Media Library


Speech at University of Melbourne, Australia

University of Melbourne, Australia, 12 October 2017

"The Economic Debate: From The Great Famine To Today – The Australian/Irish Dimensions”


A Sheansailéir,

A Leas-Sheansailéir,

A Dhaoine Uaisle,

A Chairde Gael,



Distinguished guests,

Dear Friends,

May I begin by acknowledging that we meet today on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people, and may I thus pay my respect to their Elders both past and present.

Ar an gcéad dul síos is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le Comhairle Ollscoil Melbourne as an chéim oinigh seo a bhronnadh orm. Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leatsa, a Seansailéir, as do chuid focail lámhaca.

May I thank the Council for the University of Melbourne for conferring upon me the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, and may I thank you, Chancellor, for your very kind words of introduction.

As a university teacher for many years in my former life it is always a pleasure to return to a university setting. I know the years of perseverance and hard work required to acquire a university degree. I hope that I can justify mine in the next short period.

As President of Ireland, it is a very particular honour to address you today in this city, and in this State, which has, perhaps more than any other, exhibited a distinctive Irish influence. Perhaps too, more than any other State, Victoria has absorbed the full spectrum of Irish society in all its different manifestations of migration, voluntary and involuntary, and presentations of itself in the modern period.

In the earliest years of European colonisation, Port Philip society was marked by the presence of what were representatives of an Anglo-Irish aristocracy on the move, as it were, often referred to as the ‘Irish cousinage’ who sought to import their self-perceived social standing, wealth, and at times their vanities, pursuing an inclination to recreate a mythic lifestyle and mores of the Irish eighteenth-century Protestant Ascendancy. This could manifest itself on occasion as disdain for the forms of English society that were seeking to establish themselves in the new colonies.

The discovery of gold in the later nineteenth century brought with it not only a rush of immigrants but within it a new middle-class Irish element. Overwhelmingly Anglican and predominantly educated at Trinity College, Dublin, these lawyers, doctors, merchants and engineers felt that they could, in this new world, create the liberal – though not necessarily democratic - polity denied to them in Ireland, by taking up leading positions in, and giving form to, the juridical, academic and political life of the new colony of Victoria.

It was in the second part of the 19th century that the operation of the Land and Emigration Commissioners and assisted migration, however, brought the largest element of the Irish population - farmers, agrarian labourers, and tradespeople, most often followers of the Catholic faith – to this city and to Geelong, and from there often onwards to cultivate land in the environs of Melbourne, to Ballarat or Bendigo and the lure of gold, and as European encroachment continued, to the Wimmera wheatbelt.

This University has, since its inception, reflected all these various strands of Irish influence, from your very first Chancellor, Sir Redmond Barry, who arrived to New South Wales as a young lawyer only newly called to the Irish bar, to Newman College which owes its foundation to the efforts of Archbishops Carr and Mannix, and to the generosity of Thomas Donovan and the Catholic parishioners of Melbourne.

This link has been given a contemporary expression which I welcome  in the establishment of the Gerry Higgins Chair in Irish Studies, which plays such an important role in promoting and sustaining the study of the arts and culture, literature and music, and politics and history, of both Ireland and of the Irish in Australia.

As someone who has taken a deep interest in the development of economics as an academic discipline, and its influence on the formulation and administration of economic policy, I was particularly interested to learn that one of the four foundation professors in this University – three of whom had previously held academic positions in Ireland – was the Irish scholar of political economy and jurisprudence, Willian Edward Hearn, considered by another eminent Melbourne professor, Douglas Copland, as the ‘first Australian economist’.[1]

Before emigrating, Hearn had held the position of Professor of Greek in the newly opened Queen’s College Galway, one of the three universities in Ireland founded under the Irish Colleges Act of 1845. I undertook my own undergraduate studies in what is now called NUI Galway and was a lecturer in sociology and politics there for many years, and it is the work of my colleagues there, the economist Tom Boylan and intellectual historian Tadhg Foley, which first drew my attention to Hearn.

William Edward Hearn was part of an extraordinary generation of Irish political economists, all Anglo-Irish, with a similar intellectual, historical and moral formation to men such as Redmond Barry or George Higginbotham – two of the great influences on the legal, educational and institutional development of this State.

