Why Is Economic Populism Supported By Those Who Loathe Political Populism?

The Economist, perhaps more than any other magazine or newspaper, has outlined the dangers of populism in recent years.

In the past month alone, headlines on its website have included: “Why cosying up to populists rarely ends well for moderates,” “Populists fall short of expectations in the European election,” and “Populism and polarization threaten Latin America.” The populist style of politics, which seeks to pit “ordinary people” against “elites,” is rightly anathema to a magazine rooted historically in a classical liberal worldview.

It’s therefore surprising that the magazine’s Charlemagne column has endorsed a populist as the next president of the European Commission. On Tuesday, a piece entitled “Why Margrethe Vestager ticks all the boxes,” backed the current competition commissioner for the presidential role. It described her as having “applied both a liberal sense of consumer rights and an interventionist commitment to defending the little guy to the task of regulating technology giants.”

Make no mistake: on economic issues, Vestager is a populist in the truest sense of the word. A new paper, Antitrust Without Romance by Dr. Thibault Schrepel (an assistant professor of antitrust at Utrecht University), documents this by analyzing her speeches and comparing them with previous commissioners. He shows clearly how populism and the moralization of antitrust and competition policy has accelerated in recent years in the EU, with Vestager in the vanguard.

Rather than explaining antitrust as a sort of technocratic pursuit, the study finds Vestager’s discourse “emotional.” She seeks to pit the people against the elites in the form of big digital companies. In terms of populist rhetoric, Vestager refers to “the people” in 91 percent of her speeches, to companies as “them” in 81 percent, and puts herself in the “us” camp – as part of “the people” - in 85 percent of speeches. She has ramped up talk about “fairness” in competition policy since 2016.

Her ire has been wrought most obviously on the digital giants, who she pitches as elites undermining the interests of the people. They are said to “distort or fabricate information, manipulate people’s views and degrade public debate,” or help “harmful, untrue information spread faster than ever, unleashing violence and undermining democracy.” She has drawn analogies between digital technologies and products that cause death, and at various times has talked up public “fears” about companies.

This kind of rhetoric is a complete break from her predecessors. Dr. Schrepel finds that while previous Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia talked about the “people” often, he did not tend to pitch them against the companies, sometimes referring to the latter as “our firms.” Neelie Kroes, Competition Commissioner from November 2004 to February 2010, made very few references to “us” and “them.” When she did, she always described converging rather than diverging interests between the public and companies. Mario Monti, Commissioner from 1999 to 2004, scored lower still on all metrics of populism and moralism, only using “us” to refer to “the people” twice, instead using it regularly to refer to the European Commission or his competition team.

Dr. Schrepel’s work warns of the dangers of this populist rhetoric manifesting itself as a moralizing and highly politicized approach to antitrust, rather than a policy framework seeking to keep open and competitive markets with high levels of consumer welfare.

It is striking that The Economist and others are alive to the dangers of political populism, which pitches “the people” against political classes, the media or government institutions, but ignores the same techniques and rhetoric when it comes to business competition.