Graeber: Why Austerity Reflects a Sham Morality

In an interview with David Johnson of Boston Review, anarchist/activist/anthropologist and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years David Graeber makes a key point about the “morality” behind austerity movements that is destined to be missed by all influential economists, bankers, presidential candidates and media pundits, but which no one interested in ethics , politics, or economics should miss (my emphasis):

David Johnson: What inspired you to write the book?

David Graeber: It came out of the strange moral power that debt has over people. So many times you’re talking to people about the depredations of the International Monetary Fund in the third world, telling these horrible stories about the thousands of babies dying of preventable diseases because people aren’t allowed to maintain malaria-eradication campaigns or basic health services due to austerity measures and debt servicing, and people respond, “Well, yeah, but you can’t say they don’t owe the money. People have got to pay their debts, come on!” That common-sensical notion not only that it’s moral to pay one’s debt, but also that morality essentially is a matter of paying one’s debts can bring people to justify things that they would never think to justify in any other circumstance. For the most part, decent people tend not to think killing lots of babies is justifiable under any circumstances. But debt somehow changes all that. Why is that?

Let’s try to really pay attention to that question, because as citizens of the modern democratic-capitalist world, we are very well-educated to gloss over it. Why is it really more “important” for Congress or other legislatures to balance their budgets than for families of little means to have access to good healthcare and nutrition for their children? What really is the key moral question there? The importance of governments to pay their debts or the importance of children to be well?

The free marketers among us might criticize the way the question is framed, claiming that bringing up the life and death of children unnecessarily threatens to sentimentalize what should be a rational choice. But even if you dismiss all other “wastes” of government money that can’t be defended on sentimental reasons–such as the building of new infrastructure or subsidization of experimental industry–we’re still left with the problem of the lives of children (or war veterans or the aged and infirmed) that we rely on government to improve. Why is it inherently more moral for private charities, for example, or families to take over the functions we currently rely on government to provide than for the government to take on more debt so as not to disrupt the social good public welfare programs provide?

Anyone want to try to answer that?

PS: Part 2 of Graeber’s BR review is here. And an interesting discussion of Graeber’s book by Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber is here.

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2 thoughts on “Graeber: Why Austerity Reflects a Sham Morality

  1. Pingback: Here We Go Again With the Deficit Bull « polentical

  2. Pingback: Krugman Trashes Austerity’s Phony Morality Economics | Tragic Farce

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