For this generation, the most formative historical event of their youths was not political, despite the moral force of the cause of Repeal of the Union between Britain and Ireland which, in the person of Daniel O’Connell, embodied the most advanced liberal positions of the day, but rather, at least to their eyes, it was the assumptions that governed what was ‘economic’. That was the focus of their critical debate, in the form of the ideas that influenced the policies that in turn stood behind the human devastation of the Great Famine of 1845 to 1852 – an Gorta Mór – which left nearly a million dead and led to a great wave of migration of over a million more, as people sought to flee hunger, starvation and certain death.

Between the conclusion of the Napoleonic War and the Famine, political economy in Britain and, to a lesser extent, Ireland, moved away from its origins in the Scottish Enlightenment, from the Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and his conception of humanity as bound together by a common sympathy, by what he termed ‘moral sentiments’, to what began to be called a more economistic, and indeed with all the accompanying weaknesses, mechanistic understanding of human motivations, characterised by the popularisers of the writing of David Ricardo, such as John Ramsey McCulloch who had such an influence in the 1830s.

What were, for Smith, observations of tendencies, became for such writers, hardened into iron laws of nature, and the belief in not just the possible but the inevitable universal application of these laws. This manifested itself as a belief in the universality of the economic structure of England, such that any deviation from such a model or practice came to be seen as a symptom of under or mal-development.  This eschewing of the necessary declaration of grounding or domain assumptions became the absolutist tendency, the hubris, the TINA – there is no alternative – of its day.

As the great Irish historian of economics R.D.C . Black has chronicled, it was this hegemonic perspective that political economists brought to bear on pre-Famine Irish society. This society was a product of the conflicts of the seventeenth century, and was characterised by a large number of fragmented smallholdings, many farmed on a subsistence basis, and, at the peak of economic and legal relations, a small quantity of landlords, who operated through estate managers or through middlemen or intermediate landlords who took full advantage of opportunities to further sublet land.

Though observers, not least political economists, could not agree on what might be empirical causes of such circumstances or putative solutions, they could at least agree on the empirical fact that the lives of Irish cottiers and their families were precarious, particularly in the period between April to August, the ‘starving season’, when old stores of potatoes were exhausted and had yet to be replenished by the new crop. This precariousness grew as the agricultural boom of the years of the French Wars gave way to periods of depressed grain prices, and landlords, their agents and middlemen, in order to sustain or raise their income, began to raise rents.

To the orthodox liberal political economist, the right of the landlord to his property was inviolable, and the relationship between tenant and landlord a matter of contract, immune to the demands of right, of justice, and a matter for none other than the tenant and landlord.

Though the theoretical basis of the inviolability of property had changed, from Lockean notion of property as a natural right to the Benthamite notion of property as means to ensure that owners of capital would maximise the utility of capital, the policy recommendations and social outcomes remained the same.

If the property was inviolable, and the landlord-tenant relationship simply contractual, the only solution to Irish poverty lay, in the mind of the political economist, offering the hegemonic theory of the day, in the rapid consolidation of Irish holdings, the creation of a class of medium and large scale farmers, and the acceptance of the depopulation of the countryside as cottiers and small farmers would, it was believed, emigrate or, if they remained, become available as hired labourers. 

This would not be the first time, nor would it be the last, that those economists inclined to hubris have, when confronted by the inapplicability of their existing theory to a social reality, demanded that social reality change to reflect theory. This is not at all to take from or diminish the occasional sympathy and humanitarian sentiment of the time which was brought to bear on the Irish situation.

The flaws of imposing a strategy for managing the poor, a strategy designed for industrial settings to a totally different setting were recognised. The Royal Commission on the Poorer Classes in Ireland had after all recommended that the New Poor Law of 1834, which forced those in poverty into disciplinary workhouses, should not be extended to Ireland. Instead, the Commission recommended a programme of public works and a scheme of assisted emigration, as the most effective and convenient means to raise the income of Irish cottiers, and to transform them from small proprietors to proto-industrial wage labourers.

These recommendations were perceived as being too radical, or more likely they simply did not fit within the liberal political economy of the day - the institutions of the new market economy were viewed as entirely natural in their operation.   The functions and duties of Government were envisioned as creating a possible set of obstacles or as wholly negative – and thus the New Poor Law was largely grafted on to Ireland.

The Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately, who, with his Catholic counterpart, sat on the Commission, was particularly interested in the lessons and what he felt was the example of the new colony of South Australia, and he corresponded with Robert Torrens, another Irish political economist, disciple of Ricardo and the champion of a ‘self-supporting colonisation’ which envisioned creating a class of small farmers in Australia.

