Talibans of Austerity, by Theodore Dalrymple

A sentence in the French newspaper Le Monde recently caught my eye: Il y aura toujours des talibans de l’austérité, there will always be the Talibans of austerity. It was uttered by the economist Jean Pisani-Ferry in an interview in the newspaper about the crisis in the Euro zone, and it made me think at once of the Confucian dictum in the Analects that the first task necessary in restoring a polity to health is the rectification of language. Words must be used correctly, for if they are not moral collapse follows.

Some linguists might object that the meaning of words shifts and is never absolutely fixed: for example, if enough people use the word disinterested to mean uninterested, then the word disinterested actually comes to mean uninterested, and the fact that it thereafter becomes difficult to express succinctly what the word disinterested once meant is quite beside the point. Will disinterestedness itself disappear just because the word for it disappears? Reasonable people might disagree as to the answer.

But language has to be tethered to relatively fixed meanings in some way or other if words are not simply to be instruments of domination à la Humpty Dumpty. Let us then, consider the phrase ‘Talibans of austerity’ and what it signifies.

Austerity, according to one of the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary (the others are similar), is ‘severe self-discipline or self-restraint; moral strictness, rigorous abstinence, asceticism.’ But clearly this is only a part of what Prof. Pisani-Ferry means. In the professor’s usage the dictionary meaning of the word austerity is but his connotation; his denotation is the attempt, by means either of increased taxation or reduced expenditure (especially the latter, of course) to balance government budgets.

One may question the practical economic wisdom of reducing budget deficits too quickly, at least where the government accounts for so large a proportion of economic activity that drastic reductions in government expenditure might lead to a serious collapse of aggregate demand. (The fact that government expenditure should never play so important a role in any economy is not a valid objection: we always start off from where we are actually rather than where we would have been had we been wiser.) The question of the speed with which a government budget deficit is reduced, therefore, and the means by which it is done, is another of those many questions about which reasonable men may and do disagree.

But to call the attempt to balance a budget ‘austerity,’ in other words to say living within your means implies ‘rigorous abstinence, asceticism,’ a kind of killjoy puritanism, is to suggest that it is both honest, just and decent to do otherwise. And this is indicative of a revolution in our sensibilities.

Read the complete article in Library of Law and Liberty

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