Rhetoric's Place in Economic Debate - The Library of Economics and Liberty

Jan 20, 2019
20 January 2019 - Samuel Gregg at the Acton Institute warns however that “until fiscal conservatives start grounding the full canopy of activities and institutions associated with economic freedom in robust accounts of human fulfillment, they will struggle to make headway against the widespread skepticism concerning the morality of free markets.”

Garreth Bloor
Rhetoric is a term in the English language often synonymous with spin. But while spin seeks to redirect unliked truths into something less than truthful, rhetoric in the classical sense goes to the heart of how we understand truth – and seek to persuade others of it. Rhetoric determines the discourse.

No less a figure then Friedrich Hayek understood its importance when he declared in the Constitution of Liberty:

If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations. What at one time are their most effective expressions gradually become so worn with use that they cease to carry a definite meaning.
Hayek goes on:

The underlying ideas may be as valid as ever, but the words, even when they refer to problems that are still with us, no longer convey the same conviction; the arguments do not move in a context familiar to us; and they rarely give us direct answers to the questions we are asking.
Perhaps conviction today is lost, in large measure because human language has been replaced with numbers. All around we have data on the economic freedom for which Hayek stood, exceptionally delivered by the Fraser Institute’s ‘Economic Freedom of the World’, the Heritage Foundation’s ‘Index of Economic Freedom’ and the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’.

Samuel Gregg at the Acton Institute warns however that “until fiscal conservatives start grounding the full canopy of activities and institutions associated with economic freedom in robust accounts of human fulfillment, they will struggle to make headway against the widespread skepticism concerning the morality of free markets.”

It is evident many great leaders undertook a study in rhetoric, as a stand-alone program or more likely part of the liberal arts. The loss of rhetoric as a field reflects the understandable tertiary trend of preparing students for specific careers as a replacement to the classical, liberal arts education. At the same time the study economics has often moved from the purview of classical liberal education to the domain of the business faculty, frequently now home to economics departments along with accounting and finance.

In Gregg’s warning he refers to the The Great Persuasion, a work by the historian Angus Burgin who shows that from the late 1950s onward, “efforts in Western free-market circles to make ‘thick’ moral cases in favor of markets were gradually supplanted by ‘a relentless emphasis on the superior efficiency of laissez-faire and an abandonment of a ‘language of values’.”

Very recently former Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, pointed out of Ronald Reagan that the ‘Great Communicator’ did not measure his economic success by ever more market efficiency, by stock market indices, corporate endorsements or even specific tax rates.

“He talked about economic opportunity, entrepreneurial freedom, good wages, better jobs and families having money to spend,” explained the now-leader of the world’s forum of centre-right parties, in his latest book, Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption.

It is impressive how ideas associated with Hayek have come to be accepted by millennial innovators who would not, in turn, usually associate with the great Nobel winning economist. Nonetheless, they keen to see more competition in public transit and as a result have come to conclusions of the desirability of models of mass privatization for the common good in a way hardly seen or tackled by a great many traditional free market economists.

Concern that millennials are adopting socialist ideas is real. But there are inconsistencies, and many have accepted a rhetoric of morality and values, without being wedding to the how of securing normative ends. Some even reject the workings of socialism, while embracing the term as a statement of moral positioning in contrast to the excesses of materialism on crony capitalism.

From restoring the original meaning of social justice as a concept detailing our duties to each other- not government’s enforcement of them – through to driving the creation of new markets through urban transit reform – rhetoric is vital for economic fundamentals to be articulated.

The fear rhetoric may compromise the soundness of economic analysis is misguided. The larger risk is surely the fate of irrelevance to public opinion and to policy makers – for the value of economics is in how it can help to improve society. Adoption of good ideas comes about by effective communication. Greater inter-disciplinary cooperation between economists and rhetoricians will enrich both disciplines and deepen their relevance.

Garreth Bloor is Vice President for Transatlantic Affairs at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).


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