Matthew Parris's piece in the Times has become notorious. However, he is raising an important point about political psychology which demands more attention than it gets.
I am not arguing that we should be careless of the needs of struggling people and places such as Clacton. But I am arguing - if I am honest - that we should be careless of their opinions.
This poses the old question: should politicians serve people's preferences or interests?
Parris is following a long bipartisan tradition which answers: the latter. This is what Edmund Burke meant when he said that MPs should ignore the "hasty opinion" of their constituents, and it's what various leftists have had in mind when they've worried about false consciousness.
- Projection bias (pdf) means that we fail to foresee our future tastes. We fail to see that we'll adapt to some things (such as new consumer goods or to stock market losses) but not to others, such as commuting.
- Hyperbolic discounting means that we might never get round to things that are good for us, such as starting a pension plan or going on a diet.
- Anchoring effects and just world illusion cause people to accept inequalities.
- People often violate the most basic requirements of rational preferences, such as transitivity.
Given this evidence, Parris's position seems quite reasonable. I've argued for it myself in the context of immigration. And many critics of Parris would surely say we should ignore the preferences of (say) climate change deniers or homophobes. And surely every decent parent knows that we can advance sometimes interests by ignoring their preferences.
So, what's the problem?
Simple. History. In practice, ignoring people's preferences has often meant ignoring and violating even their most basic interests. Benevolent despots have been much more discussed than observed.
There is, however, a solution here. It's perfectly possible to have an institutional framework which protects interests whilst ignoring some preferences. Human rights exist precisely to ensure that our basic interests are protected - not least from others irrational or vicious preferences.
However, I suspect the disquiet about Parris's article is founded in the fear that these rights aren't extensive enough to ensure that the interests of "struggling people" are sufficiently protected.
There is a solution here - welfare rights. Just as a right to liberty protects us from the mob, so a right to welfare would protect the worst off from those who would go further than Parris in being heedless of them. The answer to many political problems is - a citizens' basic income.