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Between Life and Economics - 'A dissenting case'

Tom Fitzgerald delivered the 1990 Boyer Lectures Between Life and Economics. For most of the ‘talks’ (as he called them) he expounds ‘a dissenting case…against the prevailing climate of opinion among the policy-makers’ in economics.

Economics can do more than mask one’s thoughts and personality; it can absorb them. The issues in economics are largely indeterminate, so that they become polemical as they drag on. Anyone can join in, and all sorts of people do so….

Yet it is a fatal mistake to allow economics to gain ascendency as though it is not part and parcel of ordinary human life. I think the mistake is being made now. An economic functionary may think he has repressed or concealed his personal preferences, but they affect his outlook and his conclusions. Life deserves some precedence, even if it cannot command equal time. [1]

Lecture 1: Early perspectives on life

By way of introducing himself he devotes the first talk to ‘a few impressions of a general kind about the world and about Australia that have stayed with me from early days’.

The first impression was ‘a piece of information from Charles Darwin that gave me the biggest surprise of my life and sent me looking for unattainable explanations’. This information was the ‘puzzling case’ of the life cycle of barnacles, about which Darwin noted that the mature barnacles ‘may be considered as either more highly or more lowly organised than they were in the larval condition’.

From the second larval (embryonic) stage to the adult stage, the barnacle swaps six pairs of beautifully constructed swimming legs for relatively crude prehensile organs, a pair of magnificent compound eyes for a single, minute, simple eye-spot, extremely complex antennae for no antennae. The embryonic barnacle has a closed and imperfect mouth and cannot feed; the adult has a well-constructed mouth.

Because of its inability to eat, the brilliantly mobile and sensorily equipped little being has barely a week to find a suitable position where its future inert and, you might say, future stupid self will be able to live for another thirty years, just swallowing minute forms of life that pass by. In human eyes, it is a most lopsided superannuation scheme; but human terms are irrelevant, as also are human notions of purpose. Was there any need to look for miracles or to boast about the human brain while these transitions are happening a million times a day around the foreshores of the world, and have been doing so for hundreds of millions of years? [2]

He notes another ‘cause for wonderment’ was that ‘we are living in a very early, indeed primitive, stage of the development’ of human beings. Up to five thousand generations have preceded us, but given that the solar system is expected to survive another few billion years, a hundred million generations could follow us: ‘The future of our race is much more mysterious than its past. None of our scientists can tell us what the far-off human strangers will be like.’

He used to wonder what relationship these ‘speculative immensities’ had to Australia as it was then and as it will be in the future when ‘the margin of our newness by comparison with countries in the Northern Hemisphere would become infinitesimal’. In the context of Australia’s relationship with the Old World, he was captivated by Chaucer.

He combined an enjoyment of the robust, often raw English life of the time with a mastery of the cultivated literary standards he derived from the courts of France and Italy. It could be done, then, without either excessive deference to the old world or an aggressive rejection of it. Although there was nobody in sight with anything like Chaucer’s genius, an intelligent society might be able to foster quality. [3]

But he saw complications, prompted by the poetry an Australian, WJ Turner, who had moved to London and was praised and anthologised by WB Yeats. He quotes in full one of Turner’s poems, ‘Hymn to her unknown’, and imagines that it could not have been written like it was, or written at all, if Turner had stayed in Melbourne.

The English milieu gave him a release, a confidence and stimulus that he would not have felt here. London, like New York, was a truly metropolitan centre; they had the concourse and flow of people to bring one out. Our own cosmopolitan life would, perhaps desirably, remain dispersed and thin. We therefore had problems not only of literary and artistic expression but also of personal development. [4]

On Fitzgerald's return to Australia after serving in Europe during World War II, he and his fellow air crew experienced an unexpected, hostile reception from ground staff, with the air force vans that collected them from the wharf having ‘large signs scrawled on their sides saying JAP DODGERS RETURN’.

