Beyond “antibiotic and rat poison”
from David Ruccio
There is something fundamentally unstable—and ultimately dangerous—about the liberal critique of austerity.
Consider the recent essay on “The Economic Consequences of Austerity” by Amartya Sen. On one hand, he correctly criticizes the austerity effects associated with the deficit-cutting measures that have been imposed in Western Europe in the years following the crash of 2007-08 (and reminds readers of Keynes’s critique of the austerity measures the Allied Powers were threatening to impose on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles).
But then Sen accepts, without any further argument, the need for “real institutional reform” in Europe: “from the avoidance of tax evasion and the fixing of more reasonable retiring ages to sensible working hours and the elimination of institutional rigidities, including those in the labour markets.”
In other words, Sen is attempting to distinguish between the “antibiotic” of institutional reform and the “rat poison” of austerity.
The instability of Sen’s formulation stems from the fact that he wants to reject one part of the conservative austerity agenda (dismantling some state programs) while accepting the other (making markets, especially labor markets, more “flexible”). The danger arises because Sen takes as a common sense, without need for any kind of extended argument, that one group of workers should be protected (in the form of pensions of those who have retired) while further costs should be imposed on the other part of the working-class (by raising the age of retirement and creating more “flexible” labor markets for those still working).
Ultimately, it’s Sen’s nostalgia for a time that, in his view, was characterized by “good public services and a flourishing market economy” that leads him to such an unstable and, in my view, dangerous set of propositions. Better, it seems to me, to recognize that that period of public-private exceptionalism has come and gone, undone by the common sense that capitalist growth needs to be preserved at all costs—and to reject not only the rat poison of austerity, but also what Sen and other liberals consider to be the antibiotic of imposing further costs on European workers.