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Keith Rankin: What's In A Name?

It's so easy to oppose something, be it MMP, GE, WTO, IMF or whatever; so much harder to propose something different, something new, something better. Having the imagination to think of something new is the easy bit. How do you communicate it when all the words we have are already used for something that's not new? Or, even we find words that words feel right to us, how can you propose new ideas (or, for that matter, old ideas rediscovered) when everyone else is on a different wavelength?

Adam Bogacki, from Sydney, has taken me to task for my use of the word "commonwealth". I have been exploring ways in which the world's nations can relate to each other in an inclusive sympathetic way rather than in the individualistic self-interested self-absorbed way. While I'm flattered that it is only my nomenclature that arouses dissent, I suspect that I haven't really connected with an audience still caught (by and large) between the unlovely but familiar system of national economies (whose role is to 'perform') and the feared alternative of globalisation.

Australia's recent behaviour towards West Asians in peril on the sea is a classic example of the exclusive self-absorption principle at work. Not at all concerned about the forces that lead people to take desperate measures in order to make something of their lives, Australia, a child of the 20th century, just wants to shut out the 21st.

Yet I'm told I should not use the word "commonwealth" because Australia has already got an intellectual property right on the word.

Fortunately for me, most of my potential audience don't know that Australia is a Commonwealth. For example, most New Zealanders think that it is much like Canada (a dominion) or the USA (a republic). Certainly Australia, whose founding fathers may have had a uniquely inclusive vision, does not behave today in a more public-spirited way than does either Canada or the United States.

The thing that I want to call a "commonwealth" is not really new; it's certainly not my invention. It's just that the commonwealth idea is intellectually underdone.

It was the central theme of Adam Smith's 1776 seminal book The Wealth of Nations. But you wouldn't know it if you had read most of the secondary literature on Adam Smith. Smith used the word "empire", but I couldn't use that word. It is irredeemable; it has all the wrong connotations.

Adam Smith had a story to tell. A story about the advantages of a large domestic economy governed by principles of mutual sympathy. He didn't merely oppose the worldview of the individualist business communities of Holland and Hamburg. He proposed a new kind of empire, based on the principles of economic interdependence, freedom, enlightenment. He drew much of his inspiration from France and the relatively inclusive relationship between France and her colonies. But his vision was for an Anglo-Celtic fraternity that would include, at minimum, Britain, Ireland and the United States.

While this was the story Smith tried to tell, it was the analytical props to his story that gained much more attention from subsequent generations of economists. As always, we read others with our own agendas to the fore. Smith's most famous passage - the bit that contains his "invisible hand" metaphor - was very much about the way the economy of a large economic nation would work. Yet Smith's paragraph was selectively edited by 20th century economists so that all reference to Smith's context was removed. The "invisible hand" of neoclassical individualism is a 20th century metaphor whose power derives from its association with the canonised though often misunderstood Smith.

Forty years after Smith, the classical theory of foreign trade was fully developed by David Ricardo in a world at war; a rivalrous world highly attuned to nation-state individualism. It was so easy for the national economy and the national polity to be conflated into one self-interested organism. This Ricardian view of the international economy reigns supreme today.

But it need not have been so. John Stuart Mill ushered in a new mood of social liberalism 40 years after Ricardo. In his Principles of Political Economy Mill clearly noted that an economy, as the theory of international trade defines it, is something of greater breadth than the boundaries of most political nations.

Another 40 years, and Alfred Marshall developed economics in line with the Ricardian interpretation of Adam Smith's paradigm. But Marshall retained much of Smith's wider vision. Marshall retained the quality of working-class sympathy that was central to Smith's and Mill's interpretation of the market economy. But his vision of a "great Anglo-Saxon empire" (Britain, the British "dominions" including Australia, and the United States) has a somewhat jingoistic ring to us today. That's not fair to Marshall. A man, like Mill and Smith, of left-wing sensibilities, Marshall looked to a necessarily large economic nation that would make a full and sympathetic contribution to the economic development of the whole world. As was commonplace in his time, he defined his "empire" along ethnic lines. While wanting to break out of the crazy nationalism and racism of 100 years ago, he was a prisoner of the language of his day. And the central core of his vision is damned to us today because of the non-PC (to us) that nomenclature.

My argument that the world can prosper in a sympathetic and sustainable way if we can create a small number of 'large inclusive economic structures' (ie commonwealths); structures which leave no nations as outcasts and enable common wealth to revitalise the global public domain. We should think about and debate the thing in question, and not the word. If however, anyone knows a better word than 'commonwealth' to convey this idea, then by all means use it in preference to commonwealth.

© 2001 Keith Rankin
keithr@pl.net
http://pl.net/~keithr/


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