Hazards of populist politics
FROM FAR AND NEAR - Ruben Almendras (The Freeman) - April 17, 2018 - 12:00am

Populist politics or populism has many definitions and variations because over the years it has evolved from the different practices of many politicians and leaders in many countries. Peron of Argentina, Chavez and Maduro of Venezuela, Erdogan of Turkey, and our own Duterte are practicing some form of populism. For that matter, Trump, Putin, and Xi Jing Ping are practicing populist politics in their countries because populism is a program that champions the aspirations of the common people and accedes to popular demand. In the extreme, it opposes large businesses and financial interests and caters to the whims of the working class in order to consolidate its power. It is hostile to established institutions and political parties, including socialists and communists. All governments have and should have populist dimensions because it has to serve the people. It is the degree and substance of the populist components that matters, because not all populist programs are economically desirable and affordable. In its extreme implementation, it will be counterproductive and damaging to the government and the nation.

The rise and fall of populism relates to the economic conditions of the country and the business cycle. Rising prosperity coupled with uneven wealth distribution is a major factor. The faster economic growth of communist countries that have become capitalist communists is also another factor as it juxtaposed egalitarian communism with the rising income of the common people. Then, in recent years the advances of the information and communication technologies that put information at almost everyone's fingertips, including how better off their neighbors are, have pushed up everyone's expectations. They have become impatient with liberal democracy which takes a long time to trickle the prosperity to the masses.

A major hazard of populism is the enhanced rising expectations of the people which can never be satisfied by any government. There is a limit to the public and private resources that are available for distribution. Economic realities, budget constraints, logistical problems, and management limitations make it impossible to satisfy all the needs of the people. Economics is defined as the study, science, and art of the efficient use and distribution of "scarce/limited" resources, so there will never be enough for everyone. The Middle Eastern and Latin American oil-producing countries are realizing this and acceding to populist demands means higher inflation and massive government debt.

Another downside to populism is the cultural and behavioral effects on the people. It promotes a culture of dependency and mendicancy that stifles work ethic and innovation. It discourages technocracy among the citizens and makes the country dependent on foreign expatriates for expertise in many fields. Then, there is the consequential uncoordinated/unintegrated government policies due to the shifting priorities in response to popular expectations. Populism blurs and negates the self-regulating mechanism of market forces and the law of demand and supply, that shortages and administrative gridlock eventually follows. Private sector investments will dry up and the economy will stagnate and eventually go on a recession.

What is the future of populism? While populism may start in a democratic environment, the tendency of populist leaders is to overstay in power making it drift to an authoritarian government. Then there will be restrictions on freedom, injustices, and a potential for political upheaval. Governance and leadership is always a balancing act, more so in politics. History is replete with many examples world leaders never seem to learn. The degree of tilt to one side or the other will mean the success and failure of the leader. Populist politics is the same. Or maybe this is just part of the natural cycle of the world and God's will.


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