Austerity Is Good for the Soul

A. C. Grayling, proprietor of the New College for the Humanities, may be a bit of a charlatan. But I suspect that in this piece for the FT, he’s a good guide to the next turn of the zeitgeist.

Is austerity a bad thing? Not always. The austerity years of the second world war and its aftermath were surprisingly good for people; calorie restriction meant flat tummies and robust health, at least for those not smoking the lethal cigarettes of the day. That was a physical benefit; the psychological benefit was perhaps greater. Being in the same boat promoted a sense of common purpose and comradeship. …

Lent, the 40 days before Easter, is supposed to involve an elective form of austerity; we are to give something up, engage in self-denial as a discipline. Different stories are told about the reason for it… But the real reason for Lent is that the late winter and early spring was always a time of dearth. … The experience of Lent, when it really was a time of belt-tightening and hard work to get the next tranche of resources on its way, was doubtless salutary in keeping people (as we now say) real. Keeping real means being mindful of how tenuously we own our comforts. 

… the realities of austerity in hard economic times mean giving up the car, going out less often, cutting not just amenities but necessities, or what we think are necessities. The people who take the hardest hit are the poor and vulnerable, who already do without what others regard as necessary. 

But there is the glimmer of opportunity that austerity offers. Most of the things that are intrinsically most valuable in human life do not cost money, though by the application of money to them we think we embellish them. … Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher of antiquity, said that the truly rich person is he who is satisfied with what he has. Think that saying through. How rich one is, if content with a sufficiency; how poor, with millions in the bank, if dissatisfied and still lusting for more. Enforced austerity, as in a major economic downturn, might teach what is sufficient, and how one might be grateful not to be burdened with more than is sufficient. …

So long as people measure their worth by how much they earn or own, they will think that having less is austerity, that living more simply is austerity, that getting to know their own locale rather than rushing to distant beaches is austerity. Yet perhaps “austerity” actually means “the opportunity to live more richly”. Then, of course, it would be austerity no more.

It’s insidious because it contains an element of truth. Still:

Among the highly placed,
It is considered low to talk about food.
The fact is: they have
Already eaten.

15 thoughts on “Austerity Is Good for the Soul”

  1. Big howlers:
    – ww2 was not at all austerity time, it was in fact ultra-big-stimulus time;
    – when he speaks of lent, he is speaking of a situation of underproducton, as an explanation for a crisis of overproduction (this is, imho, the central feature of right leaning theories of the crisis).
    Also, people are judged BY OTHERS through their income, and later interiorize the judgment, so moral philosophy of this kind just doesn't cut.

  2. On the household level, ww2 was certainly about austerity, and what's more it was austerity for me as well as for thee.

    1. @5371
      But I think that wages actually increased during ww2 (even if people coldn't spend them because of rationing), while the whole point of austerity is that wages have to fall.

  3. No, no, he's right. The love of money is the root of all evil and so on. So we should immediately impose HUGE, even confiscatory, taxes on the uber-rich. It'll be good for their souls to share in austerity, right? I'm not advocating class warfare; I'm just looking out for the moral development and happiness of the 1%.

    Why do Serious People laugh at my argument but worship at the altar of Paul Ryan, who wants to slash transfer payments for the good of the poor?

    1. Gil: "No, no, he's right… So we should immediately impose HUGE, even confiscatory, taxes on the uber-rich."

      Yeah I think that's exactly what the guy is saying: "How rich one is, if content with a sufficiency; how poor, with millions in the bank, if dissatisfied and still lusting for more."

      The guy with millions, lusting for more, is the one who needs to be taught austerity. The best part is, there's no class warfare involved, just God's own morality.

  4. Gilroy and Art-

    Maybe the best reply to Grayling isn't Brecht, but Oscar Wilde's Algernon:

    "Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility."

    1. Reminds me of a day at work, years back, when men in suits came for a tour of the welding shop. "I wonder who they are," I said.

      "Oh, they're scientists," one welder said, "here to study the lower forms of life."

      I still think the best rebuttal of Grayling and his kind is to show that they are saying things they claim to disagree with. Thus Grayling bemoans the moral poverty of those "with millions in the bank, if dissatisfied and still lusting for more" … which he knows they are… and he calls for "enforced austerity" for them!

      The people who need to be convinced to change their mind about such things will not be convinced by talk of po folk "cutting back on foreign vacations."

  5. The "whole we eat less therefor are more healthy" is not science. Some species demonstrate a longevity effect from calorie restriction (it may be an evolutionary strategy to survive past famine in order to reproduce when more food is available). In any case, it has not been demonstrated in primates. It had been thought for a while that some studies showed this but it turned out that diets used were almost pure sugar and when more balanced diet (balance of fat, protein, sugars and/or carbs) the longevity disappeared in subsequent studies. I.e., the original primate studies show a longevity effect for reducing sugar not calories.

    1. At any rate it's certainly an established fact that being *unable to afford food* does not bode well for human health.

  6. Now see, that would be so much more morally compelling if the contemporary issue really was that the common-folk lacked food. 🙂

  7. This guy's idea of "austerity" is to stop "rushing to distant beaches"…

    Yes that's right. Why not cut social security? All those old folks can just cut back on foreign vacations.

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