The Way Forward

Ian Gilmour shows his hand

  • The Economic Limits to Modern Politics edited by John Dunn
    Polity, 274 pp, £35.00, July 1990, ISBN 0 7456 0827 2

In Britain, oppositions do not win general elections; the economy occasionally wins one for them. To prevent it doing so, governments in the second half of a Parliament devote much of their energy to ensuring that on election day the voters will feel prosperous and the economy look healthy. Such a political and economic miracle entails much dumping of dogma and convictions. Child benefit, say, which has been frozen in previous years, is at last uprated in line with inflation. Public expenditure, formerly regarded as a disease that must at all costs be curbed, now becomes a sign of health that must be fostered. Similarly, even in the days when Labour was supposed to be a socialist party, the dreaded word was banished in the run-up to an election.

In disliking political dogma, whether left or right, the electorate has shown itself more sensible than its political leaders, but in always believing that next time things will be different it has remained their dupe. Consequently the education it has provided for its masters has only been temporary; dogma has soon resumed its sway. Nevertheless, the electorate’s demand for prosperity above all else causes elections to be both a political limit on economics and an economic limit on politics. This varied collection of essays on aspects of history, philosophy and economics deals, at an extremely high level of subtlety and scholarship, with both kinds of restraint.

From the later 17th century onwards, Istvan Hont argues, the burgeoning expense of warfare compelled governments to concern themselves with trade. Only by trade could they afford to pay for their military establishments. And to be successful commercially they had to have a favourable trade balance, which could only be achieved by selling cheap exports; and the ability to sell cheap required, it was believed until the mid-18th century, paying low wages – otherwise Britain would not be able to compete with poorer countries. Defence and empire depended therefore on trade and on keeping working men poor. ‘Commercial society,’ writes Professor Hont, ‘set clear limits on ideological politics.’ The need for low wages was considered to be common sense, not ideology.

J.G.A. Pocock, on ground which he has made very much his own, shows that ‘the political limits to pre-modern economics’ lay in the basic assumption that the citizen was also a warrior. In practice, of course, he was not. In England even the aristocracy, the traditional home of martial violence, was not greatly involved in war. But the idea lingered on regardless of practice, and the Scottish fathers of modern political economy feared that men’s concentration on increasingly specialised tasks, while admittedly enhancing the production and distribution of goods, would produce defective human beings. Such people would not be able either properly to enjoy the increased goods or to exercise the moral freedom of the citizen. Thus the division of labour, speculation and the quest for profit of a commercial society might, in Professor Pocock’s words, produce ‘a moral, as well as material, poverty in the midst of plenty’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] This and other themes are pursued in John Dunn’s Interpreting Political Responsibility (Polity, 280 pp., £35 and £9.95, 26 July, 0 7456 0827 2).