Politicians often tell us that we should live within our means. Quite right. Unfortunately, many of them do not appear to understand what this actually entails when it comes to fiscal policy. So far as most economists are concerned, the events of the last decade have thoroughly discredited advocates of austerity. Yet, it remains quite common to hear politicians from across the political spectrum calling for reductions in fiscal deficits or even fiscal surpluses. There appears to be little awareness that, in most countries, a call for a fiscal surplus is, literally, a call for the society to live beyond its means.
Neoclassical economics, which remains the prevailing orthodoxy, emerged in the late nineteenth century in the context of rising working-class opposition to capitalism. The theory’s appeal in certain circles as an apologetic for the status quo probably assisted its rise to prominence, which is not to imply that this was necessarily a motivation of the neoclassical economists themselves. The rise of any economic theory requires a receptive audience. Classical political economy had not provided defenders of the system with a comparable apologetic. Not only had it informed Marx’s analysis of capitalism but there were socialist movements drawing on interpretations of Ricardo’s labor theory of value. Class was central to the understanding of capitalism in both classical political economy and Marx, and no attempt had been made to conceal the class antagonisms characterizing the system.