The Political Quarterly, July 2020
Live press conferences about the coronavirus pandemic have proved remarkably popular in many countries. To fans of these spectacles, two character types have become familiar. First, there is the populist leader, personified by Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Victor Orban among others. Their performances have hit many of the same notes that they did before the pandemic: denunciations of elites and foreigners, interspersed with tributes to common people and their common sense remedies. However a second type of character is equally prominent on pandemic press conference stages: the public health expert, replete with academic credentials, speaking the language of evidence-based policy.
These two characters sometimes engage in entertaining live quarrels, which contributes greatly to the appeal of this new daytime TV genre. However they are also avatars for two ideologies, whose struggle has characterized politics in many parts of the world since roughly 2015. The first of these ideologies – populism – is a recurrent threat to good government within democracies. Like a virus, it persists from generation to generation, periodically mutating into a deadly outbreak.
The public health official represents a different ideology, one which is diametrically opposed to populism. Welfare-consequentialism holds that governments should always implement the policies that can rationally be expected to make individuals’ lives go best for them. Welfare-consequentialist government seeks progress through evidence-based policymaking. This article adopts the ancient metaphor of the body politic. I argue that, throughout the organism, welfare-consequentialism offers a vaccine against populism.
Populism is, among other things, an ideology: a coherent belief system including both abstract conceptualizations and a wide range of specific positions. In Cas Mudde’s influential definition, this ideology asserts that “the pure people” and the “corrupt elite” constitute two “homogeneous and antagonistic camps” within society. It further demands that public policy be “an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”
Welfare-consequentialism is in the opposite corner. Welfare means how well an individual’s life goes for him or her. Welfare can be measured subjectively (based on the responses people give to questions about their own lives), or objectively (based on other facts about them, such as lifespan or income). Consequentialism is the idea that the goodness of any act is a function of the goodness of its expected outcomes. Putting these two ideas together, welfare-consequentialist government seeks to predict the welfare effects of policy options on individuals, and choose the policies that are rationally expected to maximize aggregate welfare.
The utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill was the first well-known version of welfare-consequentialism in the Western canon. Everybody counts for one in utilitarianism, and the simple sum of expected welfare is all that matters. Alternative versions of welfare-consequentialism hold that the distribution of welfare among individuals is also morally relevant to the desirability of an outcome.
Formal welfare-consequentialist analysis has footholds in some public policy niches. Cost effectiveness analysis is used by the National Institute for Health Care and Excellence (NICE) to rank medical therapies according to their expected consequences for the welfare of patients. In the United States, federal agencies are required to design regulations so as to maximize expected benefits in dollar terms, net of costs. Economist Richard Layard and his colleagues have led recent efforts to quantify the expected welfare effects of alternative public policies. One major policy payoff of this work was the expansion of UK healthcare spending on mental health interventions. These, according to survey data, are more effective in improving subjective well-being of residents than almost anything else the government might do.
The social welfare function approach developed by Matthew Adler is an exemplary welfare-consequentialist technique. It evaluates policy outcomes in terms of aggregate expected welfare, while mathematically factoring in the uncertainty of outcomes and giving priority to worse-off individuals. This method depends on interpersonal comparisons of welfare – statements that individual X has a quantifiably better life than individual Y, or that individual X would have a quantifiably better life in outcome A than she would in outcome B. Twentieth-century skepticism about interpersonal comparisons of welfare has given way to increasing enthusiasm for policy-ready techniques to quantify individual welfare. The life-evaluation survey, to take one leading example, asks each respondent how satisfied he or she is with their life overall on a scale of 0-10. The average life-evaluation reported by UK residents increased from 7.42 to 7.69 (out of 10) between 2012 and 2019, before falling to 6.91 in April 2020 during the pandemic.
Sustainable, broadly distributed progress, measured through life evaluation or other measures of individual welfare, is the goal of government according to welfare-consequentialism. The ideology holds that all public policy decisions, big and small, can and should be made rationally on the basis of evidence. This normatively bold stance can certainly be leavened by epistemic humility. Consequences can never, of course, be fully predicted. To the extent that they can be predicted, epistemological resources such as tradition and deference to living systems are sometimes more reliable than social or natural science.
