For the past year Australians have heard politicians, business leaders and conservative commentators argue that we need to balance the benefits of protecting Australians from Covid-19 with the costs of those protections to “the economy”. Should we close down risky venues or keep them open? Should we worry about the elderly who might get sick and die or the young people who might lose their jobs?
How do we choose between my money and your life? Or your mum’s life? In a society where conservatives frequently argue that all life is sacred, that unborn babies have more rights than their mothers, and that those dying in pain must be denied the mercy of voluntary euthanasia, it is hard to imagine that we could even have such a debate. But we do, and the debate is led by conservatives.
The fact that you probably haven’t noticed is simply proof of how powerful the language of economics is. It allows people to make the obscene seem responsible.
While it’s not polite to put it this way, what these questions are really asking is: are all lives worth saving? Or, more bluntly, are the incomes of some groups more important than the lives of other groups? You can see why conservatives like to talk about abstractions like “the economy”.
It’s impossible to balance the needs of vulnerable humans against the needs of the economy for the simple reason that the economy doesn’t exist in a literal sense. The economy is not a thing and it is certainly not alive – it’s an abstraction, an idea.
The economy doesn’t have needs, desires or preferences. But people do. It’s more polite – and politically saleable – to say the economy would benefit from fewer restrictions on travel than to say that those who own shares in, or who are employed by, the travel industry would benefit. Likewise, it’s far more polite to say that the economy would benefit from company tax cuts than to say that rich people who own a lot of shares would benefit from tax cuts.
The fact that the economy isn’t a person or thing doesn’t make it unimportant. Far from it. Our culture, democracy, national security and environment aren’t things or people either, but they too are important.
Just as we can try to measure the environment by counting trees and fish, we can try to measure the economy by adding up the value of everyone’s assets or incomes. But adding things up doesn’t equal understanding them, and telling me that increased pollution in my city is OK because we cleaned up the air in your city doesn’t cheer me up at all. I don’t live in “the environment” any more than I work in “the economy”. What affects me is different from what affects you, and your gain doesn’t reduce my pain.
But when we talk about the economy, instead of what’s happening to my job and my income and your job and your income, we can hide all manner of sins. Indeed, if we ignore the…
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