Despite the rejection of the report of the Royal Commission by the British Government, and the extension of the New Poor Law to Ireland, Torrens championed Irish migration to South Australia, or, as he later termed it, the ‘New Hibernia’.

He proposed the establishment of an Irish South Australian Emigration Society, which would raise funds from Irish landlords to purchase land in South Australia and pay for the transportation of their tenants to their new properties in the southern oceans, facilitating both the depopulation of Ireland and the colonisation of Australia.

It was Torrens eldest son, Robert Richard Torrens, who, prior to his short tenure as Premier of South Australia, gave the impetus for the development of the principle of title by registration, which originated in that State. I think it would be appropriate to note the immediate context of the development of the Torrens system of land registration, namely the chaotic issuance of land grants and subsequent speculation and rapid turnover of title in the South Australia of the 1830s and 1840s, which led to a great incoherence in property ownership and disputes regarding the title to the land.

One of the defining principles of the Torrens system – indeed the defining principle that allows the resolution of the kind of dispute that may arise in a context of fevered property speculation - is the indefeasibility of title given to the registered proprietor or proprietors. There are, as we know, few exceptions to this indefeasibility which may be nonetheless wide in potential scope and application.

I would like to make here a moral or ethical point, rather than a legal point: namely, that the Torrens system constituted, at its inception, part of the legal technology of empire by not only resolving a crisis of colonial speculation, but also by effectively extirpating any claim of title to the land by the first occupants whose rights and enjoyments to their land, we should recall, were guaranteed by the Letters Patent authorising the colonisation of South Australia.

I do not, in this paper, want to speculate what bearing the rejection of the doctrine of terra nullius and consequent recognition of native title by the High Court in their judgement in the second Mabo case would have in this situation, but would only here recognise what an important legal and moral milestone it was.[2]

The context of the extension of the Torrens system to Ireland in 1891 was quite different – it was a response to the struggle for land ownership by Irish tenant farmers which was resolved through a series of Acts of the British Parliament designed to finance the purchase and transfer of the landlord interest in the land. This required the removal of the vestiges of post-conquest property relations in Ireland, which had built up by accretion over centuries. Title by registration achieved this by severing the old ties, delivering to Irish tenant farmers freehold title, unencumbered by the past.

There is, I would suggest, a terrible tragedy, an irony of history here, as the same legal technology was used at first to dispossess the first occupants of this land, and then in Ireland used to repossess, albeit that such a repossession was accomplished only after a great exodus from Ireland, one that would change the class system and when combined with electoral changes be fundamental in defining both the impulses to independence and the marginalisation of egalitarian hopes. Such repossession was carried out in such a fashion as would in time favour the larger farmer, leading to the emergence of a new hegemonic grazier class.

This repossession was the outcome, as I have said, of a great political struggle for ownership of the land. The intellectual origins of this revolution in ownership of the land, were based not on the prevailing political economy of the day, but rather on a contrarian belief based on a knowledge of, and sympathy for, the Irish cottier.

It was the leaders of Young Ireland, contemporaries and, in some cases, members of the same class and religion as Hearn, who were transported to Tasmania for leading the Irish chapter in that great European movement for democracy and self-determination, the Springtime of Peoples of 1848, who provided the most incisive criticism of the liberal laissez-faire political economy which contributed, and indeed formed, the desultory response of the British Government as the Famine continued beyond Black ’47.

Here, I speak of such as James Fintan Lalor, the brother of the leader at the Eureka Stockade, Peter Lalor, who most forcibly assailed the central assumption of the sanctity of property in his letters to the Irish Felon, a radical newspaper of the time:

‘I acknowledge no right of property in eight thousand persons, be they noble or ignoble, which takes away all right of property, security, independence, and existence itself, from a population of eight millions, and stands in bar to all the political rights of this island and all the social rights of its inhabitants.

I acknowledge no right of property which takes the food of millions and gives them a famine, which denies to the peasant the right of a home and concedes, in exchange, the right of a workhouse.’[3]

Charles Gavan Duffy, another leader of Young Ireland, editor of the Nation newspaper, and later Premier of this State, described Lalor as a ‘tribune of the people’ who nonetheless represented a more radical, agrarian path to Irish independence than Duffy and his often gentlemanly, liberal comrades.[4]

Shortly before his emigration to Australia, Gavan Duffy had been returned to the British Parliament on the Tenant Right platform, which sought a more moderate intervention in the landlord-tenant relationship, through the regulation of rents, improve security of tenure and the possibility of tenants selling their interest in the land.  From the long grass came more than whispers of another tradition in agrarian impress, one that would define the difference in emphasis and experience of Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell, and which would divide the Parnell family. 

