Put a number on it, conservatives

Where are the right-wing proposals for GDP alternatives?

Detail from Quinten Massys’s “The Tax Collectors”, with thanks to the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art

Here are two facts that everyone who’s interested in political economy knows:

1. GDP as a measure of national prosperity is flawed.

2. Critiquing GDP is a left-wing talking point. If you come across someone on the Today Programme or Twitter promoting an alternative to GDP, you can more or less guarantee they are on the left or centre-left in political terms.

There is plenty written on whether GDP is any good. This post is an invitation to reflect on the second fact: and in particular, how very strange it is that most attempts to replace GDP have come from the left.

It may seem obvious that disliking GDP is a left-leaning position. After all, the Ur-text of GDP-scepticism (including the claim that it “measures everything… except that which makes life worthwhile”) is a speech by Bobby Kennedy in 1968, the high-water mark of the Counterculture. The flaws in GDP that are most often talked about — that it does not reflect inequality, environmental degradation, health, or the fact that an extra dollar does a lot more good to a beggar than to a billionaire — are all things that people on the left are especially concerned about. Fetishing GDP is something that “neoliberals” do, and neoliberals are right-wing.

But wait a minute. Not all right-wingers are neoliberals; indeed, most aren’t. There is a strong tradition on the Right of thinking that money and the economy aren’t everything. A core message of the “communitarian” or “post-liberal” right is that the narrow pursuit of economic growth is undermining community, tradition, and making people rootless and unhappy. Conservatives may not talk much about inequality or carbon emissions, but there are other things they often care about that aren’t reflected in GDP: strong national defence*; crime; traditional values; sovereignty.

This is also reflected in practical politics. If we look at who has been most successful in recent years in trading off GDP growth against other values, it’s not the Left — it’s the Right. Donald Trump’s migration and trade policies sacrificed GDP to achieve other things his voters thought were more important. The form of Brexit deal the UK has achieved is widely thought to involve a chunky reduction in GDP growth, but its advocates argue that it delivers “sovereignty”, which to state the obvious is not something measured in GDP**.

What’s curious is that despite the political success of right-wingers who want to prioritise other things over economic growth, they haven’t done much in the way of coming up with ways to measure it.

The closest thing I can think of to a right-wing GDP alternative is the Legatum Prosperity Index. Even that scarcely counts: Legatum is quite a right-wing organisation, but its Prosperity Index is on the neutral end of its output, and doesn’t include most of the non-GDP values that some right-wingers like.

So here’s my challenge is to post-liberals, national conservatives and communitarians: put a number on it. Come up with an alternative metric to GDP that reflects conservative values, whatever you define those as being. There are a few reasons I think this would be an interesting project.

1. It offers a way of assessing the performance of conservative policies. (If a government says “GDP growth fell, but we’ve achieved X, Y and Z which are more important”, it’s close to unfalsifiable. Creating an index is at least an attempt to make these outcomes commensurate, so you can see the trade-off in the round.)

2. It might show some interesting things over time. (Ben Southwood suggested to me that performance in the 1960s and 1970s might look worse, and performance in the 1990s better, if you adjust for the kind of “social decline” factors some conservatives care about)

3. It forces people to be more explicit about their goals. Just talking about what you’d put in an index can be a useful process, since it forces you to make a list of what you think is good, and to ask whether it is measurable. (Scott Alexander’s Anti-Reactonary FAQ is an example of how this kind of debate can be productive.)

4. By measuring these things, it makes it harder to engage in general fact-free miserabilism. Some of my conservative friends believe that the world of fifty years ago is a lot better than the world today; it’d be interesting to see an empirical case for this, given the risk that these things are just the product of rosy retrospection or declinism.

* It is true that, as RFK said, defence spending is included in GDP — but it’s not prioritised over other forms of output. A country with no defences at all could still enjoy a high GDP, but some conservatives would think this was a bad outcome. It was a right-winger who said “guns will make us powerful, but butter will only make us fat”. And of course when people on the right call for a reintroduction of national service, they are usually implying that spending time in the army has some value independent of what the conscripts actually do.

** Some conservatives think that sovereignty will increase GDP in the long run, and would argue that even No Deal Brexit is justified on mainstream economic grounds. But I think it’s pretty clear that some on the Right in the UK think it is worth sacrificing some GDP growth for the sovereignty increases they believe Brexit brings.

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