Why right-wing politicians need to be kind

When I think of right wing politicians, I don’t think of kind people. From Norman Tebbit (on yer bike) to Mrs Thatcher (there’s no such thing as society) to the populist modern types such as Trump and Orban, these appear to be unkind people.

They might be kind in their own circles – right wing people don’t lack empathy, just generally their circle of empathy or circle of compassion tends to be narrow. But they are not kind in the political arena or in the matter of policy. The closest they get to caring is the philosophy of “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind” or “tough love” or “on yer bike” – meaning: “We care, but it’s up to you to sort your life out; if we are kind towards you, we risk being indulgent, and if we are indulgent you will be spoiled and become dependent on the state’s largesse, resulting in economic calamity.”

Some politicians are not only unkind, but they deliberately stoke up unkindness. Such is Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister who deliberately creates a mood of xenophobia in Hungary; or Trump with his anti-muslim line.

From the point of view of fiscal conservatism this does not make sense.

It is well established that excessive inequality in a society harm the society and can harm the economy. At extremes, history shows that inequality can lead to societal breakdown, rebellion and revolution which is bad for members of the elite. You can defer this outcome by making the people drunk, stupid or unhealthy or otherwise unfit to rebel, but this also risks harming the economy and thereby destroying the wealth of the elite.

At the same time it is clear that increasing inequality is a natural result of our capitalist system. If you are a bit quicker, more aggressive, wily, canny or just lucky, you will wriggle to the top of the pile and accumulate wealth at a great rate than those who are less so. Inequality will inevitably grow exponentially. “Trickle-down” doesn’t work. This is partly because the weak will always be in the thrall of the cunning – even with increased wealth the weak make themselves poor again by bingeing their wealth on bad food and bad telly; and partly because even if the weak get richer, it is not their absolute wealth which counts in the matter of inequality but their relative wealth. While they made an extra £500 a month, the guys at the top made an extra £50,000 a month.

It follows that one of the greatest political questions is how to redistribute wealth so as to avoid catastrophic or harmful inequality. Over history politicians, economists and religious leaders have tried out various ways of redistributing wealth. Usually wealth redistribution leaves at least one side unhappy: people don’t like inflation, taxes or forced sequestration of assets. In fact, this is a pillar of right-wing politics: forcible redistribution of wealth by the government is seen as a bad thing by right-wing people.

Today our use of the term right-wing is rather mixed up and politicians called right-wing often are not traditionally right wing. For example, Orban’s politicis are not so right-wing but rather a mixture of socialist (government control of the economy) and nationalist (whipping up patriotism). Nonetheless, fiscally he is right-wing: Hungary aims to be one of the lowest tax regimes in Europe. And Trump’s promise is for lower taxes, too.

This is the strange thing: if redistribution is needed to avoid bad things happening to society, but you reject forcible redistribution, if implies you would favour voluntary redistribution.

Voluntary redistribution can happen in two ways. One way is for everyone to become similarly clever and entrepreneurial so that no one enterprise can ever generate a supernormal return on its investment. In this way everyone would be able to compete equally in the market and so no-one would be particularly wealthier than anyone else. To achieve this would require a stupendous amount of time and money being committed to education; an order of magnitude greater than any educational programme before: since people’s abilities vary in different areas, to decrease intellectual and physical competitive advantage to the point that economic inequality is significantly reduced, would be a substantial challenge.

The second form of voluntary redistribution is giving. Unlike paying taxes, giving can be an enjoyable thing. (It does not need to be, mind you, because you might give out of a sense of duty or sense of doing what is right.) Still, when people give, they often discover that they enjoy it. They like the sense of helping someone get on better in life, of making a difference, of solving a problem and of reducing suffering.

Religion is a context for voluntary giving. In the olden days when religions were stronger, the church played an important role in wealth redistribution. It still does, but not as much as needed to avoid undesirable levels of inequality.

Therefore a fiscally right-wing politician, seeking to reduce taxes and loathe to regulate, needs to look for ways to encourage voluntary redistribution: policy should be looking for ways to make up the shortfall in charitable giving, volunteering and the collection plate.

This is where kindness comes in. If people are kind and compassionate, they are more likely to give voluntarily. Therefore if makes sense for fiscally right wing politicians to encourage people to be kind and compassionate. Their kindness takes away all sorts of burdens that socialists might expect the state to bear: caring for the elderly and the sick, giving shelter to the poor and homeless; extend that kindness to helping young people learn life skills, giving those with tough lives confidence and wherewithal to overcome their troubles; to clearing litter, to planting trees and saving habitats, to eating less meat… A kind society would be transformational, with greater equality and a far smaller burden on the state. Thus a fiscally right-wing government would be able to lower taxes.

So right-wing politicians have got it all wrong. The only way to keep society from unravelling and to conserve your position, while maintaining fiscal probity, is to be kind. If they are kind, if the influential economic elite is kind, that will encourage the rest of society to be kind: since the rest of society always mimics the behaviour of the influential economic elite.

There are also plenty of left-wing politicians do well in the unkindness stakes: you wouldn’t have wanted Stalin running the old-people’s home where your mum is. But left-wing politicians don’t need to be kind because they believe in a big state and the state can do what it wants, nice or not. Right-wing politicians need kindness in order to achieve low taxes.

Kindness is the least painful form of resource redistribution so it should be number one on the list of right-wing people who want to keep society from unravelling.

