Rethinking Liberalism 2: economics

The discipline of economics pervades all reflection on public policy. This is only right, as it is this discipline that tries to reconcile supply and demand for resources, and present a rational framework for choices. But it can be pernicious. It can frame the policy debate in the wrong way. As we refresh liberal policy ideas so as to put sustainability and human needs at the heart of public affairs, this is becoming a major problem. Liberals must challenge many tenets of conventional thinking.

First of all, let me say what I’m not going to talk about. There has been much heated debate on the value of austerity policies in tackling the recent economic crisis. I have read some liberals who say that “Keynesianism” is a core liberal belief, something given added resonance by the fact the Maynard Keynes was a Liberal. These tended not to be professional economists, who are careful not to label their beliefs with the name a of a dead economist, however inspirational. And it is based on a misunderstanding that Keynesian policies implied free public expenditure at all times, rather than being a temporary measure in response to a short term crisis. The problem that I have with economics applies as much to conventional, liberal “Keynesian” economists, such as Paul Krugman, as it does to the neoclassical ideologues – though the liberals are the more pragmatic, and the more likely to support changes to the conventions of the discipline. Having said which, I am sure Keynes would have recognised the value of what I am trying to say.

The problem that I want to deal with lies at the boundary of what professionals call “positive” economics, which refers to the factual or “scientific” side, and “normative” economics, which deals with policy recommendations, and where personal value judgements play a role. Much normative economics is presented as if it positive. Policy makers have taken simplifying assumptions used in positive economics, and used them as the basis of concealed value judgements.

I need to get more specific. These are the sorts of things I mean:

  • Economic growth is good for a society and should be an objective of public policy.
  • High productivity, the key to economic growth, is therefore a critical policy objective.
  • Free trade promotes economic welfare and drives economic growth forward, and should therefore be maximised.
  • The more people consume the better off they are, and the healthier an economy is, provided that spending does not outreach income.

I could keep going. The issue is not that these assumptions are wrong – they have served policy makers well – it is that life is not as simple as that, and we should always question them before using them in the decision-making process. And increasingly they are taking us in the wrong direction.

To be fair, economics does not stand still. I did not put on that list that aggregated income is the critical measure of success, and how it is distributed is of secondary importance. Economists (some of them at least) are at last seeing through that idea, which had been universally accepted. Also a worship of open market mechanisms for allocating resources is coming under question. And indeed, you can have perfectly sensible conversations with professional economists in which it is clear that they understand the limitations of their discipline. But when they get back to their desks and analyse policy options, the same old things keep coming up.

The result is that policymakers are trying to push the economy in a direction that it does not want to go. Growth remains obstinately slow, distribution becomes more skewed, public services struggle for funding. We worship highly centralised, “efficient” and specialised models of business and public services that are failing to meet human needs. And we are heading in slow motion for an environmental disaster.

Economics needs to adapt to the modern world. To do so it must start to take on board ways of thinking. Consider the following, none of which are particularly wacky in terms of economic theory, but all of which undermine the conventional wisdom of public policy making.

  1. Wealth must circulate for a healthy economy. This is the main idea of George Cooper’s book Money, Blood and Revolution. If wealth is accumulated by a rich elite, it drains the life out of an economy because they don’t spend it, or don’t spend it efficiently. They save too much, and the bulk of their saving goes into unproductive assets and speculation, and not enough into productive investment. Worse, they use their accumulated wealth to skew the workings of society in their favour. This presents an economic argument for progressive taxation and the taxation of wealth – as well for trying other interventions which distort the way incomes are set.
  2. Consumption should be optimised, not maximised. Once basic human needs are met, the utility of consumption rapidly diminishes, and often gets tangled in a zero-sum game of status competition. This challenges the idea that economic growth is the be-all and end-all, as well as bringing distributional issues to the fore.
  3. Don’t confuse the acquisition of wealth with its realisation. This is a related point. The conventional wisdom, based on the gods of maximising consumption and productivity, is that we should go out in the world and work as hard as possible for the common good. But what if somebody wants to work less and consume less? Or if she prefers to consume less goods, but which are made in a less “efficient” way (organic vegetables, say rather than mass farmed ones, for example). Provided that she does not consume more than she produces, does this really matter? What is the point of piling up wealth if we can’t use it in the way that we want? Economists frown on organic vegetables as they reduce productivity, but the ability to choose such low productivity goods is a sign of a wealthy society. They are confusing the creation of wealth with its realisation. This suggests that the more developed a society becomes, the less worried it should be about productivity and income growth.
  4. Trade is a means to an end, not an end in itself. No human activity has done more to banish poverty than trade. Yes we should celebrate it, and yes protectionism usually ends badly. But there comes a point when its uses diminish. Trade between the developed world and China had economic benefits when China had a pool of very unproductive agricultural labourers who could be used to make cheap industrial goods. But these benefits diminish as China catches up, and as this happens, it is more than likely that the volume of trade (and its benefits to the developed world) will diminish. That’s economics. Don’t panic. The party was fun while it lasted. Globalisation remains key in the world of information and ideas. Trade of physical things remains is important to helping undeveloped countries to develop (though the locus of that trade is likely to be mainly with middle income countries rather than developed ones, as these bulk larger). But trade of physical things over huge distances is not so important for the sustained progress of developed economies.

Liberals should believe that an economy should develop based on free human choices, long term sustainability and a degree of human solidarity which diminishes with distance. Increasingly human preferences, technology and world development will take us away from the mass-produced, high productivity, high consumption, global trading society that policy makers favour, guided by economic conventional wisdom. It isn’t what people want (free human choices), it isn’t sustainable (carbon emissions and world resources) and it is less needed for human solidarity (developing countries are increasingly able to look after themselves, while the need for more localised solidarity grows). The discipline of economics needs to catch up.

 

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2 thoughts on “Rethinking Liberalism 2: economics”

  1. Enjoyed this article – I strongly support your approach.

    Thought you might like to see that the EU’s European Environmental Bureau is putting the case for fair and sustainable economies, rather than the impossible dream of “sustained growth” at the United Nations Environmental Assembly in Nairobi this week:

    http://issuu.com/europeanenvironmentalbureau/docs/message_for_unea_2014

    How do we get this kind of thinking to replace the neo-liberal economics our party leadership seem to have been seduced by?

    Denis (Scottish Green Liberal Democrats)

    1. Thank you Denis. The “old” economics is particularly pernicious when it comes to environmental degradation – but in the case of less developed economies the old economics has more validity. This is a big challenge. But the developed world sets the fashions, and it is here that the old economic language is mostly broken. If we fix the way we approach economics here, people will think about the developing world differently too.

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