There is another irony of history in Duffy’s ascent to electoral power and influence. It was partly through the efforts of the Ballarat Reform League, of English, Scottish and Welsh Chartists, German and Italian veterans of the Springtime of Peoples, Victorians of all ancestries, and Irish miners led by Peter Lalor, that male suffrage was extended in the State of Victoria.

Gavan Duffy quickly took up the cause of the workers in the goldfields, the urban democrat in Melbourne, and the small landholder, and as Minister of Lands in the administration of the more conservative John O’Shannassy, introduced a Land Act in 1862.   This was incidentally the year my grandfather’s brother Patrick Higgins came on the Montmorency with this sister Mary-Ann and began work as a ploughman and later farm manager.

This Land Act of 1862 proved to be the first and last practical exercise of legislative drafting by William Hearn. The Act, intended to allow the selection of good, cheap land by new proprietors willing to cultivate the soil, achieved the precise opposite due to deficiencies in its drafting, as pastoralists were able to exploit the legislation by establishing fronts to acquire land.

This did not prevent, as Patrick O’Farrell reminds us, the burnishing of Gavan Duffy’s already heroic reputation in Ireland, as Australia in the 1860s was presented in Ireland as a rural idyll, and his Land Act presented as the land charter for the Irish.[5]

The doomed expedition of another Irish emigrant to Victoria, Robert O’Hara Burke, came in another way too to symbolise the new Irish spirit in Australia which was, in the words of the Cork Examiner, ‘opening up continents for the sons and daughters of Ireland, far away from the grasp of the rack-renting landlord, the griping agent, and the selfish middleman’.

Duffy’s Land Act, and the Selection Acts of the other colonies, were, unlike the ideas of the Young Irelanders or Fintan Lalor, not in deviation of, or even outright defiance from, the strictures of political economy of the time, for they rested partly on the assumption of a superabundance of land held by the Crown. They rested, in other words, on the brutal political economy of primitive accumulation, on the fiction of terra nullius with all of its original and evolving assumptions as to the essence, dignity and capacity of first occupants.

In contemporary writing on Australia I sense that distance is sometimes adduced as to failures in communication, knowledge of Australian past and present on the part of, among others, Europeans. But, may I suggest distance can be an advantage if it facilitates independent intellectual work.

There is, I want to suggest, something important in the distance between Australia and Europe, between the new and the old world, and increasingly in the proximity to Asia, which allows for an independence of thought, a willingness to break with orthodoxies, a dedication to fostering quite new modes of thought, and a commitment to pluralist discourse. These are qualities which are required now more than ever, as the global challenges of this current century – climate change, the resurgence of xenophobia and racism, the growing inequality in wealth, power and opportunity -  will not be solved with polices that after all were designed to address the challenges of the past.

William Hearn was not a heterodox thinker – one of his first papers was entitled ‘On the Coincidence of General and Individual Interests’ – and in many ways his ideas were formed by the Great Famine in Ireland rather than Australia, but he was part of an extraordinary generation of Irish political economists who pursued quite different intellectual agendas, who are evidence of the existence of a pluralism of economic discourse.

For example, John Elliot Cairnes remained a faithful disciple of the Smith of The Wealth of Nations as well as Ricardo, Malthus and John Stuart Mill to the last, often defending doctrines which Mill, a close friend, had renounced.

Thomas Cliff Leslie applied the comparative theories of jurisprudence developed by Henry Maine to political economy, arguing against reasoning from a small number of a priori assumptions and for an inductive approach to economic analysis, sensitive to the unique historical development of each society. John Kells Ingram, heavily influenced by the positivist philosophy of Auguste Comté, sought to subordinate the study of economic relations to sociology, breaking down the distinction between the economic and other forms of social life.

We see here of course the outlines of the battle as to method in economics which so engaged Irish, British and German political economists in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.[6]

This is a battle that had its value.  Today a debate that distinguished between the efficacy of instruments, the adequacy of a method, and the assumptions of a theory would serve political economy and its publics well. After all, a vulgar rejection of all economics and indeed economists is hardly helpful to anybody. Alternatively, teasing out the issues and assumptions of different approaches and models is a valuable part, I suggest, of participatory citizenship.