Welfare-consequentialism is agnostic on some deeper questions. These include the definition of individual welfare, and whether and how the welfare of non-human individuals should count. Philosophical disagreement on such questions may lead people who agree on welfare-consequentialism to different conclusions on particular policies. However, complete agreement on them is certainly not necessary to generate policy consensus. For example, the welfare-consequentialist argument for rapid decarbonization to avert climate change works with a wide range of philosophical values.
In the Head : Who Government is For
Populism’s opponents underestimate it at their peril. It has succeeded, among other reasons, because it is a coherent system of thought that answers real questions about government. Fortunately welfare-consequentialism offers better answers to the same questions. In this way, it may offer an intellectual vaccine for populism.
The first of these questions is: whose interests should government seek to advance? The populists respond: “the people.” The use of the singular definite article is important. “They speak and act,” as Jan-Werner Müller puts the point, “as if the people were one.” Any apparent differences within “the people” are, from the populist point of view, irrelevant. Under welfare-consequentialism, by contrast, there is no “people;” there are only individuals. Each individual affected by a policy choice is a “distinct locus of value,” and a policy decision must strive to take account of its effect on all of them.
The populist “people” is bounded geographically, and often ethnically. It is, for example, ‘the people of the UK’ or ‘the Serbian people.’ Those who oppose the populist cause, even if they are indubitably members of the geographic or ethnic group, are denounced as “not properly part of the people at all.” “The only important thing is the unification of the people,” in Donald Trump’s cryptic but revealing comment, “because the other people don’t mean anything.”
While populists would confine the state’s attention to a sharply-constrained “people,” welfare-consequentialists since Bentham have tried to push outwards the “circle of concern” — the set of individuals upon whom the welfare effects of policy should be considered. Effective welfare-consequentialist public policy arguments often work by recognizing the welfare impacts of public policies on previously disregarded individuals, including women, unborn individuals, and non-human animals. The inclination of welfare-consequentialism to expand the circle of concern as much as possible is another clear point of contrast with populism.
In the Head : What Government is For
Populism not only holds that there is one people to which the government should attend, but also that there is a “general will” of this people, which public policy should carry out. If the pure people are freed from corrupting influences, they will all agree on what is to be done. Margaret Canovan notes that a typical strategy in populist attacks on incumbents is “to highlight those issues where strongly held popular views have been neglected by decision-makers.”
By contrast, welfare-consequentialism’s normative individualism calls attention to the reality that different individuals have very different life situations and inclinations. Policy therefore almost always has different welfare effects on different people. Analysis of an option means toting up its benefits for those who would gain from it against its costs for those who would lose from it.
Such explicit trade-offs in policy-making are unappealing to many people. If this approach to government is to be democratically viable, work remains to be done in reconciling this aspect of welfare-consequentialism with the complexities of human altruism and fellow-feeling. However government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic may contribute something in this regard. The choice among alternative public health measures clearly necessitates compromises between reducing mortality and morbidity on the one hand, and preserving the economic and social benefits of liberty on the other. More stringent measures maximize the aggregate welfare of the people who are most vulnerable to the virus, while less stringent ones would be in the best interest of the less vulnerable. Quantifications of welfare effects, and interpersonal comparisons, are inescapable in this policy space. One of the pandemic’s legacies might be increased acceptance of explicitly welfare-consequentialist policy-making.
Still, the populists allege a “singular common good,” readily apparent to the people on the basis of common sense alone. Using broad public support as a mark of policy legitimacy encourages populists to endorse the straightforward measures that are most likely to attract such support. The simplicity of populist policy responses to complex problems has been recognized. Populists often simplify policy discourse by focusing attention on the most immediate effects of policy, and disregarding its more remote effects. For example, populist attacks on carbon pricing emphasize immediate pocketbook impacts on the prices of fossil fuels, and deny longer-term and indirect welfare benefits created by mitigating climate change. Populist policies also simplify by disregarding the welfare interests of individuals who are “distant” in one way or another – e.g. foreigners and the unborn.
