Deficit fetishism and the art of political bullshit: Part I

Attempts to refute bullshit by appeals to the ‘facts’ are likely to be unsuccessful as argumentative strategies

Jonathan Hopkin and Ben RosamondDebates about economic policy in the recent UK General Election campaign were dominated by one particular claim: that the last Labour government, which left office in 2010, was wholly responsible for the deficit.  This claim became a central plank of the Conservative Party’s campaign and Labour’s inability to manufacture a credible counter-claim could explain why the Tories were returned with a modest majority.

According to this narrative, Labour in office overspent, was profligate with the public finances and ‘maxed out’ the national credit card.  Thus, runs the story, when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government took office in 2010, it was left with a ruinous gap between public expenditure and government revenues.  The outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury even left a note to his successors to point out that there was no money left!  Furthermore, Labour’s fiscal recklessness was a proximate cause of the financial crash that took hold from 2008.  Faced with such an irresponsible spending spree, it concludes, the Coalition was left with no alternative but to restore prudence to the public finances – hence austerity.

There is much to be said about this story and how it played out during the election campaign, but for now two observations will suffice.  First, the story is largely nonsense.  Second, despite this, it is not only widely believed and internalised by crucial parts of the electorate, but has also proved almost impossible to refute in the context of the cut-and-thrust of everyday political discourse.

The puzzle, simply stated, is this: if a claim is incorrect, then why do so many people come to believe it?  Moreover, why is the claim so hard to correct?  This is a familiar paradox, and it’s not confined to public understanding of the deficit and its origins. For example, there are well-established discrepancies between public perceptions of immigration levels in the UK and the statistical realities.  The same is true of exaggerated public perceptions about levels of benefit fraud, as perpetrated by the mythical ‘welfare scrounger’.  Indeed there is a more general and longer-standing conundrum of how ‘bad’, ‘false’ or ‘discredited’ ideas survive and often thrive in the policy process, despite an apparent surfeit of expertise and fact-checking.

The answer, we suggest, is that such claims are better thought of as ‘bullshit’, rather than as outright falsehoods.  The term is provocative, but we use it here in the specific sense developed by the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt.  In his short – but very rich – book on the subject, Frankfurt develops the crucial distinction between bullshitting and lying.  The latter is a form of utterance that pays heed to the truth.  To speak a lie is knowingly to pronounce a falsehood.  To bullshit, on the other hand, is to practise a type of speech act that is not triangulated in relation to the truth and proceeds without effective concern for the veracity of the claim in question. As Frankfurt puts it:

Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus.  It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth.  This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values (p. 51).

The bullshitter, by contrast, does not submit to the court of truth.  It follows, we suggest, that attempting to refute bullshit through a simple appeal to the ‘facts’ is likely to be unsuccessful as an argumentative strategy.

So, if the claim that Labour’s fiscal recklessness in office caused both the financial crisis and the deficit is understood as bullshit rather than a lie, then a straightforward attempt to fact-check the claim and provide necessary correctives could never have done the job for the party leadership in the election campaign.  Indeed, one notable post-mortem on Ed Miliband’s period of leadership suggests that the party’s failure to put right Conservative claims about its economic record in government was a matter of poor tactical acumen, fuelled by internal disagreement.  During the campaign itself, sympathetic voices were berating Miliband and colleagues for their timidity in making the key arguments needed to put the matter to rest.  Alan Johnson, the former Shadow Chancellor, writing on the day after the election, openly wondered why Labour had not developed an ‘effective riposte’ to Conservative ‘distortions’ about its economic record.

It’s actually quite easy to dismiss the standard Conservative claims about Labour and the deficit.  Robert Skidelsky managed to do the job in less than 300 words.  Paul Krugman in the US and Simon Wren-Lewis in the UK have been waging consistent blogging campaigns against austerity for several years, whilst Mark Blyth’s book, Austerity, which argues that austerity is a dangerous but extraordinarily persistent idea, has been widely read and praised.

But, as we have seen, this is not the key point.  Claims about ‘Labour’s recession’ and profligacy in office exhibit the characteristic quality of political bullshit.  This was starkly apparent on the one notable occasion during the election campaign when Miliband actually tried to correct the notion that the previous Labour government had been reckless with the public finances.  During the BBC Question Time special, transmitted live on 30 April, he was asked directly whether he accepted ‘that when Labour was last in power it overspent’.  His response was an attempt to situate the assertion of overspending in relation to the truth.  The audible gasp from the audience that greeted his opening – ‘no, I don’t’ – anticipated what was widely perceived as a PR disaster with his subsequent refusal to admit that the previous Labour government had indeed overspent.

Indeed, it is striking how, even in the space afforded by a contest taking place in the immediate aftermath of the election, more than one of the prospective candidates for the party leadership have already publicly stated that, in their view, the previous Labour government had been fiscally imprudent.  Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham seem to take the view that Labour should simply draw a line under its previous economic record and concede the overspending claim.  That claim may have been toxic in the 2015 campaign, but it will have a half-life.  Throwing the accusation at the party in 2020 will be much less effective.

Perhaps.  But we suggest that this concession misunderstands the character of and the type of work done by political bullshit.  The claim about Labour and the deficit is a spectacularly successful example of the genre.  It should be obvious that not all utterances meeting Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit are likely to secure this kind of traction.  Most, if not nearly all, will not.  One thing to note is that the story of Labour overspending is not new: it was fashioned as the financial crisis was unfolding in late 2008 – in other words, well before the 2010 election.

More importantly, the bullshit about Labour’s overspending has thrived within the contemporary context of ‘deficit fetishism’, wherein the government budget balance has become the key metric to ascertain aggregate economic welfare and from which the policy logic of austerity – and all that it implies – follows.  Despite this blithe disregard for economic reality and the need to understand which policies are likely to lead to improvements in the nation’s economic health, the affected concern of the ‘austerians’ for the government’s solvency has unquestionably proved a powerful political weapon.

In short, large numbers of voters have ‘bought’ the bullshit.  So what makes some particular brands of bullshit more successful than others?  This will be the subject of a subsequent post.