Conducted across and within the changing national borders of the time, in English and in German, the late nineteenth early twentieth century methodological debate shared a common theme, namely the rejection of the deductive reasoning from a small number of a priori assumptions which characterised Ricardian classical political economy. With this rejection came a rejection of the formulation of theories of distribution, production, consumption and exchange based on a number of universal axioms.

In its place, economists such as Cliff Leslie and Kells Ingram, and in Germany, a group led by Gustuv Schmoller, proposed that there were no self-evident natural laws of economics, but only such conclusions as could be drawn from the accumulation of historical studies.

We can also glimpse, another great struggle, namely that which occurred between the classical political economy championed by Cairnes and the outlines of neoclassical economics which was arguably, at least in part, presaged by William Hearn’s work Plutology. My former colleague in N.U.I. Galway, Tom Boylan, and the Australian economist Gregory Moore, have both argued that this work, published here in Melbourne, inspired what came to be termed the ‘marginalist revolution’ in economics.

In short, classical political economists, such as Mill and Ricardo, had accepted that value, and in the long run, the determination of prices, should reflect the cost-of-production of a good, reflecting the labour used in the production of that good or service.

This objective theory of value was replaced by a subjective theory of value, which postulated that there was no inherent value in goods, but only that which results from the relative importance placed on such goods by individuals seeking to satisfy their needs.

This framework had at its heart, as its subject, the utility-maximising individual, subject to diminishing marginal returns, and constrained by scarcity of resources. From these foundations, it was possible to derive the values of factors of production and goods and services.  

This would reshape the discipline of economics, so that by 1935, Lionel Robbins could define economics as ‘the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses’.

Gone were the historical economists with alternative moral frameworks such as Ingram and Leslie, and gone too were the classical political economists, subsumed now as footnotes in the development of neoclassical economics, and indeed now largely missing in the teaching of economics in the contemporary university. 

I do not wish to criticise the specifics of neoclassical economics today.  Time does not allow and it would be easy to get lost in definitions and debates about what may be minutiae, but only to note that the discipline of economics was not so dominated by a single methodology in the past as it is today.

Nevertheless, I do want to stress the significance of some very eminent scholars currently working in the field, such as Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, are continuing to pursue a research programme which, while accepting the underlying assumptions of neoclassical economics, have nevertheless en passant systemically undermined some of the central claims once advanced by some fundamentalists, such as, for example, the assumption of a narrow rationality on the part of individuals, or the assumption of market efficiency.[7]

Economists, while still taking as their starting point = the competitive market as the most efficient institution for allocating resources, now increasingly recognise that markets are characterised by profound and what are even within their own terms, inefficiencies.

I know that this has perhaps become a truism at this point, but it is important to acknowledge nonetheless.

Indeed, it was the late, great Kenneth Arrow, who did so much to develop general equilibrium theory – giving a mathematical proof to the intuition of the protagonists of the marginal revolution that, given a certain set of assumptions, there will be a set of prices across multiple markets such that the aggregate supply equals the aggregate demand – who also noted that ‘the model laissez-faire world of total self-interest would not survive for ten minutes; its actual working depends upon an intricate network of reciprocal obligations, even among competing firms and individuals’.[8]

This observation with its less than tacit appeal for humility should remind us that there is at times a sharp distinction between the development of neoclassical economic theory and its application, by economic policymakers. There is at times a sharp distinction between the academic programme of neoclassical economics and a theory of government which seeks to validate itself by claims to economic theory, to conflate, in imitation of some of the classical political economists, assumed immutable laws of nature with the prosaic practice of economic policy.

I speak of course of the philosophy of government popularly termed neoliberalism. This was initially a term used by a small group of radical economic thinkers, including Friedrich van Hayek and later Milton Friedman, to describe their own distinctive economic and social philosophy at a time when governments of both right and left cleaved to the consensus of the Keynesian welfare state.[9]

Neoliberalism is now widely accepted to describe a theory of politics which postulates a wholly ‘economic’ theory of human nature, universalising, beyond previous boundaries, the necessary simplifying assumptions of neoclassical economics – namely that human beings are rational utility-maximisers – to encompass all human activities.