For welfare-consequentialism, by contrast, evidence rather than public opinion is the test of good policy. In a complex world, the “sense” supporting policy will often be far from “common.” Carbon, for example, is a ubiquitous, natural, and apparently harmless substance. It is also the single gravest threat to human welfare.
Another logical consequence of the “general will” idea is populists’ enthusiasm for direct democracy measures such as referenda. However, this support may also be contingent and strategic. The populist leader, legitimized by an electoral mandate, is often presented as the only person who can identify and voice the general will. If a majority appears to oppose him that fact can be explained away. A memorable example is Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that his loss of the popular vote in the 2016 election was a consequence of voting by illegal aliens and convicts.
Under welfare-consequentialism, even if there were a general will, it would have no inherent moral relevance to policy-making. Nor would the oracular vision of a leader. What is inherently relevant is not what policies individuals want, but rather what policies can rationally be expected to be good for them. This is a factual inquiry, solvable (with more or less certainty) with evidence and reason. For example, under regulatory cost-benefit analysis, the permissible quantity of lead in paint does not depend on the opinions either of voters or of elected officials. Rather, the decisions hinge on what the best available evidence says about the net welfare effects (including health effects and economic effects) of the available policy options. Welfare-consequentialism, in principle, would apply this approach to all public policy decisions.
In the Head : Expertise and Other Epistemologies of Welfare
Attitude towards expertise in government creates a third key contrast between populism and welfare-consequentialism. Populism lumps experts in with the elites who are the antagonists of “the people.” Hostility to elites is central to the leading scholarly definitions of populism, and apparent in populist language. Corrupt insiders are said to have usurped the people’s power. They are said to have made things worse than they were at some vaguely-defined point in the past. The elites targeted by populists can be defined on the basis of socioeconomic class, cultural tastes, or other forms of privilege. However knowledge elites – experts – are also clearly in the crosshairs. (Naturally, experts who directly confront or oppose the populist agenda, such as judges making constitutional decisions, come in for the most hostility.) Populist leaders such as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump often explicitly proclaim their distrust of, or refusal to rely upon, experts. For the populist leader him- or herself, “amateurism and lack of political experience actually become recommendations.”
Again, welfare-consequentialism’s answer to the question could not be more different. The welfare predictions which ground policy decisions must be evidence-based. Given the complexity of the world in which policy intervenes, evidence-based policy-making inevitably relies on experts. Populism’s rejection of these “intellectual elites,” is also, effectively, a rejection of evidence-based policy. The coronavirus pandemic has hopefully helped demonstrate that in public health, as in many other policy areas, we cannot afford the luxury of ignoring the evidence.
That being said, skepticism and humility are imperative. Welfare-consequentialism does not mandate what Hayek called scientism, or faith that all of the right answers can be found in peer-reviewed publications. A policy-maker who exclusively seeks to improve individuals’ welfare must remain cognizant of the cognitive biases and limitations that afflict expert knowledge. Simple pecuniary bias also remains a real threat. Those who purport to offer neutral expertise are not uncommonly in a position to be rewarded by those with a vested interest in policy outcomes.
More broadly, formal knowledge has its limits. Welfare-consequentialism can draw on diverse epistemologies of welfare: ways of knowing what policy will make life go best. The wisdom of the ages embodied in political tradition may sometimes be a legitimate guide, as urged by conservatives like Burke and Hayek. Entrenched human rights and the rule of law may be considered the hard-won fruits of many generations’ learning about how state action affects welfare, to be curtailed only in rare cases and after extensive deliberation.
The wisdom of the crowd revealed through voting can also be instructive. This is especially so given that any policy that the crowd is likely to quickly overturn is unlikely to do much good for anyone. Compared to the alternatives, democracies apparently have a strong record of creating welfare-increasing public policy. In the long run, compromises and reconciliations between democracy and technocracy seem to be most likely to maximize aggregate welfare.
