The 2010s: A decade in review (Part 3 of 3)


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Society and Culture
Trade, Development, and Immigration
…continued from Part 2

 

Winning the argument

The BLM-mania of the early 2020s struck me as a period of woke mass hysteria and hyper-conformism.

But that’s a subject for another article.

Let’s put the question of whether BLM-wokery is good or bad to one side. Whatever we make of it – the point is that it dominated the national conversation for the better part of three years, despite being up against tough competitors (such as the fact that we had a bit of a pandemic going on). That’s remarkable for a subject which had no domestic trigger event. As shocking as the Floyd murder was, it happened thousands of miles away, and it had nothing to do with Britain. BLM-mania only became a thing here in Britain because woke progressive chose to make it one. Which demonstrates, quite clearly, that there is a section of elite opinion formers, who have the power to force their obsessions on the whole country.

Who are we talking about?

A recent report has investigated where “wokery” resides on the political spectrum. It groups the population into five major camps, on the basis of self-identification: very left-wing, slightly left-wing, centrist or undecided, slightly right-wing and very right-wing. It shows, wholly unsurprisingly, that right-wingers (just under a quarter of the population) are not woke. Perhaps more interestingly, centrists are not especially woke either, and perhaps most interestingly, even on the centre-left, it is not generally a majority opinion. Wokery is really the domain of the 17% or so of the population who place themselves at the most left-wing end of the political spectrum: the Corbynite Left, if you will. Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents mocked him when he said that he lost the election, but he won the argument. They should not have. He was completely right about that. By the end of the 2010s, the Corbynite Left really had established itself as the cultural agenda-setter in Britain.

BLM is by no means the only example in this regard. In 2018, a new eco-militant movement exploded on the scene, consisting, initially, of (for lack of a better name) the “Greta movement”, Extinction Rebellion, and later, Just Stop Oil.

Again, let’s ignore the question of whether you think these movements are good or bad. The point is that there was no obvious trigger event that helped them to take off. In 2018, the UK was already committed to an ambitious decarbonisation agenda, backed by a solid cross-party consensus. Ten years earlier, the 2008 Climate Change Act had been passed near-unanimously in Parliament, with only five maverick MPs voting against it. CO2 emissions were already dropping sharply, and they have been dropping further since.

Yet rather than highlighting how much was already happening on that front, the government, terrified of being seen as “on the wrong side of history”, immediately panicked and caved in, declaring a “climate emergency”, which then led to the ill-conceived “Net Zero” agenda. That’s what “winning the argument” looks like. Congratulations, Prime Minister Corbyn.

 

Steady State Britain

In the early 2010s, sections of the Left were enamored with the concept of a “Steady State Economy”. The idea was that the Western world was rich enough already, and that we should stop pursuing any further economic growth. In practice, this would, of course, mean that wealth-generating economic activities would have to be actively obstructed by the state.

The Spirit Level, probably the most popular and influential political book of the period, was, among other things, a manifesto of Steady State Economics:

“We are at a turning point in human history. […] [W]e have now come to the end of what economic growth can do for developed countries.”

In the early 2010s, those ideas, while fashionable, were confided to the proto-Corbynite Left. People elsewhere in the political spectrum still believed in economic progress.

By the end of the decade, the roles had, if not quite switched, then at least been reallocated. The Corbynite Left was now talking about “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”, and even hardcore environmentalists were talking about how a “Green New Deal” would create millions of well-paid jobs in the new “Green Economy”.

Anti-growth sentiments had migrated rightwards along the ideological spectrum, and spread out more evenly. This was never articulated in the form of any grand theory. There was never a policy manifesto called “The Conservative Case Against Growth”, or “Steady State Economics Done Right”. Perhaps the closest thing to such a manifesto is the Telegraph article “The Nimby’s guide to taking on developers – and winning”, subtitled “The art to blocking planning applications, be it a neighbour’s extension or bigger projects”, which explained:

“[T]hose who partake in “Nimbyism” see themselves as the last line of defence against greedy developers looking for a quick buck […]

Nimbys’ objections will often succeed; a well-organised campaign can stop a project in its tracks. Here, Telegraph Money explains how to be an effective Nimby.”

They quoted the founder of the “Community Planning Alliance”, which they introduce as “a group of over 700 grassroots campaigns fighting to preserve urban and rural green spaces”, with the words:

“We oppose anything from 40 houses at the edge of the village to a garden town of 20,000 homes […] It’s not just housing, people are fighting against incinerators, roads, airports, pylons”.

I mentioned in Part 1 that the 2010s were a lost decade from an economic perspective, and that the British economy has been all but stagnant since 2007. If you were wondering why that is – look no further. Here’s the explanation, compressed into one article. It’s this oppose-anything mindset, or rather, the fact that we give people with such a mindset the power to block everything.

Most of the time, of course, NIMBY obstructionism is not articulated in a coherent way. Its proponents do not see themselves as part of a “movement” or a “political tendency”. But if they did see themselves as a force to systematically strangle economic progressh, I can’t see what exactly they would do differently.

So the 2010s may have created a vicious political cycle, which works like this:

  1. NIMBY obstructionism raises housing costs, and slows down economic growth

  2. Millennials and Zoomers experience a stagnant economy with rising rents. They feel – correctly – that “the system” is not working for them

  3. The Corbynite Left exploits this sentiment, incorrectly blaming “capitalism” for the problems Millennials and Zoomers face

  4. Millennials and Zoomers move leftwards

  5. As Millennials and Zoomers turn against the political Right and the political Centre, the political Right and the political Centre lose interest in them. They concentrate, instead, on their remaining Baby Boomer support base

  6. Baby Boomers are at a stage in their lives where they are, quite understandably, less interested in economic dynamism, and more interested in preserving what they have already have. This is not synonymous with NIMBY obstructionism, but it strengthens it

  7. Start from the top again


 

I’m not saying that the 2010s were a terrible decade in every respect. I would not want to turn the clock back to 2009 (although I wouldn’t mind being 29 again). The 2010s brought lots of improvements which make our everyday lives more pleasant, even though some of them may sound trivial on their own, and each of them is only of interest to specific subgroups of the population.

For beer aficionados such as myself, the 2010s were the decade of the craft beer revolution, which drastically improved the quality and variety of beer in the UK. Something similar happened with respect to dining out, with the number of restaurants in the UK increasing one-and-a-half-fold. The likes of YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter, and podcast streaming services offer endless entertainment for every taste, most of it free at the point of use, and smartphones make all that instantly available virtually anywhere.  Door-to-door delivery services have expanded their reach and scope, making our lives more convenient. Streaming services are an unambiguous upgrade compared to DVD rentals. Google Maps has all but eradicated the misery of getting lost, and not knowing where to go. The likes of TripAdvisor and Google Reviews have decreased information asymmetries, improving market efficiency and reducing the risk of disappointment. Despite the Covid setback, average life expectancy in the UK has increased by two years.

These are improvements that we cannot seen in macro aggregates like GDP per capita or median income, but ask yourself how much someone would have to pay you to give them up. It is a testimony to the strength of the market economy that even in times of abysmally low growth, it still delivers progress in other ways.

But I’m not going to end a summary of the 2010s on a positive note. Because it was not a positive decade. It has turned Britain into an economically stagnant, and politically and culturally polarised country, in which people with terrible ideologies have the power to set the agenda. And so far, the 2020s have shown no inclination to be any better.

 

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Editorial Director, and Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).


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