This is not a question of whether the economic policy followed by the government is the right one or not: perhaps it is and perhaps it isn”t. It is a question of the honest use of words. One would not say of a man who passed from smoking sixty cigarettes a day to fifty that he had given up smoking, or that he had exercised great self-denial. And one would not, or rather should not, say of an organization that had balanced its budget once in fifty years (the British government) that it was practicing austerity merely because it had to borrow a slightly lower percentage of what it spent than it did the year before. This is to deprive words of their meaning.
But does this matter? As the philosopher Bishop Butler once said, everything is what it is and not another thing. A budget deficit is a budget deficit, whether you call it profligacy or austerity. A thing is not changed by being called something different.
Unfortunately, matters are not quite as clear-cut as that. In human affairs, words matter, as much because of their connotations as of their denotations. Austerity means stern treatment and self-discipline. It means harshness and astringency. Needless to say, harshness in their government is not what most people look or will vote for. If reducing the rate at which you overspend and accumulate debt is called austerity, no one will dare go any further in that direction, though it were the right direction in which to go. Words, said Hobbes, are wise men’s counters but the money of fools: so that many men will take the name for the thing itself. Whether more active attempts to balance the budget would be advisable I leave to economists to decide (they can”t, of course).
The correct use of words, as Confucius knew two and a half millennia ago, is important if we are to think seriously about our situation. Also in this article was much talk of “free” higher education for all; what was meant was subsidized higher education for all, which is a different thing. You cannot conjure away costs by the use of a word, in this case “free.” Universal subsidized higher education may or may not be a good thing, but if it is free to some it must cost others. As the good Lord would have put it nowadays, if he were rewriting the Bible, “in the sweat of someone’s brow wilt thou eat bread.” Maybe there’s something to be said for the inner pedant after all.
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