In the Stomach: Lives Going Badly
It is important to rebut populism’s intellectual claims. However, the coherence of these claims is not the primary reason why so many have succumbed to the ideology’s allure. There is an appetite for populism, in the stomach of the body politic. Although anyone can vote populist, recent research has made it clear that people with certain attributes are much more likely than others are to actually do so. Fortunately, successful welfare-consequentialist government can reduce the prevalence of these same attributes.
Evidence is emerging that people with low welfare are more likely to vote populist. In both the 2016 American presidential election and the Brexit referendum, correlations have been found between voters’ life-satisfaction and their willingness to back the populist option. In an American study, life satisfaction was a better predictor of the populist surge at the county level than income, race, age, gender, education level, or perception of the state of the economy. Increasing life-evaluations is the primary goal of Layardian welfare-consequentialism, and these new studies suggest that success would also reduce populist voting.
Pessimism about the future welfare of the voter and their community also drives populist voting. In the Ward et al study cited above there was only one variable that better predicted a county’s Trump surge than its average live-evaluation in 2016: its average life-evaluation after 2016. In other words, the counties where people’s lives were bad, and about to get worse, were populism’s heartland. The characteristic nostalgia of populist messages (e.g. “Make America Great Again”) responds to this belief, by promising to arrest an alleged decline and return to something better.
How life circumstances drive measurable individual welfare is still mysterious in many ways, and government certainly can’t give everyone a great life. However it is within the power of public policy to reduce the prevalence of proven welfare-destroyers (such as ill-health and unemployment), without choking off the power of free markets and free societies to create welfare. Conspicuous policy success in making life better can combat the pessimism that is one of populism’s wellsprings.
A suffering, pessimistic minority can easily swing an electoral outcome, due to the large number of others who fail to vote. Only 26% of Americans who were legally entitled to vote in 2016 cast a ballot for Donald Trump. In order to secure its own long-term electoral durability, welfare-consequentialist government may have to focus special effort on preventing the build-up of disaffected and “left behind” constituencies. A quarter of the population is too many to leave behind, not just because the welfare of each of those people matters, but also because they are sufficiently numerous to push government away from a welfare-increasing path.
In the Stomach : Distrust and Professionalization
Distrust in government also whets the appetite for populism. Belief that the state and its officials are genuinely pursuing the public interest has eroded to a troubling degree. Only 17% of Americans trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time, down from over 70% in the 1960s. The situation is only modestly better elsewhere, with 42% of OECD citizens expressing trust in their respective national governments in 2016.
People who distrust government tend to respond well to populism’s attacks on elites. Measures of distrust have been correlated with populist support in several studies. Even when populist candidates actually take office, they find ways to stoke distrust with regard to other branches of government, or the “deep state.”
Welfare-consequentialism can rebuild trust in government, by augmenting accountability for government actors. If it comes to be widely accepted that government should always do whatever is most likely to make life go best, then the behaviour of policy-makers can be judged against this yardstick. The average voter may never be able to personally assess whether her government’s approach to trade or taxation is more likely than alternative policies to maximize aggregate welfare. However a widely-accepted welfare-consequentialist yardstick would let policy experts outside of government do so in a more trustworthy way.
The professionalization of public policy, on this welfare-consequentialist foundation, offers a way to rebuild trust. Every other modern profession enjoys more trust than politicians do. Doctors lead, being considered trustworthy by 56% of people, and untrustworthy by only 14%. Government ministers are considered trustworthy by 12%, and untrustworthy by 67%.
Professionals, such as the public health officials thrust into the spotlight by COVID-19, apply esoteric knowledge to practical problems in pursuit of agreed-upon goals. Professionals generally enjoy the trust of their clients and patients not because their decisions are directed or even understood by those clients and patients, but rather because the professionals are accountable to others within a knowledge community dedicated to evidence-based decision-making. I cannot personally hold my doctor accountable for the drug he prescribed. Nor can I personally hold an engineer accountable for the design of the bridge upon which I must travel. I cannot personally understand or second-guess their decisions. Nevertheless I do trust them, largely because of accountability mechanisms for them based in the sciences of medicine and engineering. They are required to follow evidence-based best practices, on pain of discipline or expulsion from their respective professions by their peers.