We all had friends who would never come back from operations in the European theatre. They had gone, as everyone did, to wherever the Australian air force authorities had posted them. We learned that we had been given fairly standard treatment for members of air crew returning from England or the Middle East….There were oddities in this country that I had not known before. There was a mixture, a coexistence, of incompatibilities. By far my strongest memory from the air force is of a young Melbourne man I never knew, for his manner of facing death at the hands of Japanese captors after he was shot down over Salamaua in New Guinea in March 1943. His name, Flight Lieutenant William Ellis Newton, had just been revealed when we returned to Australia in late 1945, but a description of his end had been found in the diary of a dead Japanese soldier and released to the press two years before. [5]

The diarist wrote of the last thirty or so minutes of Flight Lieutenant Newton’s life and describes him as resigned and calm before he is beheaded by a single blow of a samurai sword: ‘He is a very brave man indeed’.

When meeting death he could have had no idea that Australians would ever know how he comported himself…For one born in his time, he represents, with others, a fulfilment of the perfect life. [6]

  Tom Fitzgerald and Robyn Ravlich, producer of the Boyer Lectures, 1990

Tom Fitzgerald and Robyn Ravlich, producer of the Boyer Lectures, 1990

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Fitzgerald family. Tom Fitzgerald and Robyn Ravlich (producer of Boyer Lectures); September 1990. JCPML00720/64



Lectures 2 to 6: Economics

In the following five talks, and in the postscript to the second edition of the book, Fitzgerald presents his dissenting case against the prevailing economic orthodoxy.

He contrasts the approach of many of the most eminent economists, who acknowledge ‘increased uncertainty and the provisional nature of conclusions arrived at after the greatest care’, with that of the loud-mouthed, doctrinaire free-marketeers who have abducted Adam Smith and perverted his ideas.

He quotes Smith’s criticism of the ‘pernicious effects’ of high profits, and his comment on the greed which is ‘the vile maxim of the masters of mankind’. Fitzgerald notes other instances of Smith’s writings that would confute his abductors: opposition to a consumption tax on food; support for progressive tax rates; distress at the effect routine factory work had on workers, which led him to demand government intervention.

Fitzgerald agrees with the eminent economists’ belief in the importance of revising theories based on experience and testing.

Since economics has profound effects on everybody’s life, the public has a right to expect and demand nimbleness and adaptability from its policy-makers. In the 1990s the advanced state of the art for Australia is an alert, sceptical and provisional application of policies, always subject to objective testing by the evidence. [7]

He devotes one talk to a case study of Japan, whose economic success up to 1990 was based on widespread government intervention and protection ‘in conscious rejection of Western textbook precepts’ which the Japanese see as deficient in their inability to recognise cases of what they call ‘market failure’.

Fitzgerald writes that he wants to ‘break the absurd taboo that exists on the discussion of financial deregulation as a significant contributor’ to the economic problems of the time.


In his analysis of the failure of deregulation, Fitzgerald emphasises the importance of the distinction between the tradeable and non-tradeable sectors of the economy, the effects of a large deficit in the balance of payments, the overvalued exchange rate, and the money supply.

He is critical of the dominant, unchallenged Treasury view of the world when Paul Keating was Treasurer.


Fitzgerald quotes comments by Frank Anstey (when an MP) and his young protégé John Curtin (when a trade union official) in which they acknowledge the responsibility their privileged positions entail, and the inner conflict, as Curtin wrote, of ‘receiving more than you justly earn’. Fitzgerald traces the development of Curtin's 'hard, independent thinking on economic subjects' as a contrast to the then Labor government's ineffectiveness 'in preserving commonsense economic principles'.


In closing, Fitzgerald returns to some themes from the first talk.

Economics drove out the wider universe from most of these talks, as it usually does when it gets a foot in….Even so, we have been able to recall the qualities of some great human beings in our past, and perhaps to draw encouragement from that. Meanwhile, the embryos of the barnacles have been pressing on as efficiently as ever, and our daunting descendents of one or two million years hence remain where we tried to pay our respects at the beginning. Anything more that might have been said would have made no difference at all. [8]


1 - 8. Fitzgerald, T, 1990, Between life and economics, Crows Nest, N.S.W, Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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