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The dangers of confusing democracy with populism

Last week I received a communication from the Electoral Commission about the coming EU referendum. The pamphlet states the case for each side and gives instructions on how to vote. At first sight that process epitomises democracy in action. But on closer examination the leaflet illustrates why momentous decisions should not be made this way.

Political instability stems from the diminished importance of the left-right spectrum

The problem of western democracies such as Britain and the US is that the institutions of a two-party system in which alternating governments compete to attract votes in the centre do not work well when politics is no longer arranged on a one-dimensional spectrum from left to right. Recent political upheavals are only the start of the resulting instability.

Incremental improvements to infrastructure offer better value for money

Does it lift your heart to hear that “Britain is uniquely placed to lead the world in a smart power revolution”? Do you share the ambition of George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, to discover “what the government needs to do to become a world leader in 5G infrastructure”? Here’s why my heart sank when reading these words in the plans of the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission.

The dangers of ever-closer tax scrutiny

Explaining your possibly complex financial affairs to unsympathetic journalists adds to the already too long list of reasons why able people might not want to go into politics. And such scrutiny draws attention away from genuinely serious and widespread tax evasion, corruption and money laundering, practices.

Central problem with banks is “too complex to fail” not “too big to fail”

Recent stumbles by Bernie Sanders illustrate a misdirection in his attack on the banking establishment. The central problem is not so much “too big to fail” but “too complex to fail”.

Democracy thrives on a diversity of thoughtful and sincerely argued views

“To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” The principle encapsulated in these words from Thomas Jefferson sounds fair. But we should be more anxious to fund the work of non-partisan institutions with direct policy relevance, like the Bank of England, IFS and Royal Society.

The danger of political groupthink in our universities

It’s no surprise that social science professors are to the left of the general population. But I was taken aback by the magnitude of the difference, as indicated by a recent study showing 95% of academics supported Barack Obama in the 2012 election. Is this not of concern? Universities should be encouraging freedom of thought and diversity of opinion.

Look behind the fiscal tree but don’t expect to find any money

There is plenty of tax waste and avoidance — but if eliminating them was painless, it would have happened. However, one need not believe in pots of gold behind the tree to be concerned. Tax is a moral issue, and paying it demonstrates a sense of shared values of importance to economic and social life in the modern state.

Solutions to the Greek debt crisis should be found through pragmatism not blame

The Greek crisis is not simply the result of Athens’ inept public administration but also of an extensive carry trade on eurozone convergence by northern European banks, notably in France and Germany, which obtained short-term profits by matching northern eurozone liabilities with southern eurozone assets. For every foolish borrower there is usually a foolish lender.

It sometimes makes sense to fix the market rather than its results

The 2015 election was an almost unmitigated disaster for the UK Labour party. Yet there was one significant success — an intellectual one. It’s called “predistribution”. And it has already been put to use by the new Conservative administration with a 40% increase in the minimum wage.

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