Welfare-consequentialism offers, for public policy, what human health is for medicine or structural integrity is for structural engineering: a goal that everyone can accept. This is what distinguishes it from mere technocracy. Technocracy has a theory of how policy goals should be pursued, but no account of what the overriding goal should be or of how tradeoffs should be made. As Jonathan Wolff argues, formal welfare-consequentialism
provide[s] a means of making decisions rooted in an analysis which can be scrutinised, questioned in public, attacked and defended. Bias and abuse of power can be detected by those scrutinising the calculations. In other words it provides public accountability.
Just as the rise of medical science has made quackery much easier to root out than it was in centuries past, welfare-consequentialism can help root out bad policy. If welfare-consequentialism imports the professional model of evidence-based accountability to the realm of public policy, it will check distrust and therefore check the appetite for populism. It will help give each voter a reasonable basis to trust that the entire political and policy-generation system is pursuing a goal that she accepts.
This section has argued that welfare-consequentialism can help suppress the appetite for populism in the body politic. The point should not be overstated. Some of the things that make people more likely to vote populist, such as desire to have one’s own privileged group retain that privilege, will not be addressed by successful welfare-consequentialist public policy. Nevertheless, the ideology does plausibly suppress much of what makes populism appetizing.
In the Heart: The Progress Narrative
I have argued that welfare-consequentialism can rebut populism’s claims about government, and suppress people’s appetite for populist ballot box options. This, however, is not enough. As Margaret Canovan observes, “the emotional charge implicit in ideological concepts and their capacity to inspire faith and commitment” are an essential source of their power. Like all successful ideologies, the populist virus works not only in people’s heads and stomachs, but also in their hearts. Fortunately, the progress narrative offered by welfare-consequentialism can compete with populism on this emotional level as well.
Populism’s compelling story is woven with the threads of fear, nostalgia, and the promise of revenge. A compelling counter-narrative is necessary, but we have struggled to voice one. As Beppe Severgnini said regarding the Brexit vote:
People voted for nostalgia, for a mythical Britain that wasn’t there anymore, they voted from frustration about immigration—there was a narrative. The only people who spoke with passion about Europe were the enemies of Europe. No one was offering a counter-narrative.
Progress is the theme of welfare-consequentialism’s counter-narrative. It is about the power of human knowledge and collective action to make life better for everyone. It is realistically optimistic. The reality is that, for the past 200 years, life has been getting better, on almost every measure, for the overwhelming majority of the human race. Good government deserves much (not all) of the credit for this progress, and good government will help the progress continue.
People should be aware of how far we have come. The collective will necessary to confront our own gravest challenges is easier to muster with better awareness of how insurmountable problems like smallpox and the shrinking ozone layer once seemed, before they were surmounted. As Steven Pinker suggests, “obliviousness to the scope of human progress” makes people cynical or indifferent to the institutions that foster it, and “turn[s] them toward atavistic alternatives.” Explicitly welfare-consequentialist policy, that genuinely makes things better for people and also shows them that it has done so, could replace the populists’ pessimistic narratives with an equally compelling story of optimism and progress. This ideology will succeed, like others, by “offering a redemptive vision, promising salvation through politics by pointing the way to a better world.”
Covid-19 is not the only major pandemic to challenge the world in recent years. Populism is a virulent ideology that works simultaneously in the head and the stomach and the heart. An equally powerful vaccine is needed, offering similarly widespread effects in the body politic. In the head, welfare-consequentialism rebuts populism’s claims about who government is for and what it should do. In the stomach, the pessimism and distrust that make people crave populism can be satiated by successful welfare-consequentialist government. In the heart, welfare-consequentialism’s sunny narrative of progress can be just as compelling as populism’s dark story.
