Yesterday evening saw the first episode in a new series of Simon Evans Goes to Market on BBC Radio 4. You can listen (again) to it here.
The programme was about the life and work of Adam Smith. Actually, it was more about his life than his work, and the vox pops asking what people actually knew about his work were somewhat disappointing in their lack of awareness (this was a radio 4 audience attending a broadcast on economics, remember). Similarly, the programme itself was light on content about his actual economics, although it was in the 6.30pm comedy slot, so maybe this was understandable.
Regardless though, having a programme about economics in prime time radio is to be applauded, and I can only wish that there were more opportunities like this to engage a wider audience about the huge role that economics theories have in shaping their lives, relationships, aspirations, and achievements. The next programme looks at the life and work of Karl Marx, and the following week is John Maynard Keynes, before a final programme wraps up what we have learned. Disappointingly, although perhaps unsurprisingly, Karl Polanyi doesn’t appear scheduled for discussion, although I suspect there are many listeners whose favourite economists will fail to make an appearance. Obviously, while the series is to be praised for existing at all, its scope and ambition do seem lacking, given the focus on only three economists.
Nevertheless, if the series succeeds in anything, it will be in making people realise that the free market is not inevitable, and that economic arguments are at their heart political. A choice, in other words. There has been a great drive recently to get people learning to code and acquire digital skills to be able to partake in the digital economy. But there remains a staggering level of both illiteracy and disinterest in economics and the economy, and I would suggest that economic illiteracy is perhaps a greater issue. Without some basic knowledge of economics, society is unable to challenge the claims that the free market is inevitable or self-regulating, neither of which are true, but both of which have become “received wisdom”. The result is the widespread belief that privatisation and the creation of markets is the ideal solution for the provision of goods and services, and anything else going.
Economic illiteracy is disastrous for any democratic society, as it places us in a position where we are unable to question the myths being propagated about the market, the economy, employment practices, economic relations, and the very foundations of society itself. Without knowledge of the basic theories (and their flaws), we are unable to see that economic arguments are just that – arguments based on political choice and preferences. In other words, opinions that can, and should be, challenged. So, more programmes like this please!