A Flawed but Positive Vision

Book Review of Positive Populism by Steve Hilton

By L.A. Pesch

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One criticism of the intellectual underpinnings of the resurgent populist movement in the U.S. and Europe is that it lacks a coherent vision. The left claims that its only uniting principle is racism, a claim that is easily falsified by even a cursory analysis of the primary figures of the populist right. The establishment right - embodied by the Republicans, Tories, France’s En Marche, Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, and others - sees the populist right as incoherent; how can a movement be in favor of tariffs and entrepreneurs? How can a movement be pro-family and pro-worker? Indeed, this resurgent populist movement is quite different from the party of Marco Rubio, Theresa May, and Angela Merkel.

Steve Hilton’s most recent book, Positive Populism, aims to to provide a coherent vision for this populist movement. Hilton lays out his vision in three parts: Populist Economy, Populist Society, and Populist Government. These three sections are made up of three chapters each, making the 219-page book approachable for the casual reader. Each section has a brief, 2-page introduction and each chapter has a summary that provides a short synopsis of his main points.

Positive Populism is filled with stories from Hilton’s childhood and career. The son of Hungarian immigrants to England, Hilton experienced severe poverty and his mothers’ rise to the middle class as a child. Hilton wants to put the family at the center of policy discussions and wants to bring the government into closer contact with parents. While discussing policy, he refers to his memories as a senior officer in the Blair government. His experience as an entrepreneur in San Francisco also influences the solutions he offers, such as competitive pay for government employees.

In the introduction to the book, Hilton provides a practical definition of his concept of Positive Populism:

It is a pro-worker economic agenda designed to lift the living standards and reduce the economic anxiety of the majority of working families whose incomes fell as economic power was concentrated in the hands of the elite. It is a social policy agenda that aims to repair our torn social fabric, focusing in particular on the breakdown of family and community. And it is an agenda for political reform that is all about decentralizing power and fighting corruption.
— Steve Hilton, Positive Populism (pp 7)

Hilton’s definition encompases the most important issues tackled by the intellectual leaders of the populist right. Reading just the paragraph quoted above, the reader might wonder how Hilton’s book differs from the libertarian and social-conservative elements of the establishment right. In fact, it is in the solutions Hilton offers that the differences become clear.

The real strength of Hilton’s book is his ability to articulate the problems families face and the elites’ role in exacerbating those problems. In the first chapter, which centers on job security, Hilton notes that the free-market solution to job security concerns is constant improvement in skill sets and movement from one job to another. This lack of job stability promotes rootlessness and diminishes community.

Though Hilton does a fantastic job identifying problems for families, his solutions are lacking. For example, Hilton suggests that the most important component of his plan for job stability is a mandated universal health insurance program administered by private companies. For all intents and purposes, that is what we have now and it is a disaster. What the private sector is doing now to solve the problems created by this public/private partnership trainwreck is to essentially cut out the insurance companies altogether. If you care to read more, check out the Surgery Center of Oklahoma or Atlas M.D.

When it comes to the social aspect of the family, Hilton’s ideas are a mixed bag. To his credit, Hilton recognizes the systematic anti-family incentives in the current welfare system. It is worth quoting Hilton at length:

The government is not neutral when it comes to marriage. It actively discourages it, particularly through the welfare system, with almost one in three Americans reporting that they personally know someone who has not married because they were worried about losing means-tested benefits. It is completely absurd for government to design any of its services in a way that discourages marriage; it’s like making an own-goal.
— Steve Hilton, Popular Populism (pp 107-108)

Hilton is quite right. The nuclear family is the basic unit of society and it should be bolstered by government programs, not undermined by them. However, Hilton is far too trusty of the governments we have in existence today. He proposes government-run parenting education because new parents don’t understand how to be parents.

No one on the political right trusts the current federal government education system. It is filled with teachers, bureaucrats, and administrators whose ideals can be described accurately as authoritarian progressivism. New parents should be learning from their parents, not from government-assigned bureaucrats with a political axe to grind. If we agree that it’s bad that schools are sexualizing children in Kindergarten with transgenderism and masturbation, we should be able to agree that such “education” doesn’t belong in our homes.

Hilton is at his most creative when it comes to solutions for a properly populist government. This is to be expected, given his experience in the Blair government. The final substantial chapter of the book, entitled “Accountable,” lays out Hilton’s ideas for making governments accountable to the public, not just to those rich enough to fund their campaigns.

It’s highly unlikely that his proposal to limit the influence of large corporations would get passed in congress, much less pass a free speech test in the supreme court, but his proposal is thought-provoking and creative:

So let’s set a new standard that voters can easily evaluate: all politicians must recuse themselves from legislative action on any matter that is relevant to any of their donors’ interests. No more donations from the banks going to members of the House Financial Services Committee or contributions from health insurers going to senators overseeing healthcare reform or Big Agriculture companies dishing out the cash to the legislators overseeing the farm bill with all its juicy subsidies.
— Steve Hilton, Popular Populism (pp 203)

Managing this system would be difficult and would require yet another layer of bureaucracy or a committee. Would legislative leaders enforce this policy? Would it fall to the executive branch? Certainly the notion of giving even more power to the executive branch at the expense of the legislature is a recipe for an even more onerous regulatory burden imposed on us by unelected bureaucrats. Another secretive bureaucracy in control of the purse strings of legislators seems legitimately daft. This brings  us to another idea from Positive Populism, one that is a bit more promising:

Let’s start by bringing into the open the secret world of the administrative state. Publish every civil service organization chart, along with salaries and job descriptions. That will provide the necessary intelligence for establishing the scale of reduction we need.
— Steve Hilton, Popular Populism

This is a great idea. No doubt, public interest think tanks would pore over these organization charts looking for ways to cut waste and increase accountability. It’s a cliche, but the influence unelected bureaucrats have over our political process is shameful. Executive branch agencies write and enforce regulations and serve as experts to legislators as they write the laws on which regulations are based. Transparency in the executive branch is essential to building policy that works for the average family.

Positive Populism is a fine introduction for anyone who wants some fresh ideas for fixing the problems conservative populists identify in the current state of our society. Hilton’s book is an easy read but presents important policy suggestions, even if the reader won’t agree with all of them, and serves as an effective tool for shifting the Overton Window toward a conservative populist agenda.

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L.A. Pesch

Hailing from the middle of nowhere, L.A. Pesch is a Catholic husband, father, 4th degree Knight of Columbus, and Reactionary Economist. His writing has appeared in academic journals, newspapers, blogs, and magazines. His personal motto, borrowed from the Knights of Columbus, is Tempus Fugit, Memento Mori.