Which way is out? – Ethics in a post-Austerity World

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Six months into the unknown, no one seems to know which way is up. Britain is wallowing in a political impasse as a deeply wounded Prime Minister attempts to lure a bunch of Northern Irish recalcitrant into supporting her minority government, while trying to convince a skeptical public that she is in control. Having called the election early on the basis that she and only she could deliver stability and strength, Teresa May now presides over precisely the opposite. Her ‘don’t frighten the horses’ approach is a self-parody brilliantly caricatured by Australian Hugh Parkinson’s You Tube depiction of May at the head of the Monty Python search for the Holy Grail. It was only a flesh wound, after all.

Her problems run much deeper. The program she inherited from her predecessor David Cameron barely a year before has demonstrably tanked. Austerity is so-pre-2016! In a remarkably short time the British voter has fallen out of love with the Cameron-Osborne parable of the good responsible government. Cutting one’s cloth to fit. Trimming government expenditure to rein in the budget deficit has lost its never very bright glow for the majority of voters who have seen their real incomes fall, housing prices head over the horizon along with the prospect of fulltime, secure jobs. Young voters, in particular, are left facing a bleak future, weighed down with debt taken on to finish university degrees that provide no pathway to gainful employment. Is it any wonder that so many young people came out and voted for change – any change? Corbyn’s demonstrable distance from the neoliberal experiment and the verities of Blairite era, along with his promise to recreate a semblance of pre-Thatcher Britain, resonated wildly with many traditional Labour voters who had gone over to the other side convinced that ‘there is no alternative’. Along with May’s ambitions to turn Labour into a permanent Opposition, the major casualty of the 2017 election was TINA. Instead of burying Labour, May has breathed life back into the beast.

Like in the aftermath of Trump and Brexit, the political class has been left bewildered by the turn of events. In the long post mortem, still underway, numerous particular reasons have been adduced to account for the debacle. However, underlying all the special pleading and wisdom-in-hindsight, one thing is clear. Many voters thought – it wasn’t fair! They and everyone they knew were missing out. A small self-perpetuating elite was benefitting and it just wasn’t fair. The 2017 British election rediscovered the reality of class inequality after decades during which the political class had, they thought, effectively banished class rhetoric from mainstream political discourse. No attempt to undermine the critique by dismissing the concerns as a crude exercise in ‘the politics of envy’ could head off the charge. Underlying the material reality was a regenerated interest in ethics. What is fair depends in part of notions of desert and need. Neoliberalism as a political project had systematically stripped away any notion of the influence of ethical factors in public policy. Economic fundamentalism expressed in the imperative to ‘leave it to the market’ implicitly imposed a normative judgment about what was fair and right while denying that alternative value conceptions might reasonably be considered.

Conservative and liberal/social democratic conceptions of fairness tend to diverge, with the former prioritizing notions of ‘desert’ and relative contribution or ‘proportionality’ and the latter focused on need and an absence of ‘cheating’. In recent elections where established patterns and outcomes have been upset, it has been the widespread perception that ‘they system is rigged’ that has galvanized opposition to business as usual.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. The failure of commentators to foresee the shakeup of electoral politics in countries like the USA and Britain mirrors the failure of the economics profession to anticipate the outbreak and consequences of the global financial crisis of 2008. In both cases, the value dimension is missing. The models of economists and political scientists – based on ‘rational choice theory’ – simply miss the ways in which socially constructed and reinforced ethical factors drive actual behaviours. Individuals are not rational maximisers, either with respect to their economic or voting actions. Good public policy should take into account the values that people bring to their lives. Assuming that people act ‘as if’ they are value-free rational calculating machines is bound to eventually run up against the reality that, in fact, they act differently with very surprising consequences. Far from being the value-free science promoted by its practitioners, orthodox economics expresses particular ethical precepts, while unintentionally repressing alternative value commitments; these moral precepts and absences bias public policy in clearly observable directions, with a range of consequences, some of which are unintended and – depending on an observer’s moral viewpoint – undesirable.

Mike Berry’s new book Morality and Power: On Ethics, Economics and Public Policy (Edward Elgar, 2017) takes up these issues and argues for an approach to policy analysis and development in the shadow of a progressive social democratic alternative.

Mike Berry, Emeritus Professor, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, Australia

Berry Morality

Morality and Power by Mike Berry is available now.


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One Comment on “Which way is out? – Ethics in a post-Austerity World”

  1. Mike berry Says:

    Serena can you attach this link to my email tag?


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