Book Review: How to argue with an economist

by Lindy Edwards, Cambridge University, Cambridge. 2002
In Australian Journal of Social Issues. Vol.39 No.3 pp.362-363. 2004.

The first 8 chapters of this book convinced me I was holding in my hands a truly subversive text. Subversive in the sense that it is a remarkably readable explanation of the economic fundamentalist agenda. It is a book about economic policy without economic jargon. I could envisage this text being read by factory workers and discussed over the lunch breaks, by housewives in the suburbs, by senior school children and at tertiary campuses around the country. I saw it, at a minimum, providing Freirian ‘conscientization’ and perhaps even leading to the widespread development of revolutionary consciousness. Some of the midsections of the book started to pall and the last half was simply tiresome.

I was perplexed my mood swings as I proceeded through the book. Firstly I was excited by the fact that the author was an economist who had worked in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. She had known the economic fundamentalists who have helped transform this country from one that provided a reasonably caring social welfare system into a competitive society that is now turning on its most vulnerable citizens and (under the misnomer of ‘mutual obligation’) demanding they give something back in return for their welfare pittance. Edwards has taken the intellectual message of Paul Omerod’s The Death of Economics, Michael Pusey’s Economic Rationalism in Canberra, and Stuart Rees, Gordon Rodley and Frank Stilwell’s Beyond the Market and has made it accessible in the fine tradition of John Kenneth Galbraith. She acknowledges the dismantling which the economic fundamentalists have inflicted upon community support structures in the name of increasing social capital. These first 8 chapters need to be read by anyone who is struggling to understand how the economic fundamentalists have succeeded in eroding the basic humanity of everyday Australians.

Lindy Edwards provides at page 24 a very useful description of the mechanisms by which ideologies influence social policy. She has the capacity to explain complex phenomena simply. For instance, she encapsulates the concept of downward envy brilliantly when she writes:

The Coalition captured the ‘what about me? sentiment’. It cunningly devised the campaign slogan: ‘For all of us’. In its first term in office it made theatre of cracking down on the unemployed, Aborigines, immigration and minority groups. Unable to demonstrate any understanding of people’s aspirations, it settled for showing an understanding of their vices (p. 17).

Edwards quotes with approval (p.54) the classical liberal scholar, John Stuart Mills’ attack on the concept of self-interest when he wrote:

Each of these men has, no doubt, acted from self interest. But we gain nothing by knowing this, except the pleasure, if it be one, of multiplying useless words…it is idle to attribute any importance to a proposition which, when interpreted, means only that a man had rather do what he rather do.

In the middle of the book as Edwards attempts to explain the behaviour of the mandarins of the central co-ordinating agencies of the Australian Federal Government, she accords these bureaucrats a morality which I don’t think they deserve. Albeit it is a morality which grows out of their promotion of the notion of self-interested individuals acting to fulfil their self-interest as a way to make the world better for everyone. If that is morality I’d fail Ethics 1.

Edwards herself roundly criticises competition policy (pp.40-43, pp.66-67), the jargonised use of the concept of social capital (p.89), compulsory literacy training (p.53), market society (p.107, p.128, p141, p.157) as well as the non-explanatory power of ‘self-interest’, yet somehow is reluctant to stick it in boots and all to her erstwhile colleagues in Prime Minister and Cabinet.

My disenchantment with the last half of the book is essentially that it fails to utilise the insightful, indeed potentially revolutionary, analysis in the first part of the book. It is unlikely to incite its readers to leave their armchair for the streets. Lindy Edwards would have been able to substantially improve the usefulness of this book had she been able to put to one side her economic mindset and integrate a progressive political analysis into the later sections of her text. Perhaps if she was reluctant to ask people to throw themselves in front of the Prime Minister’s car, she could have urged them to throw themselves in front of their computers and start harassing our political leaders and their economic fundamentalist advisors.

Still the bulk of this book is a well reasoned and useful analysis of the problems economic fundamentalism creates for citizens wanting to live in a humane caring Australia. Edwards, if she were to undertake a revision of this text, would be well advised to read some progressive political and ethical tracts.