The Institue of Economic Affairs is wrong: we need more competition in the market for ideas

It’s rare that turkeys write articles in right wing newspapers calling for more Christmas but that is exactly what Ruth Porter the communications director of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has done. There are some interesting lessons hidden away in an otherwise contradictory and risible piece.

In her article for The Telegraph Ms. Porters argues that;

“One of the greatest scourges on government today is group identity politics and lobbying of vested interest groups. There is only one answer – it is time for the government to take on all groups at the same time and to finally call for an end to group identity politics. This is a time of economic crisis, it is imperative that the government actually find the courage to govern in the national interest.”

Having read this sharp denunciation of interest groups that lobby government, you might be surprised to learn that the Institute of Economic Affairs actually lobbies government itself. Not only that, but they have a pretty consistent line when it comes to lobbying. They continually and vocally call for fewer legal protections at work, less regulation of banks, lower public funding for green policies and reduced benefits. They will not tell anyone where they get the money to do this lobbying from but we can be pretty sure that it is people and corporations that favour these types of policies (or “vested interests” as some would call them) that fund them.

It might seem strange to some of you to read an article by a lobby group funded by a group of people who presumably have a fair bit in common, calling for the government to ignore lobby groups that are funded by people with a fair bit in common…

What are we to make of this?

Actually what the Institute of Economic Affairs really wants is for the government to stop listening to lobby groups that disagree with the Institute. They signal out AgeUK for protecting pensioners and the National Trust for protecting our historical buildings. Truly these are heinous crimes and I am sure everyone in AgeUK should feel very ashamed of themselves for daring to advocate for older people.

Beneath all this transparently self-serving nonsense there is a serious lesson here. There has been much internal discussion within the Labour Party about the extent to which local branches should expend their efforts on community organizing or more traditional voter identification. Those who favour the community organizer model could learn a lot by doing exactly the opposite of what Ruth Porter advises (actually this is probably also a good guide for life in general).

Rather than needing fewer and weaker groups, we need more and stronger movements fighting for a better life for the people we seek to represent.

The government would not have been able to disproportionately target cuts at young people and those on low and middle incomes if these people had stronger, better organized groups representing and amplify their voices.

Ruth Porter is right when she says that older people’s benefits have been better protected from cuts than others because of the power of their organizations. But we should not be sad about this fact, we should celebrate it and translate it into action to build the power of young people and workers on low and middle incomes.

There is an excellent book by two American political scientists on the dangers of “Winner Takes It All” politics that warns of the dangers inherent in a system where there are no effective checks on the lobbying power of the wealthiest Americans. The only practical way to counter this trend is to develop groups made up of people on middle or low incomes (historically Trade Unions) to act as a check and prevent government policy becoming captured by a very few interest groups.

Or to put it in language that the Institute of Economic Affairs might understand; we must ensure that there is maximum competition in the ideas market.


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