The empty quadrant
Britain’s election demonstrated our politics is old and tired, a collection of compromised choices that focused on a world we used to live in, not the one we will be living in.
I want to reframe the discussion on a deeper set of questions: the fundamental principles that guide political choice.
The main parties left so much to be desired. A grip of economics but a hard heart on liberties and the worst off. Or a weak understanding of economics and wealth creation but reasonable inclinations to help the disadvantaged.
There is a gap in the market, waiting to be filled.
Can you spot the gap?
The gap is the empty quadrant, the purple corner in the bottom right. This matrix comes from the Political Compass. It describes the approximate dimensions of political choice. What is your approach to organising the economy? What is your approach to social issues? I encourage you to take the quiz yourself. (It is a fun, rough proxy.)
It’s simple: the horizontal access considers the economy. To the right is a more open, decentralised, entrepreneurial set of principles. To the left a more closed, centralised set of principles.
The vertical access considers social issues, including distribution. To the right more liberal, in the classic sense: support individual choice, don’t allow the state to snoop, interfere or prescribe more than is possible. To the left: more controlled, the state needs to control people (from their worst impulses) or save them (from the effects of the same).
Here is the problem with most politics, most of the time. It’s a two-by-two, four quadrants. Britain’s current political parties pepper themselves on the grid. The top left quadrant (heavily socialist, regressive on growth) just doesn’t work in the post-industrial, globalised society. This quadrant had a role 100 years ago, no more.
Yet the bottom right quadrant remains empty.
In that quadrant you have an open, decentralised approach to the economy: incentives work, markets generally clear prices, tax-takes trend downwards, entrepreneurship not state planning generally, but not always, solves problems.
You also have an open, liberal approach to social issues: the disadvantaged need support, gay marriage is fine, religion is a personal belief that doesn’t merit state protection, the state has obligations to its citizens (& so cannot have unlimited power to snoop, spy, detain), mores change.
Applying this to British parties:
- The Conservatives believe that markets clear, prices are useful and decentralisation works. But equally they think the socio-political realm needs the steady hand of the government to keep it hygienic. And they have a mean streak when it comes to the worst off.
- Labour has a thoroughly confused understanding of basic microeconomic principles. But the some of the right stuff elsewhere. In any case, a key part of Labour’s support come from fossil-fuel towns — a narrative which makes much less sense in today’s fossil-fearful world.
- The Liberal Democrats, who should occupy the empty quarter are rudderless and may have soiled their brand. Even before they had, they didn’t seem to understand how our networked, digital world was changing (and how changing itself was changing).
The political quadrant shows where the main parties stand. Yet the parties studiously avoid occupying the bottom right corner.
That corner quadrant is progressive, scientific, equal & entrepreneurial
In that bottom right quadrant:
- Economics and markets as a method for allocating resources broadly work. (Prices do encapsulate information, markets do clear, and people respond to incentives.)
- Entrepreneurs through innovation can solve pressing market problems, even gnarly externality-laden ones like energy supply, better than incumbent interests or state-planning.
- There are market failures where governments need to act because the private sector will not or cannot yet. Examples include funding basic research or stimulating nascent markets (through tax incentives, or other things).
- That fairness and justice are a good which we benefit from individually and collectively and so need to be encouraged.
- Genders are equal. Races are equal. Opportunity matters.
- The least advantaged in society and those who struggle to adapt to change need support.
- Openness, movement, exchange and mixing is good because it builds trust and empathy amongst people. Those who trade together do not kill each other.
Dealing with the threats
The world is changing increasingly rapidly and generally for the better (Tesla power packs and energy innovations that might end our reliance of fossil fuels, declining murder rates and so on) but there are specific problems that are clear and present chief amongst them:
- climate change : new energy technologies could transform our climate use so how do we encourage them. How do we prevent the incumbent petro-industries from slowing the shift?
- the thrashing death of incumbent industries: many (most?) large industries are past their sell-by date yet wield tremendous economic and political power (mostly the petro-chemical industries and the auto industry). They face an existential threat. How do you deal with them?
- rising inequality : power-law economics seem to abide in their neo-Schumpeterian networked economy. Inequality is a bad, how do you address it, in a meaningful way?
- the coming wave of mass unemployment: the rise of robots will bring swathes of employment to an end. Unemployed people struggle to lead safe, worry-free lives. Unemployed men are disproportionately criminal.
How do you fill the empty quarter?
- Economics: markets work, they clear prices. Entrepreneurs solve problems. Industries die. Trade helps almost everything. Talent must travel.
- Social: People are equal but different. Prejudice against women needs to end, pdq. We need to the freedom to pursue our lives. Gays can marry. Your pleasure is my perversion (and vice versa). People deserve opportunity. We’re a better species for protecting the least well-off. We’re probably getting most of this wrong, so let’s behave like we are. Science works.
- Justice and fairness: For our society to work, and not turn into a Neill Blomkamp movie, we need to protect the worst off and the disadvantaged. The only people who can pay for that are the better off. On justice and fairness, we can do worse than look to Confucius and John Rawls.
This obviously needs more thinking. But here are six policies that might make sense:
- A universal basic income for all: We are rich enough to afford it so simply provide a universal basic income for everyone. A basic income guarantee will ease the social crises as we ride the coming wave of necessary industrial change.
- Simplify: When Steve Jobs took over Apple he simplified the company to 4 products (on a 2-by-2) and even shut down profitable product lines because they made the company too complex. Simplify. A universal basic income eliminates they need for a complex benefits system. A tax system can also be simpler and more straight forward, eliminating friction-arbitrageurs (tax lawyers) & reducing collection costs.
- Protect innovation: Protect innovation because that is what solves problems. Incumbents don’t innovate, they encumber. And incumbents nature is to protect their position and they will do so in the face of clear thinking, science or the common good. Governments are crucially for fostering innovation.
- Embracing change by continuously educating: the time compression driven by technology and networked communications is ineluctable. Citizens need to learn the whole time—both new skills and the meta-skill of adapting to change. Governments have often done well in helping the provision of education as a universal good.
- Understand the fractal dimensions of the new networked society: Government needs to co-exist and support the company, platform and self-organising movement.
- Intervene: The politics that occupies the empty quarter is not non-interventionist. It isn’t some weird Thielian strict libertarianism where all intervention is bad. A sense of the collective is important in heterogenous, networked societies.
Making it happen
The empty quarter is an opportunity. An underserved market. A market enabled by a mobile-first, digital, connected, entrepreneurial, post-mass-market voter.
It can’t be served by parties with historical baggage. It needs to start afresh.
It needs to start with a vision. It needs to take a disciplined, consistent view on what it stands for.
It needs to base its policies on scientific-method, hypotheses testing and measurement.
It needs to recognise that change is coming and coming fast. That change will create huge opportunities but come at social costs (and those social costs need to be managed).
It needs to be hyper-progressive on science, gender, innovation, civil liberties; and wary of nationalism, racism and extremism.
It needs to recognise many things we were used to (large companies and labour unions) are being replaced quickly by entrepreneurs, platforms, flexible capital, freelancers and this economy will need new principles.
It also needs a new logo.
And a name.