Its ethics rests on the liberal principle that people should be left to do as they will, how they will. The political theorist Alan Finlayson has suggested that following these two principles, price is viewed as the key mechanism in transmitting information, enabling rational individuals to make decisions and allocate resources.[10]

Following this, effective competition and competitive exchange is required for prices to be accurate. Finally, Finlayson argues that, due to these principals, neoliberals do not hold a concept of the ‘common good’ in politics as they fear that government will act on a set of principles dictated by the common good, which will in turn distort rational individual decision.

Recent work such as that of Professor Mariana Mazzucato – The Entrepreneurial State – powerfully critiques this ‘under-labourer’ theory of the State.[11]

The starting point of neoclassical economics does remain, I suggest, questionable as to its method and its epistemology in its sharp distinction between economic life on one hand, open to economic analysis, and other forms of social life, which are subject to other types of forces.

As one describes the work of those whom the Irish political economists to whom I have made reference, one is struck by the breadth of their vision, of their capacity to range across and to integrate a broad range of academic disciplines.

For those of the historical school, this was a necessity borne of their inductive methodology.

Yet it also reflects something broader – Hearn’s first assignment to this university was as chair of Modern History and Literature, Political Economy and Logic.

I found an echo some years ago of such scholarship in the debate here in Australia and in New Zealand between the distinguished economist Professor David Throsby and the late Dr. Michael Volkerling on cultural economics – it is a debate I drew on when I was Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht between 1993 and 1997. It was a debate I recommended to other European Culture Ministers. Professor Throsby had suggested that the epistemological basis of economics was inherently based on individualism.  Culture was social in its assumptions and thus irreconcilable with economics. Michael Volkerling disputed this. 

Dr. Volkering suggested that the public discourse of economics – by which I mean an explicitly neoliberal discourse - and its underlying assumption of self-interested behaviour, that developed during the 1980s and 1990s, shaped rather than revealed a new spirit of selfishness.[12] He also suggested, correctly in my view, that culture and economics should not be envisioned as antagonistic, as a clash of the collective impulse with the individual impulse, but rather that economics should be considered as a cultural discourse in terms of both its origins and in its application.

This is not only because of the origins of political economy in a broad frame of discourse such as the early Enlightenment writings of Adam Smith, who proposed, we recall, sympathy with other humans as the driving motivation for human actions, and who, as the Irish political economists remind us, used historical experience as a guide, but also because economics shares with other forms of intellectual practice a cultural purpose, a shared and similar purpose - that of seeking to represent ‘real life’.

The conclusion of Dr. Volkerling may be summarised by saying that culture is not ever a residual of living experience - an uncolonized space and time - but if considered as a framework for thought and practice can help economics recover its moral and social strength, help it to integrate new findings in related disciplines, and achieve a result that will offer a plurality of policy suggestions. 

Can we integrate and facilitate new perspectives, or recover old ones, in the contemporary period? Is the economics which is being taught at third level sufficient to the present moment? Have we replaced questions of methodology with a restrictive focus on measurement? Can we lift economics out of the narrow ideological framework in which it is presented in these times? Can such questions find a space within contemporary economic discourse?  Indeed are they to be  allowed at all in an atmosphere that too regularly comes close to of anti-intellectualism, and is simply reflecting a bad-tempered intolerance of critical thought?

May, I suggest that the outcomes to how we answer such questions will be tested in two areas. The first is in the area of teaching, research agendas and university curricula, particularly in the realm and domain of academic economics.

Since the Global Financial Crisis, there have been demands for a new curriculum, from both teachers and students – a curriculum which more closely represents, and which can more adequately critique and describe the social and economic world which they inhibit and which many of them seek to change.

A significant result to emerge from this concern is a proposed new introductory curriculum, the Curriculum Open-access Resources in Economics, or CORE, project, an initiative of the economists Wendy Carlin, Margaret Stevens, Oscar Landerretche, and Sam Bowles.

Their proposed textbook, ‘The Economy’, fully recognises its titular term is a social construction, and provides, as its starting point, an account of the effects of the industrial revolution, the development of capitalist institutions, the impact of climate change, and the measurement of economic inequality. Its bibliography is capacious and generous, including Angus Deaton and William Nordhaus, and Karl Polanyi and Maurice Dobb.

Yet the proposed curriculum does not shirk the mathematical rigour of neoclassical economics, as students are still required to understand the calculus traditionally deployed in microeconomics to explain marginalist concepts such as indifference curves. 