Liberal democracy is the political ideology most often contrasted to populism, and most often looked to as a champion against it. However the author’s view is that welfare-consequentialism is more powerful in this respect. A better life is a more universally appealing prospect than having the freedom to do certain things, or having the right to vote. Political liberalism and democracy, within bounds, certainly seem to be instrumentally valuable in making life better over the long run. However welfare-consequentialism holds that only welfare itself is inherently valuable as a goal for public policy. It is this idea, and the fruits it can bear, that seem so promising in the face of the populist threat.
 Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist” (2004) 39 Government and Opposition 541.
 E.g. Andrew Clark, Sarah Fleche, Richard Layard, Nattavudh Powdthavee and George Ward, The Origins of Happiness: The Science of Well-Being over the Life Course (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018)
 Matthew D. Adler, Well-being and Fair Distribution : Beyond Cost-Benefit Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) ; Matthew D. Adler, Measuring Social Welfare: an Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) .
 Office for National Statistics, “Personal and economic well-being in Great Britain: May 2020,” online: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/bulletins/personalandeconomicwellbeingintheuk/may2020#main-points (last accessed: 6 April 2020).
 See also Colin Crouch, “10. Post-Democracy and Populism” (2019) 90 The Political Quarterly 124 at 133.
 Robert E. Goodin, Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
 Jan-Werner Muller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) .
 Jonah Goldberg, “Trump’s Populism Is Not Reagan’s Populism (The National Review, April 4, 2018),” online: https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/04/donald-trumpr-ronald-reagan-populism-different/ (last accessed: 6 April 2020). Emphasis added.
 Margaret Canovan, “Taking Politics to the People: Populism as the Ideology of Democracy” in Yves Mény & Yves Surel eds., Democracies and the Populist Challenge (London: Palgrave, 2002)
 Jan-Werner Muller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) at 25; Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017) at p. 18.
 Margaret Canovan, “Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy” (1999) 47 Political Studies 2.
 Nattavudh Powdthavee, Anke C. Plagnol, Paul Frijters and Andrew E. Clark, “Who Got the Brexit Blues? The Effect of Brexit on Subjective Wellbeing in the UK” (2019) 86 Economica 471; George Ward, Lyle Ungar, Jan-Emmanuel de Neve and Johannes Eichstaedt, “(Un)Happiness and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections” (2020) Forthcoming Journal of Personality and Social Psychology . See also J. Herrin, D. Witters, B. Roy, C. Riley, D. Liu and H. M. Krumholz, “Population well-being and electoral shifts” (2018) 13 PLoS One, online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29529049 (last accessed: 6 April 2020).
 Pew Research Centre, “Public Trust in Government: 1958-2019 (April 11, 2019),” online: https://www.people-press.org/2019/04/11/public-trust-in-government-1958-2019/ (last accessed: 6 April 2020); Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Government at a Glance 2017 (Paris: OECD, 2017) .
 Ipsos Reid, “Global trust in professions: Who do global citizens trust?,” online: https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2019-09/global-trust-in-professions-trust-worthiness-index-2019.pdf (last accessed: 6 April 2020)
 Jonathan Wolff, “Making the World Safe for Utilitarianism” (2006) 58 Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 1 at 7
 Margaret Canovan, “Taking Politics to the People: Populism as the Ideology of Democracy” in Mény & Surel eds., Democracies and the Populist Challenge (London: Palgrave, 2002)
 Asher Schechter, “How to Defeat Populist Plutocrats? “Build a Counter-Narrative” (ProMarket, September 25, 2017)” (2017), online: https://promarket.org/2017/09/25/defeat-populist-plutocrats-build-counter-narrative/ (last accessed: 6 April 2020).
 Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Penguin, 2018) at 227.
 Margaret Canovan, “Taking Politics to the People: Populism as the Ideology of Democracy” in Mény & Surel eds., Democracies and the Populist Challenge (London: Palgrave, 2002).
 E.g. Yascha Mounk, The people vs. democracy : why our freedom is in danger and how to save it (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018) ; William A. Galston, Anti-pluralism the populist threat to liberal democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018) .
Longer version: Paper presented to the International Public Policy Association Conference. Montreal, June 2019. Full text online: http://www.ippapublicpolicy.org//file/paper/5cfadc2a54798.pdf