Budget time is really the only window where citizens are encouraged to engage in economic debate, and even then the space of time is too short and the range of topics up for debate too narrow to make much impact. When it ends, and for the other eleven months of the year, economics is the preserve of technocrats.
That is a serious problem. Economics is the discussion of how things in our society are produced and distributed. If you leave it to experts there is a big cost for democracy. Yet, while people feel comfortable engaging in debate about politics in the Middle East or presidential elections in the United States, there is a reticence to talk about economics.
Part of this is down to economics as a discipline, which has become increasingly remote from day-to-day life. The primacy of the market as a means to resolve problems has led to the rise of ‘market scientists’, who are seen as the authoritative voices on running an efficient economy. The language deployed by these experts is deliberately exclusive. Certainly they are unlikely to start explorations of economics with parables about pin factories, as Adam Smith did in The Wealth of Nations.
Yet they dominate economics discourse. When economics is discussed with any substance in the mainstream press market scientists from universities, think-tanks and finance houses are given free reign to make objective statements about the common good. Research by Julien Mercille has shown that between 2008 and 2012 77% of commentators on austerity were from elite institutions.
Another factor leading to the retreat of ordinary people from economic debate is the narrowing space for democracy in the economy. The democratic sphere only extends to areas where there is or could be public ownership. Outside of this decisions are made by private individuals or organisations. As wealth becomes concentrated in fewer hands, fewer economic decisions are made with public participation.
This has bred a cynicism about what can be achieved by discussing economics. With capital increasingly breaking free from taxation – and mobile enough to defeat strikes – people have come to accept that social problems can only be resolved by appealing to private individuals and organisations to solve problems profitably through the market. And so we are relegated in the economy from citizens to consumers.
This must be reversed if we are to build a politics in Ireland that can reclaim our society from the political establishment and the interests they serve. Joan Robinson, one of the great economists of the twentieth century, was once asked why people should study economics. She replied, “so that economists can’t fool you”. Implicit in this comment is the need for citizen economics.