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Austerity tells us when enough is enough

Saturday 27 April 2013

By A.C. Grayling

We should be content not to be burdened with more than we need, writes A.C. Grayling

To the harsh dry south wind that blew Saharan dust over them in summer, the Romans gave the name Auster. Today it is called the sirocco. In personifying the wind as a desiccating god they borrowed from the word austerus – bitter, harsh – which they had acquired from a Greek original describing the effect on the tongue of sour wine.

With this etymology, austerity has a bitter connotation indeed, especially when necessity makes it follow times of indulgence. People quickly become accustomed to excess, and even those who have lived beyond their means, and stepped across moral boundaries in order to do so, feel aggrieved at having to retrench.

We are told that the austerity we are facing now, in the UK and those parts of Europe that have lived beyond their means, is necessary. The austerity is a matter of policy, running contrary to the Keynesian wisdom that says we should spend in recessions and keep austerity for booms. Austerity seems to be in fashion: even the new Pope, unusually for his kind, goes in for it, opting not to live in his palatial official residence. There is this difference: the Pope’s austerity is a form of simplicity, which he is said always to have embraced, while the austerity advanced by the chancellor of exchequer is a form of retrenchment, which removes rather than continues what went before.

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. Black marketeers were execrated, and one of the many factors that brought about political change in the years immediately following the war was the sense that equality in sharing the burdens of social endeavour was the right way forward.

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; in the Islamic version of a fasting season, Ramadan, one suggestion is that it reminds practitioners of the hardships of the poor.

But the real reason for Lent is that the late winter and early spring was always a time of dearth. The supplies of the fat season of the year, which was winter – when the fruits of the year were stored, the meat salted, and labourers had little to do – were by then running low, and neither the crops nor the calves were sufficiently grown to feed increasingly hungry mouths. No wonder Easter was celebrated, as the moment of promise when fecundity returned, shoots rising in the soil and lambs and calves appearing.

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.

Consider an extreme case: how long would a tanker drivers’ strike have to last before the supermarket shelves emptied, and how long after that before gangs started to roam the streets, breaking into houses looking for tins of food? The veneer of society is shallow, our individual capacities for survival now so undermined that, should such a disaster occur, we would find ourselves on the edge of anarchy.

Well: that over-dramatises. Far more modestly, 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. It might be highly pleasurable to meet one’s friends in a fine restaurant, but to meet them on a park bench in the sunshine has almost all the good of the experience. We all know that material possessions become an impediment – moving house is a nightmare – and that one of the fastest-growing businesses is storage because few of us have houses big enough for the stuff we accumulate.

Knowing these things does not stop us from buying stuff and meeting our friends in fine restaurants when we can afford it. It is when we can no longer afford it that the fog of indulgence clears, and the landscape of reality appears behind it. Then we see what it is that constitutes the good part of what we thought we would not have unless we bought it.

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.

These sentiments might be thought mere exhalations of moral piety, and in a sense they are: but they are no less true for being so. One remembers the story of the fisherman who caught one fish and ate it, and to the annoyance of a watching businessman spent the rest of the day lazing on the beach, watching the waves. ‘Why did you not catch more fish?’ ‘What for?’ ‘To sell, to accumulate money, to become rich.’ ‘Why would I wish to be rich?’ ‘So that you can laze on the beach all day, watching the waves!’

Ah well: 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.

The writer is master of the New College of the Humanities

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013.

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