalism go mainly to the highly educated elites, leading to a growing gap between the elites and the rest.

This problem is aggravated by the unequal distribution of the costs of globalisation, in particular, the social-cultural costs. From a purely economic point of view, it is very profitable to import foreign workers, however – and that is where political correctness sometimes prevents us from having a realistic view – integrating people from a different cultural and social background can take several generations. As most of these immigrants find housing in low-income neighbourhoods, the inhabitants of these neighbourhoods bear the highest costs of globalisation, while they usually benefit least from it and have reason to fear that their relative position in society is in danger.

It will not help to dismiss their worries as politically incorrect. The great challenge for democratic governments is to take their problems seriously, without ignoring the interests of other people, both within and without its borders.

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