"Why do the British dislike the free market?" asks John Rentoul, pointing to public support for nationalization and opposition (pdf) to privatization: he might have added support for rent and price (pdf) controls too.
For me, this raises three paradoxes.
Paradox one is that, as John says, "left-wing" policies are popular but left-wing parties are not.
One reason for this, at least in May's general election, is that as Jon Cruddas has said the voters disliked Labour's opposition to austerity.
There is, though, no contradiction between voters being "left-wing" on nationalization and price controls but "right-wing" on austerity.
The key word here is "control". People support nationalization and price controls for the same reason they support immigration controls; they want to feel that the government is in control. They under-estimate the extent to which spontaneous order or emergent processes produce benign outcomes without state direction*. The invisible hand is well-named: people can't see it.
I suspect that support for austerity arises from this same urge for control. People want to believe that the government is in control of its finances. They don't like the idea that government borrowing is the uncontrolled (and often benign) outcome of private sector choices to save or borrow.
Which brings me to a second paradox. Although voters want the government to expand its sphere of control, they don't want to expand their own control. There is pitifully little demand at the political level for greater worker control of firms.
I say this is a paradox because of a simple principle: control should be exercised by those who know the most and who have the most skin in the game. Many workers - those with job-specific human capital - have a lot to lose if their firm is badly managed and have the dispersed fragmentary knowledge to improve management. But the same isn't true for politicians: for example, George Osborne doesn't know better than the market or Low Pay Commission what is the right level for the minimum wage, and it's no great loss to him if he gets it wrong. We'd therefore expect to see more political demand for worker control than state control. But we don't. Which brings me to...
Paradox three. Although there's no political demand for worker control, many people vote for it with their own feet. Since current records began in 1984 the numbers of self-employed have risen by 67.5% to over 4.5m - an increase from 11.1% to 14.5% of all those in work.
Rick is of course right to point out that many of these are making little money in inefficient and doomed businesses, and many have been compelled into self-employment by a lack of decent alternative. But I suspect that people are also choosing self-employment even if it is insecure and badly paid because they want more control over their lives - or at least the feeling of control - than they can get from hierarchical employment. Research by Bruno Frey and colleagues has found that the self-employed are "substantially more satisfied with their work than employed persons" in many countries because they value autonomy in itself.
All this has an important implication. The phrases "left" and "right" are horribly misleading. The issue is: are uncontrolled emergent processes benevolent or not? Very many voters think not - which explains the otherwise paradoxical fact that they support "left-wing" price controls and "right-wing" austerity.
This in turn poses big political questions: how can we ensure that emergent processes are only reined in when they are harmful? Can we persuade voters of the virtues of spontaneous order without sounding like capitalist shills? Are there efficient means of satisfying the demand for control? These questions, rather than waffle about left and right, deserve more attention.
* Granted, capitalism's apologists sometimes overstate this point.