The promise of this initiative, and others like it, is the replacement of the simple nostrums of what is referred to in North Americans universities as Economics 101, which commences its teaching of the subject at perfect competition, leaving students with a desiccated – and inaccurate – picture of economic life. Over time, it will, I hope, open up quite new research agendas as those students continue on to graduate studies.

I wish I could be more optimistic about the prospects, in the short term, for the integration of a new pluralist discourse in the public sphere. The rhetoric of neoliberalism - the elevation of individual self-interest, and even selfishness, to an almost moral certainty, the disdain for a language of the common good and public purpose, and which at times produces a near contempt for those who fall behind – remains as a rhetoric even more pervasive as its policy prescriptions.

If there is a glimmer of hope it is in the fact that international institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, which once advocated characteristic neoliberal policies such as the liberalisation of capital flows, deregulation and creation of financial markets, and fiscal consolidation in all circumstances, have now begun to question these once sacrosanct policy positions, and the assumptions which underlay them.[13]

However, too often the answer to any economic and social problem, no matter how complex in cause and effect, remains in a simplistic reductionist appeal, often advanced without study of all the implications, of reliance as the expansion of markets in regions where they exist, or the creation of markets where they have not hitherto been.

There is now an urgency, I suggest, to contest what remain entrenched ideas of a filing paradigm of thought. The challenges of the next decade cannot be met with the old orthodoxies. Social cohesion is fracturing fading inequalities in wealth, power and income are re-emerging, as labour becomes more precarious and our societies become increasingly divided between what is often lazily described as ‘the lucky’ and the ‘left out’, between those who can access highly paid employment and those left to struggle on zero-hour contracts. Within the European Union, cohesion between Member States has declined, as we have allowed ourselves to become divided by a common, one size fits all, macro-economic policy framework which pits creditor against debtor, and those with trade surpluses against those without.

How should we meet these challenges? May I suggest that in this century fiscal and economic literacy may be as important to cohesion, citizenship and democracy itself, as mass literacy was in previous centuries to universal suffrage, parliamentary democracy and the sovereignty of the people. Armed with a critical and inquiring economics - one that does not tolerate poverty amidst plenty without question - citizens can begin to question the current dispensation, and begin to imagine a quite different future than that which is so often presented as inevitable.

If William Hearn felt a moral impulse, drawn from a wide perspective in scholarship, to address the issues of his day, new challenges, surely those gifted today with the opportunity to do so might benefit from following his examples in our urgent times of change, and help recover the rich possibilities of political economy and the prospect of better, more inclusive sustainable policies for all our citizens in an ever more fragile world.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir, agus go dté sibh slán.



[1] Douglas B. Copland, W. E. Hearn : first Australian economist, Melbourne : Melbourne University Press in association with Oxford University Press, 1935.

[2] Mabo and Others v State of Queensland (No.2) 1992 175 CLR 1.

[3] Reprinted in Michael Davitt, The Fall of Feudalism in Ireland, Harper & Brothers Publishers: London And New York, 1904.

[4] George Gavan Duffy, The Irish Nation. Four years of Irish history, 1845–49, 1883.

[5] Patrick Farrell, The Irish in Australia: 1788 to present, University of Notre Dame: Indiana, 1987.

[6] Gregory Moore, ‘John Kells Ingram, the Comtean Movement, and the English Methodenstreit’,

History of Political Economy, Spring 1999 31(1): 53-78.

[7] Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Revolution of Information Economics: The Past and the Future, NBER Working Paper No. 23780.

[8] Kenneth J. Arrow, ‘A Cautious Case for Socialism’, Dissent Magazine, Fall 1978.

[9] Friedman, Milton (1951), ‘Neo-Liberalism and its Prospects’, Farmland, February 17, pp. 89-93.

[10] Alan Finlayson, ‘From Neoliberalism to Pluralism: A Response to Mulheirn and Jacobs’, The Political Quarterly, Volume 84, Issue 2, July 2013, Pages 211–217.

[11]Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State: debunking public vs. private sector myths, Athena Press: Twickenham, 2013.

[12] Michael Volkering, ‘The necessity of utopia: Lessons from the culture of economics’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 7:1, 29-47.

[13] Jonathan D. Ostry, Prakash Loungani, and Davide Furceri, ‘Neoliberalism: Oversold?’, Finance & Development, June 2016, Vol. 53, No. 2.