Not So Austere

The so-called rightward march towards "austerity" has shifted entirely into the territory of the big-spending Left

Austerity or growth? The question is ubiquitous, the stark choice between the two accepted as natural and self-evident.

In fact it is absurd. The “austerity” of the current parlance has nothing austere about it, and the “growth” so widely posited as its alternative simply means more spending, deeper debt and lower output. The choice is self-evidently skewed — if growth really meant growth, who would ever choose austerity? The dichotomy clearly false — a healthy economy starts, not ends, with healthy public finances.

Silly it may be, but the “austerity or growth” formulation represents a dangerous hijacking of language. A glance at the leading British newspapers tells the story. President Hollande, we are told, wants to revise the new European fiscal treaty to put more emphasis on growth, by which France’s new Socialist Party president means additional deficit spending for his favoured causes. In Britain we read of the Labour Party’s internal argument over whether to lean towards austerity or growth. Ireland’s tinkering with a deficit-fuelled entitlement culture is called “starvation austerity”. We are informed that Portugal has taken austerity to a new level with a decision to scrap four of its 14 public holidays. And so on.

What are they talking about? The noun “austerity” is derived from the adjective “austere”. Dictionary definitions of “austere” focus on sternness, severity, an ascetic quality, the denial of pleasure: qualities that even now, in the depths of a lengthy spending-created crisis, EU governments have no interest in showing. George Osborne, for one, is praised (or reviled) for the courage (or cruelty) of his swingeing austerity programme. But Britain’s debt is forecast to expand by 60 per cent (from £1 trillion to £1.6 trillion) during the austerity years 2010-16. That this comes on top of a 53 per cent increase in public spending in real terms during the New Labour years shows just how many luxuries — wind farms, foreign aid, wildly incontinent domestic welfare — are immune from the savage axe of austerity. Meanwhile, as Greece burns, the binge of social transfer payments and corrupt local infrastructure boondoggles in the rest of southern Europe continues as if it’s 2007.

There is nothing severe, stern or ascetic about any of this. If what London and Europe are talking about is austerity, sobriety is a jug of Bloody Marys. It is jolting to discover that the online Oxford English Dictionary definition of austerity is now “difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure”.

This is truly remarkable. Are we are all suddenly in agreement that an ever more crushing public debt burden is the path to easier “economic conditions”? It is not the job of dictionary writers to legislate the total victory of Keynesianism or any other partisan philosophy. (The two-volume 1976 Concise OED speaks only of “severe self-discipline or self-restraint, moral strictness, rigorous abstinence” and the like.)

Altering the meaning of key words can be an immensely powerful political technique. Successfully sold to the public, a manipulated terminology can fundamentally change a policy debate. The argument is no longer about you getting what you want versus your opponent getting what he wants. Instead, it’s now about how much you get of what you want. Et voilà!

In this case even the rightward marches of the debate have been shifted entirely into the territory of the big-spending Left. After all, what can sound more serious, more mature and responsible, than “austerity”? And yet this new austerity simply means overspending a little bit less — or in Mr Osborne’s case hugely overspending a little bit less. Ubiquity achieved, the false choice means that any real discussion of fiscal responsibility cannot even happen: it would have to be another conversation entirely.

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