Economics as the language of public policy is not a normal condition. It has been learnt.
In the introduction to his book After Words, former Prime Minister Paul Keating recalled the words of German philosopher, Friedrich Schiller: “If man is ever to solve the problems of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through beauty that man makes his way to freedom.” Keating was inspired by beauty and believed that the convergence of economics and politics could be both elegant and beautiful. Although Keating was proud of his achievements in international relations and Aboriginal affairs, he appears most proud of the economic reforms he inspired, first as Treasurer and then as Prime Minister. Keating was a neo-classicist who from an early age developed a profound attachment to antique clocks. Was he attached to the aesthetic appeal of the clocks, their precision, or both? For an aesthete, economics is a strange path through which one searches for beauty – truth, perhaps, but not beauty. What beauty is there in modern economics? The strength of our national economy is understood through oblique indices such as the Consumer Price Index, housing starts, the rate of unemployment and Gross Domestic Product. Success or failure is understood by considering the data against historic or international contexts. Even when the outcomes are sold as positive, the product appears to be remote and unfeeling. The late New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy once suggested that GDP “…does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials”. He concluded that GDP “…measures everything except that which is worthwhile”. Our society should not be judged on economic indices alone, as is increasingly the case. Earlier this year, funding cuts to the Australian Bureau of Statistics forced it to discontinue statistical measurement and analysis of cultural and sporting activities. It also discontinued areas that include Measures of Australia’s Progress and Australian Social Trends. It appears that government believes it can use economic data alone to understand the state of our society. Economics as the language of public policy is not a normal condition. It has been learnt. Without an explanation of the social changes that economic policy is designed to achieve, the language of economics is devoid of real-life meaning. How can economics, as practised by politicians, be considered to be the beautiful art? “Beauty,” Keating wrote in After Words, “is about the quest for perfection or an ideal, and that quest has to begin with aesthetic imagination.” If the quest for perfection begins with aesthetic imagination, then perfection in economic policy must surely begin with an understanding of how economic policy will benefit society. Politics is beautiful when it is a contest of values that inspires contrasting visions of how the community can be shaped. Economic policy is an instrument through which social progress can be achieved. If our modern leaders cannot articulate a vision for how they wish to shape society, economic policy will remain the prisoner of ideology or uncontested orthodoxy. Beautiful economics should not be designed to achieve a perfect society, as no society is perfectible, but it can help achieve an ideal. In Australia, leaders capable of articulating an ideal able to define modern Australia are rare. Egalitarianism, in its many aspects, is a flame that has illuminated the Australian spirit since settlement. Do we lack the imagination to develop a set of economic policy settings capable of returning Australia to this beautiful ideal? A leader’s vision necessarily begins with an important question. Do our modern leaders have the courage to ask how to address income inequality without slowing the rate of economic growth? People no longer blindly accept that growth is a “rising tide that lifts all boats”, as another Kennedy suggested in a speech in 1963, but we remain satisfied that the tide continues to rise. An economic policy that addresses rising wealth inequality in a manner that releases money to improve the quality of education and health services would satisfy the progressive dream of a free and equal society. It would create a serious point of difference with the conservatives in Australia who appear to be driven more by ideology than by values. It would refocus our economic policy on achieving a beautiful ideal capable of leading our society to freedom. Which modern leader has the vision necessary to consider economics on these terms? Andrew Hunter is Chair of the Australian Fabians fabians.org.au @AndrewHunter *Image from the cover of Paul Keating’s After Words (Allen & Unwin)