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2 Responses to Why right-wing politicians need to be kind

  1. Robert M. says:

    Thanks James for this insightful article.

    > Nonetheless, fiscally [Hungary's prime minister] is right-wing: Hungary aims to be one of the lowest tax regimes in Europe.

    I believe that even with the planned tax cuts, the country will tail other countries in the region, as overall taxation is still one of the highest in the EU. Or if you specifically mean corporate taxation, lowering that doesn’t quite generalise to the economic right-wingedness as described here – in part because divvying up taxation to labour vs corporate vs consumption taxes are more to do with tax law evolution, perception and foreign trade policy than with basic economics (they mostly just shift the numbers). Also, Hungary’s 27% VAT is the highest in the EU.

    > This is where kindness comes in. If people are kind and compassionate, they are more likely to give voluntarily.

    There’s pretense and insidiousness to a certain type of kindness, exercised by left-wing politicians, as happened in Europe and Hungary in particular. The Socialist governments between 2002-2008 appeared ‘kind’ in some sense; they introduced pensions for imaginary 13th and 14th months; they encouraged that people of modest means and risk awareness take on large car, consumer and home loans; they sustained an apparently generous but in reality, very unjust and uneven social net, a result of which was that in Hungary, one million fewer people worked compared to the Chech Republic of near identical population, while a good fraction of the pensions were way above what an average worker could make.

    The short-term apparent ‘kindness’ exercised by left wing politicians was also responsible for the jump of public debt from 52 to 84% of the GDP under just two Socialist terms; and it was also responsible for the de facto default of the country that was only averted by a mega-loan by the IMF and the EU; it was also responsible for the landslide right-wing victory and the much criticized actions that came after, as well as continued vulnerability during the Greek crisis.

    The ‘kind’, but ultimately devastating Socialist economic policies during 2002-2008 caused not just a surge in public debt but also shook indebted households, and the GDP shrank by 7% in one year. In contrast, fiscally prudent Poland continued its growth in the same year and ever since.

    To further muddy the issue of left vs right, in line with what you point out as socialist steps by right-wing Orban, indeed they held banks responsible for their ruinous lending practices; introduced Robin Hood taxes on the financial sector and Tesco-like faceless retail chains that employ relatively few locals, sell lots of transported import goods and moved profits elsewhere; increased consumption taxes on petrol/tobacco/drinks but lowered utility costs; there’s attention on purchase power of pensions; reduced unemployment benefits but funded public works, steering people to work; converted risky CHF loans to HUF ones; provide grants and underwritten mortgages for young families; etc. so on balance, applying your standards, I’d argue that former left-wing governments were less attentive to the needy and less differentiating when they needed to raise taxes.

    Left-wing governments in Hungary and some other places in Europe are symbionts with big capital and pay mere lip service to equal opportunity, cohesion, reduction of inequality while indebting future generations as they avoid offending their corporate sponsors with taxes or regulation. Left wing politicians are also more likely to indebt defenseless children, most not even born yet, a major crime in my book.

    Meanwhile, some right-wing politicians like Orban, for all the populist and horrible rhetoric they engage in, seem to strive to economically stabilise the country and households, bring down inflation and differentiate taxation etc. according to values formerly attributed to socialistic (kind) thinking.

    Price and wage stability goes longer toward kindness and equal opportunity than the irresponsible Socialist handouts that merely served their re-election (as admitted by the Ôszöd speech), but otherwise showed no grasp on basic socio-economic concepts – not to mention their pro-cyclic risk taking.
    Right-wing politicians often sound harsh and rude, but can you imagine Socialist Gyurcsány negotiate as effectively with Brussels or various lobbies as Orban can? Looking and acting like a nice, docile person from a very small country would only amplify powerlessness in an EU that spends very little on Eastern European cohesion, a mere fraction of the German reunification costs.

    Right-wingers also generally promote values represented by the Church, e.g. family and supporting each other in the family. Yes much of it sound empty words and may be opportunistic rhetoric but has meaning for at least some people, helping them become kind. Also it shows that the talk part is the easy part when it comes to actual kindness.

    My attempt at altering the notion that Socialists = kind and right wing = less kind is not an endorsement of related or unrelated practices of inciting hatred or anything that destroys social fabric over the short term or the long term; also isn’t a full endorsement of their general policies on education, political alliances etc. – just pointing out that sometimes right-wing policies can achieve more of the stated goals of Socialists, and in the reverse, left-wing politicians seem to say the right things but often cause cruel socioeconomic upheaval, often involving even the most defenceless future generations (growing public debt).

    I agree that right-wing politicians’ acts should be kind and encourage kindness. Unfortunately, the common left-wing practice of growing a big, unbalanced state often leads to one of the worst kinds of unkind – leaving behind not value, stability and prosperity but mountains of debt.

  2. Tamas says:

    Several points taken. At the same time, look at the top 1% (+ their share in total wealth) and the ratio of those who are there because of their (own) performance. Or otherwise, the chances of people with a less lucky social background even if they are talented and diligent. There are reasons why people (esp. middle class, in the developed world) revolt against ‘globalisation’. Another question is, what is government intervention. For instance, is forcing corporations making billions of USD profits to pay taxes like ordinary companies governmental intrusion into the ‘market economy’, or creating these (unequal) opportunities for a selected few has been that.

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